For students seeking to further their education after high school, two of the most common options are a traditional two- or four-year college or university or a trade school. Each option has benefits and drawbacks, but both can provide valuable training and preparation for a variety of careers.

The best option will likely come down to your personal career goals, logistical needs, and learning preferences. To help you understand your choices, this article dives into the similarities and differences between trade schools and traditional colleges, highlighting the pros and cons of each. It also provides guidance on how to research schools and programs and choose the one that’s right for you.

What You Should Know About Trade Schools

Trade schools, also known as vocational schools or career colleges, are post-secondary educational institutions that focus on training students in trades or highly skilled jobs. Most trade school programs award a certificate or diploma, although some may offer associate degrees.

Students can prepare for a number of different jobs across various industries at trade schools. For example, healthcare programs at trade schools include radiation therapists, licensed practical nurses, medical coding and billing specialists, and respiratory therapists. Students interested in computer and information technology can prepare to be web developers and IT technicians. Other popular trade programs include plumbing, HVAC, welding, and cosmetology.

Trade schools serve many different kinds of students, including recent high school graduates and working professionals who want to gain new skills or switch careers. Because these institutions emphasize career preparation, program curriculums are designed to be highly focused and completed in a short time frame. Most trade school programs can be completed in two years of full-time study, although some programs may be shorter.

Students can enroll in trade school programs online, in person, or in a hybrid format. Depending on the specific school and program, there may be in-person requirements for internships or labs.

Pros of trade schools

  • tickPrepare for in-demand careers:

    Trade schools are an ideal place to complete training for several career paths that have a strong job outlook. This includes medical records specialists, HVAC, stylists and cosmetologists, and telecommunications technicians. A certificate or diploma from a trade school is the minimum education level required for these positions, so these programs will prepare students for entry-level jobs.

  • tickFast completion time:

    Because of their narrow focus, trade school programs tend to take much less time to complete than traditional degree programs at colleges. Most trade school programs take two years to finish, although some can be completed in as little as six months.

  • tickAccessibility:

    Trade schools typically have fewer barriers to entry than traditional colleges, including few or no application requirements. Students will likely have to submit academic records and proof of high school graduation or a GED as part of their enrollment process. However, these schools don’t usually require supplemental materials like letters of recommendation, SAT or ACT scores, or essays. If you have these materials, consult with an admissions counselor to find out if submitting them will improve your admissions chances.

Cons of trade schools

  • tickNarrow focus:

    The purpose of trade school programs is usually to train students for one particular job, meaning students don’t develop many transferable skills. This can present a problem for students who want to pursue a different career in the future. They may not have the training or qualifications for other jobs they want and might have to return to school for further education.

  • tickMay not be eligible for financial aid:

    Not all trade schools and programs qualify for financial aid from the federal government. Eligibility is based on the types of programs an institution offers and the institution’s status. Students enrolling in a trade school should carefully research what types of financial aid its students are eligible for so they can plan accordingly to pay for their program.

What You Should Know About Traditional Colleges

Traditional colleges and universities offer a more robust array of post-secondary educational programs, including associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees, undergraduate and graduate certificates, and diplomas. These types of institutions also give students the opportunity to study a broad range of topics related to the humanities, business, education, social and biological sciences, the arts, and more.

The mission of traditional college programs is to help students gain practical skills and theoretical knowledge in their major area of study while also developing transferable skills like critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving through general education courses.

Depending on the type of degree you’re seeking, completion time for a traditional college degree usually ranges from two to four years of full-time study. Colleges may also offer accelerated, part-time, or degree completion programs that can affect completion time.

It’s common for students to choose a traditional college because they want a traditional college experience, including living on campus, participating in athletics and extracurriculars, and expanding social and professional networks.

Pros of traditional colleges

  • tickMore career options:

    A bachelor’s degree is one of the most common qualifications for jobs across a variety of industries. Graduates from traditional colleges may have more flexibility in terms of career paths and opportunities based on the transferable skills they gain in these programs compared to more narrowly focused trade programs.

  • tickHigher earning potential:

    Although there are many high-paying trade jobs available, more advanced education typically leads to higher earning potential. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), individuals with a bachelor’s degree earn a median weekly salary of $1,432, and those with a master’s degree earn $1,661 each week. The median weekly pay for individuals with other post-secondary training, like a trade school certificate, is $935.

  • tickFlexibility:

    Students who enroll at a traditional college don’t necessarily need to know what they want to study from the start. Many schools allow students to enter as undeclared majors and spend some time exploring different courses before selecting a program of study. Other options available to students at traditional colleges include double majors, self-designed majors, and minors. It’s also easier to transfer credits between traditional colleges than trade schools.

Cons of traditional colleges

  • tickLong completion time:

    Because there are minimum credit requirements for each type of college degree, they tend to take longer to complete than most trade school programs. A traditional bachelor’s degree program is designed to be completed in four years of full-time study, although many students take five to six years. For students whose priority is completing their education as quickly as possible, this may not be an ideal option.

