There are many paths a student can take when one chooses to pursue higher education. Often, this equates to getting a degree at a college. After all, school statistics show that 18.2 million students decided to enroll in colleges and universities after secondary school as of Fall 2019 (NCES, 2021). However, there are also students who opt to enroll in trade school instead. So, if it boils down to choosing between trade school vs college, you might wonder which one would be the ideal choice for you.
Both college and trade school can equip you with the knowledge you need to enter the workforce or to pursue further studies. However, they do have several differences in terms of cost, duration, and job prospects, which you should carefully consider.
To help you out, this guide will provide you with an in-depth comparison of college and trade school, focusing on the advantages and disadvantages of each. Hopefully, by the end of the document, you’ll have all the data you need to make an informed decision.
Truth be told, one cannot say that trade school is categorically better than college or vice versa. After students have their own interests, life plans, and career paths they want to follow. As such, the value of one type of school over another will largely depend on their preferences.
With 70% of jobs requiring some college education or post-secondary schooling by 2027 (Carnevale & Cheah, 2018), either type of school will allow you to become more competitive as you enter the workforce.
On the one hand, college can help you hone your reasoning and logic and widen your knowledge about your field of study. On the other, trade school allows you to develop industry-specific skillsets that employers will surely find impressive.
Trade schools are also great in helping students understand their aptitude for a particular profession. This is backed up by a 2020 study titled “Effects of a vocational program on professional orientation” published in Heliyon, Manuel Emiliano Quiroga-Garza and his colleagues explored how vocational programs, such as those offered in trade schools affected healthcare students’ perception of their future profession (Quiroga-Garza et al, 2020).
In their findings, they noted that while half of the participants are already dedicated to their chosen program before participating in vocational activities, “30% of the participants stated that they believe the program helps them make a decision regarding their career choice.” In addition, they said that “about 47% of the participants said that the vocational program increased their desire and interest in pursuing a career in healthcare, and 58% attribute the success of the program to the inclusion of students (near-peer mentoring).”
What is trade school?
A trade school is an educational institution that offers secondary and postsecondary level programs. Sometimes referred to as a technical school, vocational school, or vocational college, trade schools focus on honing manual, mechanical, or technical skills for specific occupations.
The programs in this type of educational institution are designed to provide students with specific training on hard skills needed for a particular job. Meaning, the curricula involve streamlined courses and learning methodologies that allow students to gain hands-on experience on a particular trade. In this way, students can become equipped to enter the workforce faster.
At the end of a trade school program, students are awarded diplomas or certificates. In some cases, they may also be awarded associate degrees. After which, students can prepare for a licensing exam or immediately become an apprentice in a trade.
Currently, the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium (NASDCTEc) has defined 16 different vocational clusters and 79 career pathways that trade school students can take (Advance CTE, n.d.). Among the most popular fields explored are Information Technology, Nursing, Construction, and Business Management.
What is college?
A college is a degree-awarding institution of higher learning often focusing on undergraduate programs. Be it as a standalone school or as part of a collegiate or federal university, this type of school provides academic learning experiences that give students a deeper understanding of key topics within a field of study.
The programs offered in colleges are mostly grounded on classroom instruction. Although, some practical and hands-on learning opportunities may also be offered in the form of internships and immersions. Beyond these, however, college curricula are often theory-based, focusing on the principles of a particular area of study. This provides students with a wider understanding of a particular industry and allows them to be ready for different types of jobs within a field.
An important thing to note about colleges is that a large majority of these institutions are privately owned and receive little to no funding from the government. With this in mind, colleges do not place as much emphasis on research as universities. In addition, some colleges might offer limited scholarship and financial aid options. Some colleges may also have strong religious affiliations.
Among the most popular fields explored in colleges are Business, Health Sciences, Social Sciences, Engineering, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, and Psychology.
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Most Popular Fields of Study by Number of Bachelor’s Degrees Conferred (A.Y. 2018-2019)
Most Popular Fields of Study by Number of Bachelor’s Degrees Conferred (A.Y. 2018-2019) Business : 390564
Most Popular Fields of Study by Number of Bachelor’s Degrees Conferred (A.Y. 2018-2019) Health professions and related programs : 251355
Health professions and related programs
Most Popular Fields of Study by Number of Bachelor’s Degrees Conferred (A.Y. 2018-2019) Social sciences and history: 160628
Social sciences and history
Most Popular Fields of Study by Number of Bachelor’s Degrees Conferred (A.Y. 2018-2019) Engineering: 126687
Most Popular Fields of Study by Number of Bachelor’s Degrees Conferred (A.Y. 2018-2019) Biological and biomedical sciences: 121191
Biological and biomedical sciences
Most Popular Fields of Study by Number of Bachelor’s Degrees Conferred (A.Y. 2018-2019) Psychology: 116536
Most Popular Fields of Study by Number of Bachelor’s Degrees Conferred (A.Y. 2018-2019) Communication, journalism, and related programs: 92528
Communication, journalism, and related programs
Source: NCES, 2020
Trade School vs College Pros and Cons
Trade school programs and college programs are both equipped to help you build the foundations of your professional career. However, they have differences that may affect the trajectory of your career goals. To help you out, this section will discuss some of the most critical trade school vs college pros and cons to consider when choosing between these two types of educational institutions.
