Trade School vs. College
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$1.57 trillion. That's how much student loan debt Americans owed in June 2021, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The Institute for College Access and Success reports that 62% of 2019's senior graduating class was in debt from student loans. Each student's average debt? Close to $30,000.
A college degree can help you land a job in a flourishing field, but it's not the only way. Just half of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) fastest-growing jobs require a bachelor-level degree or higher.
You can break into growing jobs in health care, technology, and manufacturing with a certificate, diploma, or even an apprenticeship that pays you for your training — not the other way around. Traditionally referred to as the trades, these jobs present pathways to flourishing careers in medicine, engineering, or entrepreneurship.
Learn about the differences between trade school and college — from their costs to the opportunities they afford — so you can discover and evaluate all your options.
What is Trade School?
"Trade school" refers to a career-focused education and training program. Today, educators and employers more often use "vocational education" or "career and technical education" (CTE). These programs combine classroom learning with learning-by-doing under expert supervision in real situations.
For example, in a welding vocational education program, you'll learn about the melting points of different metals in class. Then in your apprenticeship or shop class, you'll practice using welding torches or robotic welding arms for more modern techniques.
The term "trade school" can be a bit misleading for a couple of reasons. For one, you can complete this type of training in many different settings, including:
- Community colleges
- High schools
- Private vocational schools and career colleges
- Career centers
- At companies, through an employer-sponsored training program
In addition, trades are becoming more technological in nature — from fixing problems in smart homes to repairing electric vehicles. And they include many fields like healthcare, advanced manufacturing, and IT.
Trade Schools vs. College
On average, a vocational education program will cost you around $33,000 in total, but your cost will depend on the type of program — public or private — and where you get your education.
Public school programs, like the ones at community colleges, cost less, averaging roughly $3,700 a year for in-district students. You may also qualify for financial assistance from the college, aid from the government, or other scholarships, which can lower your cost.
In some cases, vocational training is free. As examples:
- If you're still in high school, some schools offer CTE programs at no cost to students.
- In some career paths, including welding, electrician work, and plumbing, you can find an apprenticeship that pays for your education and training.
- To become a nursing assistant, the federal government reimburses your cost of education and training at approved long-term care facilities.
The cost of a college degree depends on the program length and type. For example, completing a four-year degree at a private university where you stay in a dorm on campus can cost over $200,000.
Below, we've included information from CollegeBoard's Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2020 report. You can compare the different options for yourself:
|Average Cost of Tuition per year||Tuition Cost to Complete the Program|
|Local 2-Year College||$3,700||$7,400|
|Public 4-Year College for In-State Students||$10,560||$42,240|
|Public 4-Year College for Out-of-State Students||$27,020||$108,080|
|Private 4-Year College||$37,650||$150,600|
|Average Overall Cost per Year (Tuition plus room and board, books, supplies, transportation, and other costs)||Overall Cost to Complete the Program|
|Local 2-Year College||$18,550||$37,100|
|Public 4-Year College for In-State Students||$26,820||$107,280|
|Public 4-Year College for Out-of-State Students||$43,280||$173,120|
|Private 4-Year College||$54,880||$219,520|
Remember that most colleges offer options for financial aid. You can also apply for federal aid by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®).
It takes less time to complete a vocational education program compared to a traditional college degree. Experts and educators design these programs to help you gain entry-level skills quickly so you can get started in a career that has options down the road.
Certificate programs will take as little as eight weeks and as long as a year and a half. Most fall in the range of nine to twelve months. Take a few examples:
- Surgical technicians can complete a one-year certificate before assisting a surgery in the operating room.
- Dental assistants get their certificate in nine to 11 months.
- You can earn your commercial driver's license to become a truck driverin a six-week company-sponsored or year-long community college program.
Typically, completing a bachelor's degree program takes four years. You can sometimes earn your bachelor's degree in less time by taking summer courses or transferring credit from advanced placement (AP) courses taken in high school.
