Trade School VS. College - Which School is Right For You?

Written by Beth Hering
Published on October 4, 2023 · Updated on October 4, 2023

Trade School VS. College - Which School is Right For You?

Written by Beth Hering
Published on October 4, 2023 · Updated on October 4, 2023

Trade School Vs. College

What do plumbers, dental hygienists, mechanics, and web designers have in common? They are all occupations people can train for by attending a trade school.

Continuing one’s education after high school is a smart move in today’s increasingly complex and specialized world. Post-secondary studies open up doors to interesting, higher-paying jobs. College certainly is one route to consider. But for many people, trade schools prove a great match.

Key differences exist between the two. While it takes four years to earn a bachelor’s degree at a tradition college, trade school certificates or diplomas require two years or less to complete. Studies in college cover a range of subject matters and set up students for entry into a variety of possible careers or admission into graduate school. Trade school coursework focuses specifically on the knowledge and skills necessary to enter a chosen profession.

As all educational options involve commitment of time and money and impact future options, it pays to examine choices thoroughly. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the similarities and differences between a trade school vs. college.

What Is A Trade School?

A trade school is an institution of higher learning that people attend to acquire the background and abilities needed for employment in a certain job. Trade schools focus on quickly preparing students to enter the workforce in their chosen profession. Courses relate directly to the occupation and often include hands-on practice of skills and gaining mastery of the job’s tools. Trade schools can be public or private, non-profit or for-profit.

What Are The Similarities And Differences Between A Trade School Vs. A College?

While both trade schools and colleges are great places to advance your career, they are not exactly the same. One is not better or worse than the other. Picking the educationally best route is a highly personal decision based on individual interests, needs, and circumstances.

Similarities between trade schools and colleges

Both types of places charge tuition and other associated educational costs. They also both require students to put in time learning the material covered in classes and demonstrate understanding through performance measurements such as projects and tests.
Acquiring skills and knowledge through post-secondary studies opens up more doors than a high diploma alone.
Career development offices at both places assist students in finding job opportunities, writing a resume, and preparing for interviews.
Both trade schools and colleges continue to realize students want options. Many offer conveniences such as online or hybrid programs, part-time studies, and evening/weekend classes.

Differences between trade school and college include:

Colleges often look at factors such as GPA, test scores, essays, and letters of recommendation when deciding who to admit. Some places are quite competitive. Trade schools generally accept anyone with a high school diploma or equivalent. Some places will admit students who have not completed their high school education.
Classes in trade schools focus on need-to-know information and practical applications. College coursework covers a broader, more theoretical range of subjects and helps students become better communicators, decision-makers, and critical thinkers. General education requirements are a staple at most colleges but not at trade schools.
Many college students start off in one major and then decide over time that they’d rather pursue something else. Credits already earned often can be applied to the new area of study or even to a new college if transferring. Movement is much harder within a trade school. Courses are designed to teach very specific skills and do not readily “count” if you change your mind. Selecting a new trade to pursue or deciding to switch to a different school often means starting over from square one.
College life often includes sporting events, fraternities and sororities, extracurricular clubs, and other activities promoting connection and interaction. Such things are limited or nonexistent at trade schools.
Trade schools prepare students to land jobs in very specific industries. While one’s college major may bend toward a certain field, occupational choices tend to be much wider. A college degree also is necessary for people wishing to go on to higher-level studies at graduate or professional school.

What Types Of Skills Do Trade School Students Have?

The abilities one acquires in trade school depends on the program pursued. A plumber, for instance, will learn much different skills than someone training to become a home health aide.

A hallmark of trade school studies in general is practical application. Students learn by doing. For example, an aspiring mechanic changes oil, diagnoses why an engine rattles, and repairs brakes. The classes that mechanic student takes will be focused and support these specific skills. Math isn’t presented as a vast concept. Rather, it is taught as it specifically applies to measurements or calculations needed to perform a specific job. 

Students who like to work with their hands often find trade school invigorating. They enjoy “getting to the action,” whether that be a chef learning how to properly use cutlery or an electrician rewiring a lamp. 

Many also like that the material presented “gets to the point.” You understand how what is being taught applies directly to the craft you wish to master.

What Can You Do With a Trade School Degree

Trade school programs exist in a variety of fields. Depending on the discipline you choose, your certificate or degree could lead to employment in areas such as: 

Trade School Careers List

Trade school and college graduates sometimes work in the same industry. They differ, however, in the positions for which they qualify. The scope of their duties varies, as sometimes does their eligibility to take on managerial or leadership roles. 

The following chart gives some examples of occupations in different industries that individuals may pursue depending on whether they attend a trade school or traditional college:


Trade School Career Path

College or University Career Path


Medical Billing and Coding

Health services manager


  • Electrical Engineer
  • Architect


  • Dental hygienist
  • Occupational therapist assistant
  • Home health aide
  • Dentist
  • Occupational therapist
  • Nurse


  • Veterinarian technician
  • Radiology technician
  • Veterinarian
  • Radiologist

Criminal Justice

  • Lawyer
  • Probation officer

Computer Science

  • Web designer
  • Chef
  • Administrative assistant
  • Landscaping technician
  • Computer support specialist
  • IT technician
  • Visual communications director
  • Event coordinator
  • Manager
  • Botanist
  • Software developer
  • Computer architect

How Much Does a Trade School Cost vs. Traditional College?

