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College vs. Trade School - Which Is Better?

College vs. Trade School - Which Is Better?


Your level of education will largely determine how much you earn in your working career. The more training you have, the less likely you are to be unemployed. You'll earn more with more education, and you're more likely to find work that allows meaningful advancement instead of being stuck in a dead-end job. That sounds like a great reason to go straight off to college, and of course, it is true that a college education is an excellent start to a career. College comes with some drawbacks, though. A Bachelor's degree is expensive, especially if you don't finish in four years, which many students can't, especially if they are working and studying at the same time. Around 70 percent of US graduates complete their education carrying student loan debt, and 60 percent of those don't expect to pay the loans off until they are in their 40s.[1] Low-income students face the highest debt burden. 88 percent of graduating seniors who received Pell Grants, which are awarded to low-income students, have student loans, owing an average of over $30,000 each.[2] College is still a worthwhile investment, but many potential students are justifiably concerned about the prospect of starting their career carrying that much debt.

A Bachelor's degree also requires students to take a large number of general education classes, and up to half of the time a student spends in school may be devoted to course work not specifically related to the student's intended career. These classes have a place in a student's development, but a low-income student primarily interested in building a career may find it frustrating to be borrowing money to pay tuition for courses that may not directly support their aspirations.

College is a great way to build the skills and qualifications needed to support a career, but it's not the only way. Technical, trade and vocational schools teach valuable skills that are in high demand in the workforce and carry competitive salaries. They require much less time to complete and cost significantly less than a college education. These advantages make education aimed at a career in the skilled trades a viable option for many students. Of course, a degree is also a great choice, but individuals need to look at all of the choices available and decide what's best for them.

Technical, Trade, And Vocational Schools
Around 70 percent of US graduates complete their education carrying student loan debt, and 60 percent of those don't expect to pay the loans off until they are in their 40s.

What is a trade school? These schools and courses teach you how to do a specific job that requires unique skills and techniques. They teach these skills through classroom training, hands-on learning, and in many cases, include on the job training where you are learning on a job site with a master journeyman while earning a paycheck.

Trade school tuition is typically much less than the cost of a University. Many programs can be completed with an investment of around $20,000, the cost of a single year's study at an average college. Choosing a trade school gets you in the workforce faster: programs usually take from six months to two years to complete, much less than the minimum of four years required to earn a bachelor's degree. On the other hand, trade education is specific to a single field, so a career change can be more challenging than it would be with the more general education college provides. Before you start a program, you should be sure that it's a career you want!

Well-Paid Jobs with High Demand

The U.S. is experiencing a shortage of individuals qualified in the skilled trades, and that shortage will become more severe as workers in these fields approach retirement. In 2012, 53% of American skilled trade workers were 45 or older, and in states like Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New Hampshire that figure was at 60%.[3] Those workers are now approaching retirement, creating new openings that employers must fill.

Many skilled trades pay as much or more than fields that require a college degree. Construction management, for example, pays over $40.00 an hour and yields average yearly earnings over $85,000; Dental Hygienists average $35.31 an hour and may earn over $48/hr with experience.[4] That's competitive with salaries in many fields that require a degree. The skilled trades offer an additional advantage: because most of them involve hands-on work, these jobs are practically impossible to outsource, which means your job is not likely to end up in another country!


Trade schools can prepare students for careers in numerous high-demand fields. Plumbers, electricians, mechanics, HVAC technicians, and workers in the construction specialties are in constant demand and earn decent salaries. These fields are increasingly technology-intensive and require serious training, so training is necessary. Modern mechanics, welders, or technicians are going to be working with computers and sophisticated diagnostic machinery as often as they work with wrenches and hammers!

Trade schools also prepare workers for many important and well-paid jobs in health care, where demand is booming as the American population ages. Careers in diagnostic imaging, therapy services, and many other health fields do not require a degree and can earn you a quite decent pay package in a job that is in demand and requires in-person service. The average wage of a radiation therapist, a career requiring only an Associate degree, is $80,220.[5] Who says you need a college degree to earn a decent living?