Trade School vs. College: Key Differences and Benefits of Each

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated June 23, 2022 | Published February 8, 2021

Updated June 23, 2022

Published February 8, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

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Sinead will let you know about various trade jobs and the best tactics to step into the trade industry.

Whether you're a recent high school graduate or a working professional looking for a career change, you might benefit from gaining additional educational experience. Trade school and college are both great options and understanding their differences may help you decide which one is right for you. In this article, we discuss college and trade school and the similarities, differences and benefits of each.

What is trade school?

Trade school, often referred to as “vocational school,” provides students with a career-focused training program in a specific field. Trade students can receive hard skills training for careers in health care, manufacturing, technology, construction and more. Trade schools offer students the ability to receive tangible, hands-on experience in their area of study with a combination of practical and classroom learning.

For example, health care students typically attend class and perform clinical hours in medical settings, and students training for careers in construction may begin their apprenticeships while still attending courses.

Trade schools do not usually offer general education or liberal arts classes because they are geared toward providing skills and training for specific professions. Like college students, trade school students may receive a diploma after completing their program, or they may earn an industry-relevant certificate. Many trade students will be prepared to enter the workforce immediately after graduation, while others will have to enroll in other preparation programs or study for licensure exams.

Read more: Everything You Need To Know About Trade School

What is college?

Colleges and universities both offer students the ability to develop soft and hard skills while earning academic degrees. College students choose an area of study, often called a major or concentration, from a long list of academic fields. Most college students take one to two years of general education courses before receiving specialized classroom time in their major. They learn industry-specific skills in their area of study but also practice more abstract skills like problem-solving and analytical thinking.

Students graduate after an average of four years with majors in fields like business, communications, education, liberal arts, natural sciences and computer sciences. They receive diplomas and often earn internships, fellowships and jobs during their time in school. They may also study for licensure exams depending on their field. Some college graduates choose to further their education by pursuing advanced degrees beyond a bachelor's degree.

Related: 9 Benefits of Going to College

The differences between trade school and college

College and trade school both prepare students to take the next step in their careers but by different methods. Understanding the differences between the two educational experiences can help you make the best decision for your future while considering your goals, needs and abilities. Here are the main differences between trade school and college:

Admissions process

The admissions process for trade schools is simple compared to college admissions. Prospective trade school students don't have to submit SAT or ACT scores, complete multiple lengthy applications, secure recommendations or write persuasive college essays.

You can enroll in trade school right after graduating from high school, as you typically only need to submit your high school diploma as a prerequisite. This process often gives students a longer time to consider what they want to pursue in trade school.

In comparison, college applications are extensive and require all of the components listed above. Students must often submit college applications in their junior or senior year of high school which typically include test scores, transcripts, relevant recommendations and essays. Additionally, prospective college students typically need to submit expansive resumes that detail their participation in extracurricular activities, volunteer projects and after-school jobs, so preparation really begins as soon as they enter high school.

Read more: Requirements for Attending Trade School


Trade school students earn certificates or diplomas that can help them find jobs within a particular field. Additionally, some trade schools allow students to start apprenticeships or take practical courses, which can provide on-the-job experience before you even complete your education.

Colleges students can earn associate, bachelor's, master’s and doctor degrees, which are often required for candidates to work in certain professional fields. specialized positions.

Related: 60 Reasons To Go to College

Length of program

Trade schools offer programs that you can complete within one to two years. By narrowing the focus to a career-intensive curriculum, trade schools help students enter the workforce as soon as they're able.

College students usually take four years to earn their bachelor's degrees. While they can accelerate their program by taking classes over the summer, that is not the norm.


Trade schools generally cost less than college degree programs. Depending on the trade school you choose and your area of study, you might pay as little as $5,000 per year. Public trade schools, such as community colleges, offer the lowest tuition rates, while for-profit trade schools sometimes charge rates closer to those of a four-year degree at a college.

Four-year academic college degrees can be costly, though many schools offer scholarships to help cover the costs. College students may pay anywhere between $10,000 to $50,000 per year just for tuition, though students will likely also need to pay for room and board, as well as any books and school supplies they might need.

