What’s a Technical School? Trade School vs. College

FT Contributor  | 

Every high school student is familiar with the pressure to go to college. At times it can even feel like a requirement — but it isn’t. While there are certainly advantages to a traditional four-year degree, there are other options that can lead to professional success in the future as well.

One of the most popular of these alternative educations is a trade school. Let’s break down what a trade school is, how it differs from a college, and what you should  consider when choosing between these two post-secondary education choices.

What Is a Trade School?

Trade schools are occupation focused. In other words, they don’t focus on granting degrees in a particular “field of study” or a general industry such as healthcare or engineering. Instead, trade schools teach particular sets of skills that equip students to work in a specific vocation such as an electrician or massage therapist.

Trade schools go by several different names including:

  • Vocational schools.
  • Technical schools.
  • Vocational colleges.

Many trade schools are for-profit, private organizations, while some operate as public  entities.

Many trade schools offer classes online, which can help those with families or existing jobs attend school in their spare time.

Trade School Requirements

In most cases, it’s fairly simple to apply to a trade school. Most have open enrollment, meaning, and all you’ll need is a GED or high school diploma. There are even some schools that wave that basic requirement. Many trade schools also use easy-to-use online applications.

Often you don’t even have to wait until a particular time of year to apply. However, if you apply and are accepted, you’ll have to wait until the next class begins.

Trade School vs. College

A natural question that arises is how trade school compares to a traditional college education. Properly answering the question requires a few different considerations.

  • Time commitment: First, there’s the question of time. Most trade school programs tend to take between eight months and two years to complete, whereas most college degrees take two to four years or even longer.
  • Degrees and certifications: You typically won’t get a degree from a trade school, although an associate degree is sometimes awarded. Instead, you’ll likely get a diploma or another form of certification from your particular school and for your specific trade. In comparison, a community college typically awards its students with an associate degree after two years, while a four-year college awards a full bachelor’s degree after four years.
  • Job flexibility and security: Most trade school vocations center on in-demand occupations, such as nurses and chefs, that are thriving and projected to grow in the future. However, they don’t provide quite as much flexibility as a traditional four-year degree within a larger field such as healthcare or education.
  • Skills and knowledge: One of the most significant differences between trade schools and traditional colleges is the simple fact that trade schools focus on skill acquisition, whereas colleges often emphasize the acquisition of knowledge both broadly and within an industry.
  • Costs: When it comes to costs, community colleges are often the most affordable, four-year colleges are the most expensive — especially since many four-year graduates are expected to continue on to get a master’s degree — and trade schools tend to fall somewhere in between.

While there are many differences between trade schools and colleges, neither one is clearly superior. Instead, it’s important to consider what your interests are and then weigh which education option better aligns with your long-term professional goals.

Trade School Jobs

While the concept of a “trade school” often specifically conjures images of plumbers and electricians, there are actually quite a large, diverse number of trade school careers. Below is a list of some of the most popular trade schools options available:

  • Massage therapist.
  • Nurse.
  • Dental hygienist.
  • Pharmacy technician.
  • Cosmetologist.
  • Chef.
  • Computer technician.
  • Paralegal.
  • Plumber.
  • Electrical technician.
  • Auto technician.
  • Carpenter.
  • Construction manager.
  • Welder.

If you have a specific interest in an occupation, it’s always worth investigating whether a trade school has been established to train people in that vocation.

Should You Go to Trade School?

Even if you find a trade school that fits the bill, it’s important to ask yourself the following questions before you decide between a vocational school and a traditional college education:

  • Do you have limited time? Trade schools tend to provide a streamlined education that doesn’t take as much time.
  • What kind of income are you looking for? Some trades such as dental hygienists and nurses can be very financially rewarding, while others, such as a welder, can pay significantly less than the average four-year degree graduate’s salary.
  • Do you need financial aid? Often colleges have easier ways for you to obtain financial aid. Research your financial aid options before applying to a trade school.
  • Are you concerned about grades? If your high school tests and grades are low, a trade school may be a viable option. However, you can often start at a community college — many of which have open enrollment as well — and then transfer to a four-year school in the future.
  • Do you want to be trained or informed? Trade schools will hone your specific skills and are better for those who have a clear direction when it comes to their future occupation. A four-year degree will be less specific but more open to flexibility and career shifts within a professional field or industry.
  • Are you looking for an experience? Trade schools are focused on training and often don’t offer a very engrossing experience, whereas college is typically billed as a more holistic life-experience.

Answer each question thoughtfully, and then consider which option is better for you — a trade school or a traditional college education.


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