Trade School vs. College: Which Educational Path is Right for You?
by Haley Lyles
The promise of job security and higher income makes a four-year college seem like an obvious choice for high school graduates. Though a bachelor's degree is valuable, because of the student debt, program length and other factors, it's not always the best option for young adults.
For some high school graduates, the best choice is pursuing a trade school education: the programs are shorter, the learning styles are unique and the cost is significantly less. When we compare trade school vs. college, we see that both options have benefits and drawbacks that every prospective student should consider before deciding which educational path is right for them.
The Difference Between Trade School Vs. College
The major differences between trade school and college are:
- Cost of program
- Length of program
- Learning environment
Colleges aim to build well-rounded scholars in four years while trade schools train students on highly specific skill sets such as electrician work. Because of this, trade schools are often only a fraction of the cost of a traditional university and can be completed in half the time.
A Four-Year College
The purpose of attending a four-year college is to get a bachelor's degree. During the four years it takes to graduate, students receive a well-rounded education that extends beyond the student's choice in major. In addition to industry-specific classes, students will take courses over history, mathematics, science and liberal arts. Once students graduate, they are 50 percent less likely to be unemployed when compared to their fellow high school graduates who did not pursue higher education.
Benefits of College
The benefits of pursuing a four-year college are a combination of increased job opportunity and access to a well-rounded education. If you aren't sure what career you want to pursue, a four-year university allows the time and resources you need to make that decision.
One of the biggest benefits of earning a bachelor's degree is increased job opportunities. According to the BLS, over 21% of all jobs in the U.S. require a bachelor's degree. Without the degree, young adults are automatically unqualified for a large portion of available jobs. Even in positions where a four-year degree isn't required, employers may prefer the more educated candidate and give the job to them.
The long-term earning potential for graduates with a four-year degree is undeniable. The average starting salary for someone with a bachelor's degree is around $51,000 per year and that of a high school graduate is $37,024. Over the course of a lifetime, adults who have earned their bachelor's degree make on average $1 million more than their peers with a high school diploma.
For students who are looking for more than a degree and want to push themselves to learn, a bachelor's degree is an excellent option. College students receive a high-quality education in a broad range of topics that can help them communicate more effectively, tackle life skills and even learn more about the way they think. In addition to their relevant course studies, students can take courses in:
- Health and wellness
- Financial literacy
Challenges of College
Though there are many benefits of pursuing a four-year degree, there are also significant challenges. Whether price is the issue, the length of the program or even uncertain job opportunity, carefully consider these issues before you commit to a degree.
According to the Institute for College Access and Success, 65% of the graduates from the class of 2018 have an average student loan debt of $29,200. For students who pursue further education such as medical school, this number is closer to $200,000. Student loans can lead to increased credit card debt, cause financial stress and can prevent graduates from buying homes.
Length of Program
Another issue with a four-year degree is the length of time. These programs give students a well-rounded education instead of just presenting major-specific information. By the time a typical college student graduates, they are 22 years old with little to no work experience. If these individuals have bad luck finding a job, they are left in their early to mid-twenties with no on-the-job training or skills.
High Demand For Jobs
Primary students are taught that if they go to college they will get a job and more money than high school graduates. While this is still true for many people, the growing number of engineers and other STEM professionals has made it harder for graduates to land that first job. For example, there are roughly 30,000 mechanical engineer graduates each year and only ~5,700 job openings for them which has resulted in many graduates being forced to work in jobs that are not in their field. A recent report revealed that 43% of recent college graduates are underemployed in their first job out of college.
Additional College Resources
Though the cost, length of the program and job security are valid reasons to consider a different option, a four-year education is still valuable and if you have the means and desire to pursue a bachelor's degree, here are some resources to learn more:
Trade schools or vocational schools are institutions that train skilled workers for specific jobs. Instead of requiring students to take general courses over four years, trade schools take an efficient approach to education and only offer courses that focus on a specific skill set. These institutions offer programs that can lead to in-demand jobs such as welders, jewelers, mechanics, electricians, culinary specialists, machinists and dental hygienists.
Benefits of Trade Schools
In addition to the low cost of tuition and the lower barriers to entry, trade schools can give you an opportunity to make money from your passion. If you're a skilled handyman or a magician in the kitchen, pursuing further education can allow you to turn your passion into a career.
Length of Program
If you're interested in jumping into your career as soon as you can, trade school may be a good option for you. Most of these institutions aim to train and graduate students in two years or less, which is half the time it takes to complete a traditional four-year degree program. Some programs even swap course hours for apprenticeship hours so that each student can complete the program at their own pace.
Cost of Education
The most obvious benefit of a trade school education is the low cost. On average, trade school programs cost $33,000, which is less than one year in some four-year universities. This helps students avoid taking out large student loans so that they aren't weighed down by debt when entering the workforce.
Alternative Learning Environment
For students who struggle with test-taking or focusing in class, the small class size and hands-on nature of many trade school programs can provide a more helpful learning experience. These programs may include one-on-one training, apprenticeships and internships in place of studying and written exams.
Lasting Job Security
One of the most significant benefits of pursuing a trade school education is the lasting job security that most of these careers have. Since many of these programs build internships and apprenticeships into the curriculum, many students leave with a job opportunity in-hand and never have to start the job hunt. Additionally, since most of these jobs require hands-on experience and skills, it's nearly impossible to outsource these jobs to other countries.
Challenges of Trade Schools
Though trade schools can provide life-changing opportunities to those who don't have the time and money to go to college, there are a few drawbacks to this type of education. If you aren't sure what you want to do or where you want to go, trade school degrees can potentially hold you back.
Though trade school programs are efficient, their zeroed-in approach to learning a trade makes it hard to make a career change without going back to school. For example, if a student earns their cosmetology license and discovers they don't enjoy hairdressing, they can't pivot their career to being a jeweler without getting the necessary gemology certifications.
Limited School Choices
There are a limited number of trade schools in the country so students may have to relocate to pursue their desired education. Some cities may have a culinary school and a film school but not a machinist trade program. This can be a burden on students that are strapped for cash.
Trade School Resources
Despite the challenges of trade schools, it is still a great option for students who are looking for an alternative to a four-year university. If you're considering a trade school, check out some of these resources to help you get started:
- Choosing a Trade School
- Highest Paying Trade School Jobs
- Scholarships and Financial Aid
- Online Trade Schools
How to Choose the Right Path
Choosing between trade school vs. college can be a daunting task. This choice is more than a decision between cost and time — the path you choose will affect the rest of your career. To help make the decision, try asking yourself these questions:
- How soon would you like to start your career?
- Can I afford a four-year education?
- How much money will I make with a four-year degree vs. a trade school degree?
- Do I have a clear career path?
- Am I a hands-on learner?
- Do I want a well-rounded education or do I want to only take relevant courses?
- Will this trade school degree give me the experience and certification I need?
- What do I need to get my dream job? A degree, an apprenticeship or certificate?
Whether you choose your program for financial reasons, career goals or learning style, try and set aside societal expectations and make the decision that is best for you.
When you're trying to decide between trade school vs. college, weigh the benefits and challenges and make the decision that's best for you. Both options can help you build your resume with impressive skills and experience.