What Is a Trade School, and Should You Go to One?

A trade school, otherwise known as vocational or technical school, is a postsecondary educational institution where students learn skills for an occupation. The purpose of a trade school is to prepare and sometimes certify students for the work they plan to do after they graduate.

Trade schools generally offer two-year programs, although the exact amount of time varies depending on the requirements of the occupation for which a student is preparing. Many programs include hands-on training and a classroom education component.

Students earn an associate’s degree or certification upon completing a trade school. The institutions that offer vocational programs include community colleges, four-year colleges, and proper trade schools. Some programs offer online classes to help students expedite their education and get on the job so they can start earning money.

When it comes to the employment rate of postsecondary school graduates, those who have earned their occupational credential through a trade school boast a higher employment rate (86 percent) than those who have earned an academic credential (82 percent) at a college. Does this mean a trade school is a better option for you than college?

College or Trade School: The Pros and Cons

Both trade schools and colleges have advantages and drawbacks. Determining which type of school is better for you is a matter of deciding what you want to do at this time in your life. Do you want to take a speedy and deliberate path to your trade of choice? Or do you want to immerse yourself in the culture and academic rigor of college? Consider the following factors before you make your decision.

Time to Graduate

Unless you’re going to college to earn a two-year Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate of Science (AS) degree, going to college for a bachelor’s degree almost always takes longer (four years) than going to a trade school. Many students earn an AA or AS degree so they can have some sort of higher education on their resume, or to go on and earn their four-year bachelor’s degree. The Associate of Applied Science (AAS), Associate of Applied Business (AAB), or technical/vocational certification you would earn at a trade school, typically takes no longer than two years to earn, after which you go directly into your vocation of training.


The cost of college is notoriously high, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any less expensive. While you still have to pay to go to a trade school, it’s usually much more affordable than a four-year

For the 2017-2018 school year, the annual average cost of tuition at a four-year private university was $34,740; for a public university, it was $9,970. Now multiply those numbers by four, include the cost of books, supplies, as well as room and board, and you have an estimate of what it costs to earn a 4-year degree. For tuition alone at a public institution, you’ll pay at least $39,880. Meanwhile, the average cost of a trade school is $33,000. A trade school can cost quite a bit less than that, however. For example, for an online medical assistant program, the average cost of tuition at a private college is between $1,200 and $4,200; for a Community College, it’s $2,250.


Unless you’re taking all your classes online, you will have to go to campus at some point to attend a traditional college. This can mean moving to a different town, state, or even country. Both colleges and trade schools are now including plenty of online education options. When it comes to trade schools, many are now offering online classes for the academic portion, while the hands-on training portion takes place in a city near you.

For example, if you were to look at certified nursing assistant programs, there are many cities across the nation home to multiple institutions offering the chance to earn your certification online. In contrast, many public and private universities only have one location, meaning you would have to move there if they’re not offering your degree online.

Job Security

College degrees offer more flexibility (and typically, higher pay) in terms of career choice, but that also means less stability and certainty when you’re joining the workforce. Trade schools prepare students for a specific job, and though there is less flexibility, there is more security and stability. Furthermore, the demand for people to work trade jobs is expected to increase greatly in the coming years.

The fastest growing occupations are trade jobs, including solar panel installers, wind turbine technicians, home health and personal care aides, as well as physician assistants. The latter earn an average of $108,610 per year. The increase in demand for trade workers is being met with high salaries: There are an estimated 30 million trade jobs that pay an average of $55,000 per year in America. Because there aren’t a lot of tradespeople earning certifications out there, there’s a lot of job security in trades-based jobs.

Transferring Credits

You may be able to transfer credits from a trade school to a university, particularly if you enroll in a trade program at a community college. The ability to transfer credits provides the benefits of completing a vocational program — including job security and little to no debt — and makes it easy to continue obtaining an education. If you’re looking into a trade school but want to leave the door open for a four-year education, consider looking into a vocational program that is affiliated with a university so you can easily transfer credits.

Gaining Experience

The hands-on experience you gain in a trade school is a kind of on-the-job training. For this reason, students with a trade school credentials often go on to fill jobs with very little gap between education and employment. College provides a different kind of experience, one that includes academic training as well as socialization and cultural immersion.

What kind of experience are you looking for? What’s your financial situation? Answering these questions will help you understand what type of school you should go to; that said, you can gain book smarts, culture, and social experience out in the real world just as well as you can in college. It’s just a matter of how driven you are to learn on your own.

Is A Trade School Better Than College?

College is a great place to advance oneself intellectually and socially. College graduates may want to work in a particular field, but it’s not unusual to find yourself in a different occupation than you imagined because there’s more demand for that sort of work. You can always pursue your original passion as time goes on. Therefore, college is the more flexible option. If you would rather know exactly where you’re going with your immediate career, a trade school is the more reliable option.

While college can be highly beneficial, so can a trade school — it’s often undervalued and overlooked option for students. There is no “right” choice; it all depends on the needs and wants of each individual. Consider the pros and cons listed above, and think about what you want for your future and career.

College and Trade School: Why Not Both?

College and a trade school are not mutually exclusive ventures. You can choose to enroll in both college and a trade school simultaneously, depending on your field, or go to one before attending the other. You can go to a trade school and then start working to gain experience and make money. Once you’re in good standing financially, the college door will still be open, and you’ll be happy you’re not weighed down with a bunch of debt.