Read more: How Much Does It Cost To Attend Trade School?

Course of study

Trade schools offer shorter, job-specific coursework that prepares students for their chosen fields. While trade schools give students practical training, they don't offer general education courses that might help students develop more intangible soft skills. Instead, these programs are designed to produce job-ready candidates who can quickly enter the workforce.

Colleges, in comparison, offer several chances for students to learn skills and gain knowledge outside of their specific career paths. As a college student, you'll have the opportunity to take classes in fields not directly related to your major, explore opportunities you may not have otherwise considered and meet people from all different backgrounds. These experiences can help college students develop critical thinking skills, cultural awareness and diverse knowledge.

Career potential

Many trade school graduates can earn above-average salaries. Vocational career paths often cite high demand and can prepare students to earn high salaries each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, salary ranges for vocational and trade fields can differ, depending on the career you choose. For instance, air traffic controllers, radiation therapists and dental hygienists are some of the highest-paid professions you can prepare for in trade school.

According to BLS data, on average, those with four-year degrees still earn more than their trade school-educated counterparts. But there are many other factors besides salary to consider when weighing job offers, including benefits, bonuses, retirement plans and company culture.

Trade school credits are not transferable

If you enroll in a trade school but later decide that you want to earn a four-year college degree, most universities will not allow you to transfer credits from a trade school. This can make it more challenging to continue your education, so it's important to thoroughly consider your future goals when deciding which path to pursue.

In contrast, college students have many options to continue their education, even if they choose to withdraw prior to graduation. Once you earn credits at a university or college, you can typically transfer them to any other comparable school whenever you're ready to start again. Those individuals who do graduate have the option to continue their education by earning advanced degrees.

Related: Vocational Training: Definition and Different Types

Similarities between trade school and college

Though trade school and college offer different educational experiences, there are a few similarities between the two. Below are the main similarities between trade school and college

  • Available financial aid: In both settings, students may qualify for financial aid that can help them pay for their education.

  • Improved job outlook: Both educational paths can help students find jobs with above-average salaries in their fields.

  • Enrollment requirements: You typically need to have a high school diploma to enroll in either trade school or college.

What are the main benefits of attending trade school?

When deciding whether to attend trade school or college, it's important to consider your individual preferences and needs, and the benefits of each path. Trade school offers:

  • A shorter time commitment: On average, trade school requires a shorter time commitment than four-year colleges. This can help you save time and enter the workforce as soon as you're ready, meaning you'll be able to start earning money sooner as well.

  • Lower costs on average: Trade schools, and especially public trade schools, offer an appealing lower-cost option to students. This means that, depending on your current financial situation, you'll likely graduate with little to no debt, giving you more financial freedom in the long run.

  • A simple admissions process: Trade school doesn't require a lengthy, complicated admissions process. Rather, you can be admitted to a trade school on short notice and with better certainty.

  • Career-specific training: Trade schools offer career-specific training that can help graduates find jobs more quickly than they might otherwise. They provide students with learning opportunities involving observation and practical experience to gain expertise in specialized fields.

What are the main benefits of attending college?

There are also several benefits to choosing to attend college. College degree programs offer:

  • Increased job opportunities: Some positions will require you to have a four-year college degree. Plus, having a degree might set you apart from other candidates, even in roles that don’t require it specifically. A college degree may also help you prepare for complex licensure exams.

  • Soft-skills development: Because colleges make general education courses mandatory for students, they help graduates learn soft skills, such as communication and critical thinking.

  • Increased educational options: When you attend college, you're not required to focus on a single occupational preparation program. At most colleges, you can choose from a wide variety of majors. Also, colleges give you the ability to study for multiple majors at once and the flexibility to change your course of study if you change your mind.

  • Educational credits that don’t expire: Once you earn college credits, you generally never lose them. This means that if you withdraw from college before you graduate, you can return and finish your degree in the future. Some colleges and states may have time limits for credits earned in certain fields, such as technology, so it’s always best to check with your college.

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