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


Updated May 23, 2023 · 5 Min Read is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Many students earn their degrees at traditional colleges or universities, but others find trade schools more suitable.

Trade schools provide career-focused training for in-demand fields, which can be a practical choice for some careers. Additionally, trade schools offer short completion times and inexpensive tuition rates.

When deciding between trade school vs. college, students should examine their own strengths, interests, and career goals. To help with this process, the following page compares the pros and cons of trade school and college.

What Is Trade School?

Trade schools typically omit general education and liberal arts classes. Instead, they offer dedicated training in a specific, skilled vocation. For that reason, some people call these institutions vocational schools — an umbrella term that can encompass career and technical schools as well. Though these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there are subtle differences.

Trade school education typically leads to careers in skilled trades, whereas technical and career schools focus on generalized practical training and marketable skills. Additionally, programs in technical schools often feature more lecture-style classes than trade schools.

Trade schools provide diplomas or certificates upon completion. Depending on the trade, graduates may qualify to enter their professions directly, or they may need to sit for a licensure examination or become an apprentice or journeyman.

Most trade school programs offer considerably shorter programs than traditional universities, which allows students to enter their career fields faster.

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Types of Trade School Careers

  • Plumber
  • Electrician
  • Nursing Assistant
  • Dental Hygienist
  • Commercial Truck Driver
  • Home Inspector
  • Respiratory Therapist
  • Radiation Therapist
  • Welder
  • Massage Therapist
  • Carpenter
  • Locksmith
  • Esthetician

Time to Complete Program: Trade School vs. College

When comparing trade school vs. college, most prospective students will notice the difference in completion times first. While traditional college degrees typically take four years, trade school programs often take less than two years to complete. Here are a few upsides to enrolling in a short program.

Benefits of a Short School Program

Trade school programs benefit students in several ways. First, these condensed programs allow students to enter the job market sooner, which means they start earning money and building experience faster as well. Shorter programs also mean less time commitment, which makes enrolling to pursue an education less daunting.

Second, shorter trade school programs often mean less paid in tuition, even when rates are comparable. With less time spent in school, most students ultimately pay lower school-related costs. That also means fewer travel expenses, fewer course materials, and even a shorter period of time out of the job market, making no money.

Higher education can also be challenging, and some students will find it exhausting. According to EducationData, more than 40% of undergraduates drop out of college, and 30% of those students drop out before sophomore year. Shorter programs may combat this fatigue, allowing students to stay engaged and complete their studies before they hit that wall.

Average Salaries: Trade School Jobs vs. College-Based Jobs

When weighing the pros and cons of trade school, salary potential can fall on either side. Some vocational programs lead to careers with great financial rewards, but overall, careers that require college degrees tend to pay more. We explore the differences more below.

Average Trade Job Salaries

While the average salaries for degree-based careers typically exceed those for trade-based careers, some trade school graduates earn much higher wages than people might expect. After acquiring specialized training, tradespeople can improve their earnings with experience, especially when working in niche fields.

Location can also influence trade job salaries, as some states and regions offer higher-than-average wages due to demand, state requirements, and cost of living. In general, areas with high population densities pay more than rural areas, but students should still research salaries in their local region before committing to a trade program and new career.

As an example, electricians earn more on the East Coast and West Coast than they do in the central states. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), electricians make an overall annual mean salary of $60,370, but they earn $70,000 in California, $75,000 in Oregon, and $79,000 in New York.

Data in the dental hygiene field is similar. According to the BLS, the West Coast pays considerably higher rates for dental hygienists than the national median of $76,000. For example, Washington pays $93,000 per year; California pays $106,000; and Alaska pays $115,000.

High-Paying Trade School Careers
Position Annual Salary
Construction Manager $95,260
Radiation Therapist $85,560
Ultrasonographer $75,780
Dental Hygienist $76,220
Respiratory Therapist $61,330
Source: BLS >

Salaries for College-Based Jobs

Compared to trade school jobs, college-based jobs tend to pay more. While both types of jobs pay more with experience, the wage gap between college-based careers and the trades actually increases as professionals advance along their career paths. In particular, management careers tend to offer high wages, but often require a four-year degree to qualify.

For example, as per BLS employment data, business majors can earn median annual wages of $80,000 as business operations specialists. After gaining experience, however, these professionals can make nearly $200,000 per year working as chief executives.

High-Paying College-Based Careers
Position Annual Salary
Chief Executive $194,000
Information Systems Manager $156,000
Financial Manager $148,000
Marketing Manager $149,000
Human Resources Manager $130,000
Source: BLS

Price of Education: Trade School vs. College

Weighing the pros and cons of trade school often reveals price differences. While trade school programs usually cost less than college programs, learners need to research further to get the most accurate picture.

Comparing the cost of an education in trade school vs. college is about more than just tuition. Students should also consider how scholarship availability and earning potential affect the financial outcome of attending school. To help you do this analysis, the following sections examine the average costs of different types of schools, plus examples and additional factors to keep in mind.

How Much Does Trade School Cost?

The cost of a trade school program can differ considerably depending on the school, discipline, and location. According to U.S. News, trade school students pay an average of $33,000 for their entire education.

While the reasons for cost differences between programs vary, some trade school programs have high overhead costs due to more expensive training materials. Programs like aviation maintenance technology, for example, can cost more than $30,000. Conversely, esthetician programs may only cost $2,000-4,000.

How Much Does College Cost?

Due to the array of college types and study options, breaking down the cost of a college education is challenging. A number of factors impact the overall costs, such as tuition prices and room and board. Prices also fluctuate between private, public, in-state, and out-of-state schools.

According to EducationData, in-state public school students pay an average of $10,440 per year for tuition. When factoring in room and board, the total comes to $21,950 per year. The rate for out-of-state tuition and fees jumps up to $26,820 per year, and with room and board totals, that equals $38,330 per year.

Private school students pay more, with an average of $36,880 per year for tuition alone and $49,879 per year when including room and board. However, private schools tend to offer more generous financial aid packages to help students cover the higher costs, which is something you should consider.

Average Total Price for Four-Year College

In-State Public College


Out-of-State Public College


Private Nonprofit College


Source: EducationData

Job Security: Trade School vs. College

Trade school graduates enjoy strong job security: Careers like plumbing and home inspecting typically survive weak economies and recessions. These tradespeople often perform essential services that the world needs at all times.

Meanwhile, college programs may give degree-seekers flexible skills that are widely applicable, but those jobs do not always perform as well during economic crises. In both pathways, experience can improve job security.

Career Flexibility: Trade School vs. College

Due to the specialized training of trade school programs, graduates do not receive as much career flexibility as college graduates. Electricians, for example, cannot move between fields as easily because their skills and training only apply to a specific field. Meanwhile, business majors can apply their skills broadly and access an array of careers.

For degree-seekers, the flexibility of a college degree can be beneficial. According to BLS employment data, the average American switches jobs every four years and holds about 12 jobs in their lifetime. Degree flexibility also allows for more career mobility, meaning degree-holders can advance within their fields or switch industries more easily.

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