What is Best for You, Trade School or College?

So you're not sure what to do as high school is coming to an end? Or maybe you've been out of high school for a while but want to learn some new tricks. We will discuss the differences between going to Trade School or to a College here!

Trade School vs. College

“High school diploma. Now what?” Unfortunately, this is a question that is not asked very often when it comes to life after high school. When students approach high school graduation, they are often pressured to apply to many different universities without ever considering what they truly want to do. As a result, many students end up pursuing or attending college and ignoring many viable paths to a great career. In fact, according to a Degree Query study, 30% of students worldwide go to a 4-year college because they feel it is the natural progression after high school and another 23% only go because they think it is expected of them. Because of this assumption of the education cycle, many people miss out on the wonderful world of trade schools. We lay out the pros and cons of going to trade school and earning a 2-year associates degree alongside attending a college and earning a 4-year bachelors degree. Make note before we begin, we will use Trade School, 2-year degree, and associate’s degree interchangeably as well as College, 4-year degree and bachelor’s degree.

Length of Time to Earn a Degree


Starting with a state or private college, it is very typical to earn a degree in four years. This is of course a flexible amount of time as if you go into college with some credits from high school classes you can shave off quite a bit of time. On the flip side though, many colleges do not make you choose a major until the end of your sophomore year so you could spend two whole years taking classes you will not necessarily need for the degree you want to earn. Therefore, your “4-year” bachelors degree can turn into 5 or sometimes 6 years. From here, many colleges strongly encourage students to go right ahead and start their graduate studies right after earning their bachelors degree. Most graduate degrees take about 2 years to finish so taking the longest route possible, students wouldn’t be starting their careers until 8 years after high school (6 years in a bachelors program and 2 years in a graduate program). Aside from the graduate degree, there is more to consider when looking at a bachelors program at a college, the required classes. When attending a college, students are forced to enroll in a certain amount of elective classes that most likely have nothing to do with the degree or future career. For example, many students end up taking yoga classes, rock and roll history, or an improv class. Yes, these classes can be fun but they add not only time but money as well to your degree. This really can be a good thing though as many people benefit from a more general and broad education. In the end, most students who attend colleges graduate in 4 years with their bachelor’s degree and if they decide to start their career upon graduation that puts them around age 22.

Trade School

Moving to trade schools, there is still some variation but it depends on what sort of degree or certification you desire to earn. For example, many different industries will require different certifications to work on different things rather than one large degree that gives you all of them. So, some schools have certifications that you can earn in under a year while they also offer degrees that will earn you multiple certifications within it which takes up to two years. Just like in a college, there are things that can set students back when trying to earn their degree such as failing classes or changing degree paths. Apart from college though, trade schools are a much more focused education teaching students only what they need to know for their specific career option. This itself can be a good thing or a bad thing. Good if you know exactly what you want to do and you stick with it all the way through. Bad if you are unsure and change your mind half-way through because you then just learned things that are completely separate from whatever the next choice is. When it is all said and done though, the traditional trade school graduate will enter their career field at around 20 years old which is two years before college graduates. That two years equals not only two years of pay that college graduates do not get, but it is also invaluable work experience at age 22 that so many college graduates long for when they graduate.

Average time to earn Bachelor's Degree

Average time to earn Associate's Degree

Cost of Degree


Transitioning away from the time that it will take to earn a degree we will look at the financial cost of earning a degree at each type of institution starting again with college. Right off of the bat we can see from a study by the Idaho Department of Labor (IDL) and the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) that on average, the cost of a bachelor’s degree is $127,219. This amount includes tuition, living expenses and interest on student loans that are taken out. This is quite a large number that can deter people from attending college especially when college takes up so much time it is often hard to work while in school to help pay for school. This cost is already large but it also comes with some added risk. For example, some students just are not prepared for the college lifestyle as their first experience outside of their home. In fact, the NCES found that 46% of first-year students who were financially independent had not attained a degree or certificate and were not enrolled anywhere for the spring of 2014. So, 46% of beginning college students who are paying for school on their own dropped out within 2 years. That is not only time that had been wasted but also thousands of dollars. Therefore, the cost of college is quite high and the risk of starting and not finishing is also much higher than other options.

Trade School

Now on to the cost of a 2-year degree from a trade school, it is quite clear that the average cost is much lower than the $127,000 price tag on a college degree. The same study from the IDL and NCES found that the average cost of an associate’s degree or a post-secondary vocational certificate is $32,832. This is less than a third of the cost of a four year bachelor’s degree from a college. This taken into account with a similar graduation rate for trade schools and colleges puts trade school a much less risky option. Another benefit is that the average student debt for students graduating from a trade school is about $10,000 whereas the average for a college student is roughly $30,000. It is no surprise that the cost and risk of attending a trade school is much lower than attending a college for a 4-year degree.