Many students take more than four years to complete their bachelor's program, which allows them to take fewer classes at once or add extra electives. However, some scholarship funds or financial aid may expire after a certain amount of time.
Associate degree programs last one to two years and usually include some general education courses.
According to the BLS, the median annual wage for occupations that require a postsecondary non-degree credential is $41,520.
The range of salaries for these jobs varies. Hairdressers, stylists, and cosmetologists earn median wages of $27,380 a year. Meanwhile, ship engineers make $75,990 annually.
In addition, some high-earning jobs that require a non-degree certificate include:
- Elevator or escalator installers and repairers (who earn median annual wages of $88,540)
- Powerline installers and repairers ($75,030)
- Mechanic supervisors ($70,240)
The BLS reports that the median annual wage for occupations that require a bachelor's degree is $77,000.
A few of the BLS' 20 fastest-growing occupations require a bachelor's degree, including:
- Medical service managers (who earn median annual wages of $104,280)
- Information security analysts ($103,590)
- Operations research analysts ($86,200)
- Substance abuse and mental health counselors ($47,660)
Associate's degree graduates earn median annual wages of $56,590.
Is Trade School Worth It?
Vocational training programs generally cost less money than college, so they can help you avoid debt. Experts design the curriculum to help you get hired in a field of your choice. So, these programs may be right for you if you want to work in a booming industry like health care or a rapidly changing one like manufacturing.
A career-focused education path might also be right for you if you:
- Prefer learning by doing
- Want to work with the real-world applications of science, medicine, or engineering
- Find nine-to-five office jobs boring
- Might want to go to college one day — just not today
- Aspire to master a lesser-known skill and possibly use it to open your own business or train others
Should You Go to College?
On average, four-year college graduates earn more money in salary compared to people without a four-year degree. So, if you have the money or scholarship funds to complete college and can afford the time investment, it can help you unlock high-paying job opportunities.
You'll especially want to consider a four-year college if you:
- Learn best through discussion, reading, writing, and lab assignments
- Want to pursue the humanities, social sciences, scientific research, finance, or operations management
- Want to obtain the broadest education possible — from philosophy to statistics to foreign languages
When you're thinking about trade school versus college, associate degree programs can serve as a happy medium. Associate degrees can help you start gaining credentials that you can later use to earn a bachelor's degree. For example, you can advance from an auto technician to an automotive engineer.
Pro Tips: Expert Advice on Choosing the Right Education
Editor's note: We've edited these tips for clarity & length.
Some people may think that career-focused education culminates in becoming a mechanic or welder. In reality, CTE helps develop the knowledge and skills you need to be successful in the career pathway of your choice — in health care, IT, law careers — whatever it is. There's no longer a one-size-fits-all approach.
Since the pandemic has brought us into virtual training, we're seeing more virtual simulation being used as a training technique. Still, we're always asking: How can we get students to job sites faster? Because that's where so much of the learning happens.
For one, go to your local workforce board. It's free, and they may even pay for some of your training. Plus, they work with everyone — from people who are out of work at any age, to people who are looking to change careers, to people who have been laid-off from six-figure jobs. Your local workforce board works with local employers and analyzes your area's labor market information, so they know what jobs are out there, what skills are required, and who's hiring.
Second, you can go to your local community college. Speak to a counselor there who can help you complete an assessment to see what you're interested in and the best pathway forward for you.
Finally, to learn more about opportunities within a specific industry, go to visit its national trade association website. It will offer information about events, scholarships, and what's going on in the industry.
Resources for Choosing Between Trade School and College
When you're starting or switching your career, don't forget to calculate your net costs. In other words, look beyond tuition alone and factor in how much debt you'll take on and what other expenses, like room and board, you'll incur.
Remember that it's always more helpful to investigate actual career paths versus national averages. As we've seen, salaries vary drastically, regardless of your credential.
Finally, as you consider all your options, check out more resources available on our site:
- Hot careers requiring a two-year degree or less
- Guide to paid career training programs
- Key differences between certificates, diplomas, and associate degrees
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