Trade School vs. College Blog

Trade School vs. College

The rising cost of traditional college and a decline in the number of qualified tradespeople have led many to wonder if trade school is a better financial option for students. Learn more about trade school vs. college and explore which option is better for you. 

Trade schools, also known as vocational schools, offer both secondary and post-secondary education designed to teach skills and crafts specific to certain jobs. Unlike college they focus on job specific skills rather than general studies and use hands-on practical experience to ensure that students are prepared for their trade.

The Difference Between Trade School and College

  • Application Process
  • Credentials & Courses of Study
  • Program Length
  • Program Cost
  • Debt & Earning Potential after Graduation

Admissions Process

Students can begin taking vocational studies during high school or can attend a program after graduating highschool. The admissions process is fairly simple and typically requires only a current transcript and interview with a guidance counselor. 

Alternatively, college admissions is a lengthy and expensive process that often requires SAT and ACT test scores, essays, recommendations and an average application fee of $78 per school

According to The Cappex College Admissions Counseling Survey:

  • The average college applicant applies to approximately 6 schools for an average application spend of $468. 
  • 90 percent of High School guidance counselors reported that their students submitted 10 or fewer applications.

Additionally, most people attend a trade school that is near where they live. Trade school applicants do not spend a lot of money traveling for school tours and once enrolled typically live off campus. Meanwhile, it is not uncommon for college applicants to spend hundreds of dollars traveling for school tours and thousands of dollars, once admitted, on student housing. 

Trade School

  • Proof of High School Diploma
  • High School Transcript
  • Application
  • Interview with a Guidance Counselor


  • Proof of High School Diploma
  • High School Transcript
  • SAT/ACT Test Prep ($$$)
  • SAT/ACT Scores ($$ test fees)
  • Multiple Applications 
  • Multiple Application Fees ($$)
  • Recommendation Letters
  • Admissions Essays
  • Admissions Interviews
  • School Tours/Travel ($$$)

Credentials & Courses of Study

Colleges offer students degrees whereas trade schools give student vocational certificates. 

Trade school programs are job specific and a student will earn a vocational certificate rather than a degree. The certificate usually includes a certain number of hours of supervised, hands-on experience performing the job. 

Trade School

  • HVAC Technician
  • Welding
  • Carpentry
  • Masonry
  • Construction
  • EMT Training
  • First Responders
  • Medical Assistant
  • Medical Coding
  • CDL License
  • Electrical Technician
  • Automotive Technician
  • Criminal Justice
  • Law Enforcement
  • Public Safety (Security)
  • Dental Assistant
  • Aircraft Mechanic
  • Cosmetology
  • Hospitality (Hotel & Restaurant Management)
  • Culinary Arts (Chef, Cook)
  • Mixology (Bartending)
  • And more


  • Bachelor of Arts (BA degree)
    • Communication
    • Education
    • English
    • Foreign languages
    • Philosophy
    • Psychology
    • Sociology
  • Bachelor of Science (BS degree)
    • Biology
    • Business
    • Chemistry
    • Computer science
    • Engineering
    • Mathematics
    • Nursing
    • Physics
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA degree)
    • Creative writing
    • Film and photography
    • Music
    • Theater and dance
    • Visual arts

Program Length

Trade school is shorter than College with some certificate programs taking less than a year. On the other hand, a traditional college degree includes a four year Bachelor’s degree in Science, Art or Fine Art. An Associate’s degree takes around two years. Postgraduate programs like Master’s and Doctoral Degrees which require Bachelor’s degrees add additional years of study.

Trade School

  • Certificate: Less than 2 years


  • Associate’s Degree: 2 years
  • Bachelor’s Degree: 4 years
  • Master’s Degree: +2 years
  • Doctoral Degree: +2 years

Program Cost

In the United States a four-year college program costs $127,000, while the average trade school degree costs $33,000. There are some programs that cost less but the vast majority of students take out loans to pay for their degrees.

Trade School

  • The average cost of a trade school certification is $5,000 to $15,000


  • The average cost of a 4 years Bachelor’s degree is $127,000

Debt & Earning Potential After Graduation

Earning potential after graduation varies. On average college graduates earn more than those without college degrees. Yet, those with trade school diplomas and certifications can sometimes outpace college graduates depending on the type of craft. 

For example, trade school graduates often enter the workforce earlier than college grads and enter unions that ensure pay raises with experience. The average English major makes $34,704 annually while technical and trade school occupations pay an average salary of $55,000 per year.

Salaries vary greatly by degree, craft and location. However, we can say that college graduates typically graduate with more debt than their trade school counterparts. Students who attend trade school graduate with an average of $10,000 of debt, while students who attend college collect an average student debt of $36,327.

Trade School

  • Earning potential: varies
  • Average Debt: $10,000


  • Earning potential: varies
  • Average Debt: $36,327

Trade School vs. College: Weighing Your Options

Both College and Trade Schools offer quality education that can lead to fulfilling careers. Before deciding which one is right for you you should consider:

  • How much debt you can afford to take on
  • If you plan to work while you are in school 
  • The type of career and lifestyle that you are interested in pursuing
  • The earning potential in your area for a particular career
  • The trade school and college options available to you based on your work history, location and academic record

If you are a high school student…

Talk to your parents about how much financial aid they can offer you and ask them to help you make a college budget plan. You can use these budgeting tips for teens as a guide. 

If you are an adult student returning to school…

If you are considering college or trade school as an adult, consider how your current income and savings can support a career change. Are you eligible for loans? Do you plan to work?  

Researching your options and talking to people who have had the experiences you are considering can help you make an informed decision.

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