Trade schools and colleges vary greatly in cost. Factors that may influence how much you pay at either include:

  • The institution’s tuition and fees
  • Residency (public institutions often charge less to state/area residents)
  • The number of courses taken at a time (full-time vs. part-time study)
  • Materials and books needed for your specific program
  • Housing, meal, commuting, and parking costs

Generally, trade schools tend to cost less than colleges. Why? For starters, program length is shorter. Also, many trade schools do not offer housing. Students often live at home, which cuts out pricey on-campus room and board.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) states the following as average tuition and fees per year for four-year colleges:

  • Public college: $9,400
  • Private, for-profit college: $18,200
  • Private, non-profit college: $37,600

The cost of trade school is a little more difficult to pinpoint. Programs take different amounts of time to complete. Plus, some trades require tools that add to the financial burden. U.S. News and World Report estimates the average cost of completing an entire trade program is $33,000. And since people who finish trade school enter the workforce quicker than their college counterparts, they can begin cashing in on their education faster.

Paying for Trade School

Just like college students, those attending trade school need to figure out how to pay for their education. This process often starts with talking to financial aid representatives at the school of interest. These professionals can provide an overall look at what the studies you wish to pursue will cost and how you might cover those expenses. They may suggest filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Trade schools that participate in the federal student aid program use this information to determine eligibility for grants, loans, and work-study opportunities.

And don’t forget about scholarships! They are a highly desirable way to help finance an education because they do not need to be paid back. Apply for any scholarships of which you meet the qualifications. A great one to start with is’s trade school scholarship. This recipient will receive $500!

Do Trades Make More Money With The Labor Shortage?

With the U.S. continuing to experience a low unemployment rate, many employers find it difficult to fill job vacancies. This shortage definitely extends to many trades, sometimes even to a greater extent than positions requiring a college degree. As one luxury car manufacturer laments, the company has plenty of engineers working to build its cars, but they lack mechanics to actually work on them.

Because the demand for qualified workers often exceeds the supply, trade school graduates at the moment may command larger salaries than in previous years. For instance, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics states the median yearly salary for an electrician as $60,040, some states are reporting new graduates of trade school electrician programs earning $80,000.

Remember, though, that many factors influence how much someone earns. Geography, skillset, experience, and choice of trade all impact salary. Likewise, the economy fluctuates over time, so no guarantee exists about earning potential. What many trades do have in their favor on a consistent basis is need. When the heat or air goes out, people need to contact an HVAC specialist. When a broken pipe floods a house, a plumber gets a call.

So Which Is Better…A Trade Certificate Or A College Degree?

Trade schools and colleges both provide plenty of great options for people looking to enhance their knowledge and employability. One is not “better” than the other. The right choice of which route to select is the one that fits best with your individual situation and aspirations.

While examining your own needs and interests is key, here are some considerations to aid in making an informed decision:

College might be the way to go if:

  • You are undecided about what career you might want to pursue
  • You want to learn about many subjects or acquire skills applicable to a variety of careers
  • You think graduate or professional school might be a future goal
  • You crave an active campus social scene

Trade school might be a great choice if:

  • You are ready to commit to a specific career
  • You want classes to focus just on material pertinent to your occupation
  • You enjoy working with your hands and developing mastery of tools used in a given trade
  • You want to finish a program quickly in order to get into the workforce

Trade School vs. College FAQ

  • Does trade school take as long as college?
    • No. Earning a bachelor’s degree in college typically takes four years of full-time study. Trade school programs vary in length depending on the program pursued, but completion takes two years or less.
  • Do trade schools and colleges grant the same degrees?
    • No, a traditional college may award undergraduate degrees, master’s, doctoral, and/or professional degrees. However, trade school students typically receive a certificate or diploma when completing a trade school program.
  • Should I go to a trade school or college?
    • There is not a one-size-fits-all answer. Both educational routes increase a person’s knowledge, skills, and attractiveness to employers. If you like working with your hands, enjoy classes that focus on a certain trade, and want a program that gets you into the workforce faster, then a trade school might be a good choice for you. However, if you are uncertain of your career goals, enjoy learning about many subjects, want to acquire  skills applicable to many occupations, and think graduate studies might be in your future, college would be the better choice.
  • Do you study the same things in trade school as in college?
    • No. Trade schools offer vocational training that prepares students to take on specific jobs upon completion of studies. Colleges focus on broader, more diverse subjects. A college course of study typically includes fulfilling general education requirements designed to enhance skills such as critical thinking and decision-making.
  • Does trade school cost less than college?
    • Because it is shorter in length to complete, trade school is often less expensive than college. Also, trade school students frequently live at home, which eliminates the cost of campus room and board. The actual cost an individual student pays at a trade school or a college varies by factors such as the program pursued, the institution’s tuition and fees, and financial aid received. So, college students sometimes pay less than trade school peers; it just depends.