The nature of college programs and trade school programs have one minute but critical difference—the teaching approach. Colleges focus on the academic while trade schools focus on the vocational. As such, the available programs and courses they offer vary.
For example, in trade schools, the programs revolve around specific occupations. So, one would expect to see programs for construction, manufacturing, cosmetology, emergency services, legal services, or information sciences.
In contrast, colleges tailor programs to cover general fields of study. As a result, it is not uncommon to see degree programs in broad topics, such as business, education, liberal arts, engineering, or psychology. These are then subdivided into different majors that students can choose from once they are in their junior year. For example, if a student takes up a degree in business, he or she can choose to major in a more specific subfield, such as finance or business administration.
Aside from this difference in programs, students can also expect some differences in the skills they can pick up in each institution. As trade schools are very straightforward and not many extracurricular activities are available, some students may end up being unable to hone soft skills like communication and leadership. Meanwhile, in colleges, there are usually plenty of opportunities where students get exposed to different cultures or character-building activities.
Duration of Program
College degree programs are often comprised of 120 to 128 semester credit hours. In most cases, this can be completed within four years. However, there are programs that allow students to stagger the fulfillment of the credits in seven to 10 years. On the flip side, there are also accelerated online programs that can be completed in two years but this is often reserved for students who have previously earned college credits or have work and life experience that can be converted into college credits.
On the other hand, trade school programs are equivalent to approximately 60 credits of coursework. This is often completed within eight months to two years, depending on how much load you commit to per semester.
With these in mind, the duration of college programs can give you more time to learn more about your chosen field of study. However, if you are looking to get a job and start earning money early, trade schools are definitely the better option.
Price of Education
It is common knowledge that pursuing higher education is expensive. However, between colleges and trade schools, the former is definitely going to cost more. In fact, experts have seen a continual rise in college tuition up until the coronavirus pandemic started.
According to the most recent College Affordability and Transparency List from the U.S. Department of Education, college tuition can cost anywhere between $1,000 and $60,000 annually (U.S. Department of Education, 2020), depending on the type of school you enroll in and whether you are an in-state or out-of-state student. In addition, there are colleges that might require you to reside inside the campus, which can only mean additional room and board fees as well as other daily costs, such as meals and supplies.
On the other hand, trade schools are more affordable, with students paying anywhere between $3,855 and $14,843 in tuition fees. Plus, as the programs are relatively cheaper, it only makes sense that the overall cost is lower as well. This is one of the reasons that make trade schools great for students who are on a tight budget.
Source: U.S. Department of Education
As mentioned previously, the curricula of trade schools and colleges are different in the sense that the former focuses on job-specific coursework while the latter focuses on general learning paths.
This only means that students enrolled in trade schools are provided with the practical training they need so they can hit the ground running once they start a job. They no longer need to be taught what to do aside from company protocols because their vocational training has already equipped them to work according to industry standards.
College students, in comparison, are provided with coursework that mostly focuses on theoretical principles. This allows them to understand the fundamentals of a field, develop critical thinking skills, as well as build a diverse knowledge of topics relevant to an industry. However, this does not necessarily mean that they are equipped to perform specific jobs upon getting hired. As such, they will rely on additional training from their employers. However, while job readiness might be lacking among college students (Thompson, 2020), the plus side to the curriculum they are exposed to is that they will not be limited to one career path.
College admissions processes are rigorous, especially among elite higher education institutions. Each school will have its own admission standards but there are similarities in their application requirements. Among which are:
School transcript or GED diploma
SAT or ACT scores
Letters of recommendation
Keep in mind that for the abovementioned requirements, schools might have varying standards of cumulative GPA, AP scores, as well as SAT or ACT scores. For instance, colleges might pay more attention to students with a cumulative GPA of 3.0. Meanwhile, other colleges may be more interested in how well you did on AP classes relevant to the program you are applying to.
Aside from standard requirements, students may also need to ask if they need to submit additional documents that are specific to the program they are interested in. These could include International English Language Testing System (IELTS) or International Test of English Proficiency (ITEP) scores for those looking to take up English or Liberal Arts. On the other hand, if you are taking up Architecture or Fine Arts, you might be required to submit your portfolio.