  • tickCost:

    Traditional college programs also tend to cost more than trade school programs due to their length and the resources needed to teach them. In addition to tuition, many schools also charge fees for things like technical support, campus activities, healthcare, online resources, and more. Students living on campus will also have to pay for room and board.

Trade Schools vs. Colleges At-A-Glance

Trade Schools Colleges
Types of Institutions — Private non-profit

— Private for-profit

— Public non-profit

— Private non-profit

— Private for-profit

Average Annual Cost 2-year non-profit: $15,549

2-year for-profit: $15,033

4-year public (in-state): $9,678

4-year private: $$38,768

Admission Requirements — Application

— High school diploma or GED

— Academic transcripts

— Enrollment fee

— Application

— Application fee

— High school diploma or GED

— Academic transcripts

— Essay

— Letters of recommendation

— SAT or ACT scores

— Resume

Credentials Awarded — Certificates

— Diplomas

— Certificates

— Diplomas

— Associate degrees

— Bachelor’s degrees

— Master’s degrees

— Doctorate degrees

Program Length Varies; the average program can be completed in 1-2 years — Associate degrees: 2 years

— Bachelor’s degrees: 4 years

— Master’s degrees: 2 years

— Doctorate degrees: 3-5 years

Accreditation National accreditation

— Unaccredited

Regional accreditation

— National accreditation

— Unaccredited

Transferability of Credits Credits from nationally accredited trade schools will only transfer to other nationally accredited institutions.

Credits from unaccredited schools are generally not accepted by accredited institutions.

Credits from regionally accredited colleges will transfer to regionally and nationally accredited schools.

Credits from nationally accredited schools will only transfer to other nationally accredited institutions.

Credits from unaccredited schools are generally not accepted by accredited institutions.

How to Choose the Trade School or College Degree Program That’s Right For You

Step 1: Consider your goals and needs

Start by thinking about where you would like to end up. What kind of career do you want to pursue after you complete your program? Do you want to develop a broad range of transferable skills or focus on preparing for a specific job? Establishing career goals will help you select the type of school and program that will give you the education you need to achieve them.

It’s also a good time to consider your logistical needs. How much time do you have to devote to your post-secondary education? Is your priority joining the workforce as soon as possible, or do you want in-depth training to prepare you for more advanced roles? Think about what type of scheduling options will work best for you, including an in-person or online program, synchronous or asynchronous classes, and full- or part-time enrollment.

Step 2: Research schools and programs

Selecting an area of study and setting parameters for logistical needs will make it easier for you to start searching for schools that meet your needs.

Researching trade schools and traditional colleges is a similar process. Visiting a school’s website is a good place to start, as this will likely provide a lot of information like program availability, admissions requirements, cost, curriculum, financial aid, and more. Prospective students can also contact admissions counselors or enrollment coordinators to ask questions. Find out if the institution offers in-person or virtual open houses or information sessions, as these can be opportunities to take a closer look at the schools you’re considering.

Students should also make sure they understand the school’s accreditation and profit status. Most traditional colleges are non-profit, which means any revenue they receive must be reinvested into the institution. The majority of these colleges are also accredited through a recognized accrediting agency. Meanwhile, trade schools are commonly for-profit, meaning revenue can be spent in a variety of ways, including paying shareholders. Accreditation is less common for these types of institutions.

Step 3: Submit applications

The enrollment process differs between traditional colleges and trade schools.

Traditional colleges usually have an application process in which students submit an application, transcripts from previously attended schools, letters of recommendation, standardized test scores, an essay, and a resume. Depending on the program, there may be specific eligibility criteria or additional application requirements. Admissions counselors and faculty review applications to determine if students will be admitted, denied, or waitlisted.

While some schools require students to submit applications, others allow students to enroll directly without applying. Even if students can directly enroll in a trade school program, they will likely have to have a high school diploma or a GED.

For the most accurate information about admissions processes, contact the institution directly. Students should also note if there are specific deadlines and start dates for the programs they’re considering.

Step 4: Determine how you’ll pay for your program

As you’re gathering information about schools, be sure to find out what the program cost is (including additional fees) and what financial aid options are available to students. This will also vary somewhat based on the type of school you’re attending.

Students attending accredited colleges and universities can apply for federal student loans and other forms of aid using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Most colleges also offer scholarships and grants based on need or merit. Unlike loans, these types of funding don’t need to be repaid. Other options for paying for college include federal work-study, employer tuition assistance benefits, and private education loans.

Trade school programs may or may not be eligible for federal student loans, depending on the institution’s status and the type of credentials it awards. Students can check if their trade school is eligible using the Federal School Code Search tool on the FAFSA website. Even if students can’t use federal student loans to pay for trade school, they may be able to use private education loans, scholarships, and employer tuition assistance benefits to help them pay for their program.

Learn more about trade schools and colleges

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