What is trade school?
To compare trade school versus college, we first need a clear definition of what trade school actually is.
Trade schools go by many names — including career school, technical school, and vocational school — so definitions get a bit murky.
Typically, it refers to a postsecondary institution that trains students in specific skilled trades, usually in two years or less.
These trades often require hands-on skills, with classes targeted to workers such as:
- Construction workers
- Nurses and physical therapist aides
- Heating and air conditioning technicians
Sometimes a trade school is an independent institution, while other times it’s connected to a community college.
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Trade school vs. college advantages and disadvantages
Each education path has strengths and weaknesses. The best fit for you depends on your unique circumstance, priorities, and goals.
Trade schools are easier to get into than traditional colleges. Requirements vary by institution, but in most cases, all you need is a high school diploma or equivalent.
Compare that to the University of Central Florida — the largest four-year college in the United States — where students average a 27 ACT score and 4.05 GPA. That’s equivalent to straight A’s in high school, plus advanced coursework.
Most trade schools don’t care if you tanked your ACT. For example, the Universal Technical Institute core programs only look at GPA to determine scholarship eligibility.
Some trade schools may require a 2.0 GPA or an admissions test that assesses basic reading, writing and math skills.
Traditional college degrees require coursework unrelated to the job you’re interested in. While it’s nice to have a well-rounded education, most agree that forcing an aspiring accountant to study African geography is a waste of time and money.
According to the National Center of Education Statistics, it takes students a median of 4.3 years to earn a bachelor’s degree, while trade schools typically last eight to 24 months.
For example, at the Universal Technical Institute, you can learn to be a machinist — a tradesperson who uses machines to make parts from raw materials — in just nine months.
Trade schools laser in on job-specific coursework, which significantly accelerates the timeline.
In 2019-20, the average tuition cost at a four-year university was $9,349 per year for public institutions and $32,769 for private institutions.
Assuming a student graduates within four years, that’s a total of $37,396 and $131,076, respectively.
The cost of trade school varies based on the skill and institution, but on average, students pay $33,000.
On the surface, $4,396 less than a four-year degree at a public university might not sound like much. But since trade school grads enter the workforce faster, they earn two to three years of extra income.
Trade school students can also apply for financial aid, just like traditional students.
Start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to check your eligibility for federal grants and loans. You can also visit Fastweb and Scholarships.com to search for trade school scholarships.
Since trade schools go by many names, search for vocational, technical, and career school scholarships as well.
Trade school saves time by focusing on the most relevant coursework, but that can come back to bite you. If you train to become a carpenter and later decide you hate it, your options are limited.
Compare that to a business degree, which can lead to many paths — both business and non-business related. Many jobs require a four-year degree, but don’t specify a major. So even if your original career path doesn’t work out, you have plenty of Plan B options.
You don’t have this luxury with a trade school education. If you have a change of heart, some trade schools have agreements with universities that allow you to transfer credits. However, the credits will be best applied to schooling that is still in your field, such as vocational nurses taking programs to become registered nurses.
Trade schools may require less time and money, but your job options are limited. If you’re not interested in working as a tradesperson, a traditional college education may be the only path to your dream job.
That said, if you’re a hands-on type of person, the demand for skilled tradespeople is surging.
The 2021 Skilled Trades Report divulged that 68% of companies struggled to find skilled workers, with 33% failing to fill open positions. So if you choose a high-demand job, such as carpentry, you may be able to find work quickly.
Note that some jobs, like nursing, offer both traditional college and vocational career paths. While trade school might be cheaper, faster, and easier to get into, that doesn’t necessarily make it the best option.
Put yourself in an employer’s shoes. Who would you rather hire — a candidate who trained two years in an institute with a low barrier to entry? Or one who studied for four years in a competitive university?
When job competition is fierce, trade school graduates may be at a disadvantage. But if the demand for a skill outweighs supply — such as California’s projected 44,500 nursing shortage by 2030 — your educational path won’t matter much.
Earnings are another factor to consider. One 2014 study showed that, over 20 years, bachelor’s degree holders earned $267,863 more than vocational degree holders (adjusted to 2014 dollars).
A comparison of recent stats also shows an edge for those with bachelor’s degrees.
A 2021 Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows that electricians earn a median income of $60,040 per year. Meanwhile bachelor’s degree holders earned a median of $69,368.
However, since electricians can enter the workforce up to three years faster, they could come out ahead for lifetime earnings.
It is also important to factor in your career goals. You may start off making less than someone with a bachelor’s degree, but also have the potential for a promotion that commands more pay. Positions such as “power plant operator” have a median salary of over $80,000.
With trade school’s specialized nature, planning out your career trajectory is vital to maximizing the value of your education.
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