On the other hand, trade schools admissions are simpler. Applicants must be at least 16 or 18 years old, depending on the school they are applying to. Often, the only requirement would be to bring your high school diploma or its GED equivalent and pass the admissions test. However, certain programs might have additional requirements.
Career Opportunities of Trade School vs College Graduates
As you graduate from high school, there are plenty of questions that you might be asking: Should I go to college? Is trade school worth it? The list goes on.
Luckily, as far as career opportunities go, both trade school and college graduates have plenty of options. As such, both can provide you with long-term benefits to financial stability. However, one might need to note the differences when it comes to earning potential, career flexibility, and job security.
In general, college degree holders have a higher earning potential than trade school graduates. According to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage of professionals who have post-secondary non-degree awards is $37,670 and those with an associate degree typically earn $52,830 (Torpey, 2019).
Some of the highest-paying jobs for trade school graduates are air traffic controllers, radiation therapists, nuclear technicians, and electrical repairmen. In addition to these, pharmacists, midwives, and court reporters also earn an above-average annual compensation.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Meanwhile, the mean annual wage for professionals with a bachelor’s degree is $72,830. This can reach $103,820 if you choose to pursue a master’s or doctorate degree as well as supplementary studies.
Among the highest-paying jobs for college graduates include chief executives, computer and information systems managers, as well as architectural and engineering managers.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
However, it is critical to note that college graduates do not always have a higher income than trade school graduates. After all, one’s earnings often depend on several factors, such as the industry they choose, their work experience, as well as additional training they may have taken after finishing their studies.
College students have a good understanding of broad concepts, allowing them to have some knowledge of the different aspects of a field of study. As their knowledge is not tied to a particular job, they can be more flexible in choosing a career as well as switching careers further down the road. This is what makes it possible for journalism degree holders to end up in the marketing industry while marketing majors can get jobs in public relations. In some cases, college graduates even take on jobs that are not at all related to their majors (Plumer, 2013).
Trade school students, on the other hand, are trained to perform technical tasks for specific occupations. This makes it easy for them to adjust to a workplace environment that is directly related to their program. However, it might be difficult for them to apply their knowledge to other fields and industries.
Overall, those who choose to pursue postsecondary education have higher job security than those who do not.
Bachelor’s degree holders, for example, have an unemployment rate of 2.2% compared to those without a degree (3.3%) (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020). This rate only becomes lower the higher the level of degree you attain. However, it is important to note that attending college is not necessarily a one-way ticket to getting job security.
It is crucial to also look at the state of the industry you are interested in. For instance, tech jobs have been outsourced for years so it might be difficult for college graduates to find an employer. Another example would be jobs in accounting as the tasks that accountants perform are becoming automated in a lot of businesses.
Meanwhile, trade school students, contrary to popular belief, are more stable on this front. This is because most vocational careers cannot be outsourced or automated. Some examples are plumbing, nursing, paramedics, general automotive, or paralegals.
Plus, the United States is currently experiencing a skilled labor shortage. Transportation, warehousing, manufacturing, and similar industries have reported having more job openings than workers back in 2019. This can only mean that there is a demand for trade school graduates and we can expect this demand to continue its trajectory in the near future.
Source: BLS, 2020
Which is the right option for you: trade school or college?
Students have plenty of reasons to pursue higher education, be it to get better job prospects, to receive a higher income, to get better employment benefits, or to gain more advancement opportunities. Both trade school and college can help you in achieving these goals. Luckily, determining which one is the right option for you does not have to be too complicated.
Trade school is ideal for students who have a clear career path in mind as the programs do not really offer any chance to explore topics adjacent to their field of choice. Plus, because the programs are shorter and more affordable, it is great if you are working on a limited budget and are looking to enter the workforce sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile, colleges seem to be a better choice for those who want to gain in-depth knowledge about a particular field of study and for those who thrive in academic instruction. Its costs may be higher than trade schools but you can choose to apply for financial aid as well as student scholarships if need be.
As an alternative, students can also start their postsecondary education at a trade school and then pursue further studies at a four-year college later on. With this option, students may even be able to shorten the time of their program by asking their school to acknowledge their previous class credits or to convert their work experience into credits.
Whichever one you choose, you can rest assured that there are plenty of quality learning opportunities available and there will be career paths for you to choose from. If you are looking to kickstart your search for a school, you can take a look at this list of the best public, private, and community institutions in America.
Quiroga-Garza, M.E. Flores-Marín, D.L. Cantú-Hernández, R.R. Rojas, I.E.E., & Cabrera, M.V.L. (2020). Effects of a vocational program on professional orientation. Heliyon 6(4). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2020.e03860