May 20, 2022

Trade School vs College in 2023: Which One Is Better

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Trade schools offer a quick, cost-effective path to high-paying careers, but they may not qualify for financial aid, have limited program options, and may not offer as much career growth.

On the other hand, college is far more expensive and longer in duration, but it can lead to a higher income potential, more program choices, and broader career applicability.

Trade School vs. College: What’s the Difference?

Colleges provide a longer, more general education, while trade schools offer a shorter, more specialized education. Colleges often have a wider range of career opportunities, while trade schools provide a direct path to a single career.

Trade schools offer hands-on learning, with programs such as plumbing, welding, cosmetology, nursing, and massage therapy. While college programs may have hands-on elements, the majority of learning takes place in the classroom, with programs like business, psychology, biology, and communications.

Difference Between Trade School and College
Trade SchoolCollege
Typical ProgramsPlumbing, welding, construction, culinary arts, cosmetology, massage therapy, electricianBusiness, health professions, social sciences and history, engineering, biological sciences, psychology, communication and journalism
Cost of Program1$33,000$127,000
Degree GrantedVocational Certificate, Diploma in a specialized areaAssociate’s Degree or Bachelor’s Degree
Average Duration of Program6 months to 2 years, for a full-time student2 to 4 years, for a full-time student
Learning EnvironmentHands-on learning with some classroom instructionClassroom instruction with some hands-on learning for specific programs
Average Class Size25 to 35150 to 300
Average Graduation Rate274.6%64.7%

1 Vocational Training HQ, https://www.vocationaltraininghq.com/average-cost-vocational-school-usa-2017

2 College Evaluator, https://www.collegeevaluator.com/trade-schools/massachusetts

Trade School

Trade school prepares students for a specific role, ranging from car mechanics to hair stylists. Because of this, programs tend to be shorter and more focused, skipping over the general education courses required in college.

Some of the most popular trade school programs include:

  • Computer programming
  • Air traffic controlling
  • Dental hygiene
  • Plumbing
  • Commercial driving
  • Radiation therapy
  • Culinary arts
  • Electrical

Advantages of Trade School

Trade school has several incredible advantages:

Specialized education. Trade school programs get right down to business, teaching only what you need to know to perform the duties of your desired trade.

Shorter duration. Because time isn’t wasted on general education courses, trade schools are able to teach students everything they need to know in a much shorter time frame. Most trade school programs take around six months to two years to complete, depending on the program and whether it’s completed as a full-time or part-time student.

More flexible class times. Some trade programs offer night schools, perfect for working adults who can only take courses in the evening. This makes attending school easier for those already working during the day, as opposed to college courses that take place during the workday.

More hands-on learning. Given that many skilled trades require manual labor, trade school programs tend to have more opportunities for hands-on learning.

Cost-effective. Trade schools are significantly more affordable than most colleges.

Disadvantages of Trade School

That said, there are a few downsides of trade school programs:

Limited career growth. Trade school programs train you for one role. While there might be some overlap between what you study and other fields, it isn’t as flexible as a college degree. For example, a biology degree could help you secure a variety of roles — scientist, teacher, zoologist. However, a commercial driving program would only help you get a role as a truck driver.

Lack of financial aid. Most trade schools are ineligible for federal financial aid. Instead, students will need to cover the education with scholarships, student loans, and personal funds.

Fewer school options. Because trade schools offer specialized education, there tends to be fewer programs to choose from in comparison to college degrees.

College

College provides students with a general understanding of an industry such as business, psychology, or nursing. In some cases, students can choose a specific area of interest within their major, which allows them to focus their studies on that particular topic.

For example, a student majoring in business might be able to focus on accounting or management. A psychology student might be able to focus on clinical psychology or marriage and family psychology.

Some of the most popular college majors include:

  • Business
  • Engineering
  • Nursing
  • Biology
  • Psychology
  • Social Sciences
  • Graphic Design/Arts

Advantages of College

College has several advantages, such as:

More programs to choose from. Top colleges offer 50 or more majors, and some offer even more. This gives students a wide selection of programs to choose from, which can be helpful if you’re undecided on your career path or decide to change your major mid-way through school.

Income potential. Some studies show that bachelor’s degree holders earn around 75% more during their career than if they had only a high school diploma.

Broad education. If you’re unsure what career you’d like to pursue, college may be for you. A broad degree can provide you with the education you need to pursue a wide variety of roles.

Disadvantages of College

Expensive. The average bachelor’s degree costs $127,000, leaving graduates with around $34,100 in student loan debt.

Longer program. College takes anywhere from two to four years to complete as a full-time student, depending on the degree.

Lack of job readiness. In a Cengage survey, one in five (19%) of respondents said their college education didn’t provide them with the skills needed to perform their first post-degree job. This means that even after completing a four-year program, students didn’t find what they learned to suffice.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Trade School and College
AdvantagesDisadvantages
Trade SchoolSpecialized educationShorter durationMore flexible class timesMore hands-on learningCost-effective Limited career growthLack of financial aidFewer school options
CollegeMore programs to choose fromGreater income potentialBroader educationExpensiveLonger programLack of job readiness

Is It Better to Go to College or Do a Trade?

It depends. Here’s a general guideline of who trade school and college are right for:

Trade school is best for you if…

  • You want to work in a skilled trade.
  • You don’t thrive in a standard classroom setting and prefer hands-on learning.
  • Your ideal career can be trained for in a cost-effective trade program.
  • You’d prefer to work while in school and need nighttime classes.

College is best for you if…

  • You know the field you want to work in requires a college degree.
  • You thrive in a traditional classroom setting.
  • You have the time and funds to enroll in a longer program.
  • You prefer a more general education that can be applied across a variety of roles.

Ultimately, however, only you know which option is best for you. Take time to review your career goals, budget, and preferences to decide which program suits you best.

About the author

This post was prepared by the author, in her/his personal capacity. The views expressed are her/his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Meratas Inc.
The information contained in this site is general in nature and should not be considered to be legal, tax, accounting, financial or other professional advice. In all cases, you should consult with professional advisors familiar with your particular situation prior to making any important decisions. Although every effort has been made to provide complete and accurate information, Meratas Inc. makes no warranties, express or implied, or representations as to the accuracy of this content. Meratas Inc. assumes no liability or responsibility for any error or omissions in the information contained herein or the operation or use of these materials. Copyright 2022

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