College Degree

Ever since the recession in 2008, employment for college graduates looked pretty grim. This has been on a slow recovery slope and a full ten years after the recession the unemployment rate has dipped below 2007’s 5.4% at 5.3%. This certainly is good news but it is not all of the news. We must now look at the underemployment rate of young college graduates. This takes into account all unemployed plus involuntary part-time workers (people who would rather be in full-time positions) and those without a job who want a job but have given up actively searching in the last four weeks which disqualifies them from being classified as unemployed. So what are the stats? Well, in 2000, the peak of the country’s employment, underemployment for college grads was just 6.9%. This is compared to today at 11.1% which is still even higher than it was in 2007 (9.4%) right before the economy crash. All of this information was gathered by the Economic Policy Institute in their study on the class of 2018. Most of this is pretty discouraging, but do not lose heart! The IDL and NCES study we have looked at before shows that students who earn a bachelor’s degree at about $127,000 will in turn earn over $1.1 million in their lifetime which is a Return on Investment (ROI) of 9 to 1. That is a great investment opportunity for sure!

Trade School Degree

Now back to trade schools, we see similar unemployment and underemployment rates which does not tell us much. What we do get to see is the ROI for your $32,000 in an average lifetime of earnings. For those who gain an associates degree or post-secondary vocational certificates will earn on average $393,112 in a lifetime according to the IDL and NCES. This is less than half of what a college grad would earn but the ROI of trade school is 12 to 1 rather than 9 to 1 of college. We see clearly that the first step of getting some further education outside of high school is extremely important and profitable. This is also a conservative look as in trade schools the certain trade chosen really plays a large role in wages and income for life. Some of the highest paying trade jobs are elevator installers/repairers, radiation therapists, and geological and petroleum technicians. There are many different routes for you to take to earn more income with a career in any certain trade. Lastly, it is important to point out that the majority of skilled trade workers are disproportionately older and are only getting older. This means that there is more and more opportunity and demand for young skilled trade employees, that’s a good sign for you! According to Degree Query, most of the fastest growing jobs in the United States won’t require a college degree. Some of these being Wind Turbine technicians at 96.3%, Home health aides at 47.3%, and bicycle mechanics at 29.3%. So when you hear that no one will hire someone without a bachelor’s degree, remember that there is large opportunity in many different areas of the work force that do not require bachelor’s degrees!


The final thing to look at when deciding what is best for you is the available locations of a trade school or a college. This may seem minimal but has the opportunity to save or cost you thousands of dollars. If you can find the school for you close to your home and you do not mind staying with your parents a few more years you could save thousands of dollars living at home while going to school. Yes you will lose out on some of the college feel but if you can save yourself from going into debt it should be strongly considered. So not only consider the 5,300 colleges and the 8,063 trade schools in the US but also consider their location.


The final thing to look at when deciding what is best for you is the available locations of a trade school or a college. This may seem minimal but has the opportunity to save or cost you thousands of dollars. If you can find the school for you close to your home and you do not mind staying with your parents a few more years you could save thousands of dollars living at home while going to school. Yes you will lose out on some of the college feel but if you can save yourself from going into debt it should be strongly considered. So not only consider the 5,300 colleges and the 8,063 trade schools in the US but also consider their location.

College is for you if…

You have a great financial plan ready to be set into motion to counter the large upfront costs to get your education. Along with that, if you are still unsure what you specifically want to do but have a general idea, college can be great! This is because of college’s approach to education as a more general education giving you little bits and pieces from all over while also giving you your core studies. If you do know exactly what you want to do and it will require a bachelor’s degree or higher, you better get your bachelor’s degree. If you really do not want to miss out on the college experience and are willing to not only pay but maybe even go into debt for the experience (as well as the education). This experience includes living on a college campus, being surrounded by thousands of your peers all seeking an education, and having a great time staying up late studying with your friends. Lastly, maybe there isn’t a trade school around your home and you want to live at home but gain further education, college is a great choice!

Trade School is for you if…

You know exactly what you want to do with your life and that can be accomplished by earning different certifications or an associates degree. Trade schools get rid of the extra educational fluff that colleges demand so it might not be a great place to explore new options but it is a great option to pursue your desired career. It is also a great option as an in-between. Maybe you aren’t ready to fork up the heavy financial costs of a college degree but want to get some further education. Trade school offers you this opportunity! Once you finish your education at a trade school you can then go straight to college if you would like and get a bachelor’s degree. If you still decide college is not for you, you did not waste any time because you can go ahead and get started with your career. If in 5, 10 or 20 years you decide you really want that bachelor’s degree, you can always sign up for classes at a university then! Trade school is a great option for you if you fit any of these points.

What to do next?

When your high school graduation is quickly approaching don’t just automatically fall into what is expected or what may seem like the natural progression of education. First you need to examine yourself and figure out what your passions are. Once you know your passions, look and see if you will need a bachelor’s degree or higher to start a career in that field. If so, really look into each separate college on your list and see what they have to offer you. If not, look at many different types of schools from state universities to community colleges to trade schools. See which one will fit your needs best and will get you where you want to be most efficiently! If you do decide on a trade school, don’t forget to stop by and check out all of our resources for you. We can help you find the perfect school whether you want to stay close to home or put as many miles in between you as possible. We can help you find and earn financial aid from grants to scholarships and we even provide our own scholarships. We can even help you learn more about specific schools like Universal Technical Institute. Feel free to contact us with any questions you may have or if you would like to learn more about anything we have talked about!

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