With the rising costs of a traditional four-year college degree, many students are turning to trade schools as an alternative path. But does attending a trade or vocational school actually count as going to college? Let’s dig into the details.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Trade school is a form of post-secondary education and training, but it is not the same as attending a traditional academic college or university. While trade schools lead to certifications and licenses in various trades, they do not usually award academic degrees.

In this comprehensive guide, we will compare trade schools versus traditional colleges, examine the differences in curriculum, cost and time commitment, look at the careers and earning potential from each path, and help you decide if trade school is the right choice for you.

What is Trade School?

Trade school, also known as vocational school or technical school, is an educational institution that provides specialized training in a particular trade or skill. Unlike traditional colleges and universities, which offer a wide range of academic subjects, trade schools focus on practical, hands-on training for specific careers.

Definition and Overview of Trade Schools

Trade schools offer programs that prepare students for careers in industries such as healthcare, automotive, construction, culinary arts, cosmetology, and more. These schools typically have smaller class sizes and a curriculum that emphasizes practical skills and real-world experience.

Students learn through a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on training, allowing them to develop the skills necessary to succeed in their chosen field.

Types of Programs Offered

Trade schools offer a wide variety of programs to cater to different career interests. Some common programs include:

  • Electrician
  • Plumber
  • Welder
  • Automotive technician
  • Medical assistant
  • Culinary arts

These programs are designed to provide students with the knowledge and skills they need to enter the workforce and start their careers in a relatively short amount of time.

Length of Programs

One of the advantages of trade schools is that the programs are typically shorter in length compared to traditional college degrees. While the length can vary depending on the program and the school, most trade school programs can be completed in as little as a few months to two years.

This shorter time frame allows students to enter the workforce more quickly and start earning a living in their chosen trade.

Certification and Licensing

Upon completing a trade school program, students may be eligible to obtain certification or licensing in their chosen field. These credentials demonstrate to employers that the individual has met certain standards of competency and is qualified to perform the job.

Certification and licensing requirements vary depending on the industry and the specific occupation, so it’s important for students to research and understand the requirements of their chosen field.

Trade school offers a valuable alternative to traditional college education for individuals who are looking to gain practical skills and enter the workforce quickly. It’s important to note that while trade school does not count as a traditional college degree, it is a recognized form of education that can lead to rewarding careers in various industries.

How Trade School Differs from Traditional College

Trade schools and traditional colleges are both educational pathways that provide valuable skills and knowledge to students. However, there are several key differences between the two. Understanding these differences can help individuals make informed decisions about their educational journey.

Here are some ways in which trade school differs from traditional college:

Academic Focus

While traditional colleges offer a wide range of academic disciplines, trade schools focus on specific vocational or technical skills. Trade schools provide hands-on training in fields such as mechanics, healthcare, cosmetology, culinary arts, and construction.

This focused approach allows students to acquire practical skills quickly and efficiently, preparing them for the workforce in a shorter timeframe.

Degree Awarded

Unlike traditional colleges, which typically award associate’s, bachelor’s, or advanced degrees, trade schools usually provide certification or diplomas. These credentials signify that students have completed the necessary coursework and practical training required for their chosen trade.

While trade school diplomas may not hold the same prestige as a college degree, they hold significant value in the job market for specific industries.

Program Length

Trade school programs are generally shorter in duration compared to traditional college programs. While a bachelor’s degree can take four years or more to complete, trade school programs can often be finished in a matter of months or a couple of years.

This shorter time commitment allows individuals to enter the workforce sooner and start earning a living in their chosen trade.

Cost and ROI

Trade school programs are often more cost-effective compared to traditional college degrees. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average annual cost of tuition and fees for a public two-year trade school program is significantly lower than that of a four-year college degree.

Additionally, trade school graduates often experience a higher return on investment (ROI) as they enter the job market with specialized skills that are in demand.

Class Sizes and Teaching Methods

In traditional colleges, classes are often larger, with a higher student-to-faculty ratio. Trade schools, on the other hand, tend to have smaller class sizes, allowing for more personalized instruction and hands-on training.

This close-knit learning environment enables students to receive individualized attention and guidance from instructors who have real-world experience in their respective trades.

Career Paths and Salaries After Trade School

Trade schools offer a variety of career paths that can lead to fulfilling and financially rewarding professions. Graduates from trade schools often find themselves in high-demand industries where their specialized skills are highly sought after.

Here are some of the top careers that you can pursue after completing trade school:

Top Careers from Trade Schools

  • Electrician: Electricians are in high demand due to the constant need for electrical work in residential, commercial, and industrial settings. They install, maintain, and repair electrical systems, earning an average salary of $56,180 per year. source
  • Welder: Welders work in various industries such as construction, manufacturing, and automotive, joining metal parts together. They earn an average salary of $45,190 per year. source
  • Plumber: Plumbers install and repair pipes, fixtures, and other plumbing systems. With a median annual wage of $55,160, plumbers enjoy a stable career in the construction and maintenance industry. source
  • HVAC Technician: HVAC technicians work on heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration systems. They earn an average salary of $50,590 per year and have excellent job prospects due to increased demand for energy-efficient systems. source
  • Automotive Technician: Automotive technicians diagnose, repair, and maintain vehicles. With the growing complexity of automotive technology, skilled technicians are in high demand. They earn an average salary of $42,090 per year. source

Expected Salaries

Salaries after trade school can vary depending on factors such as location, experience, and industry demand. However, trade school graduates can expect to earn competitive wages that often surpass those of some four-year college graduates.

It is important to note that while trade school salaries may start lower than some professions requiring a bachelor’s degree, they often offer quicker entry into the workforce and the potential for higher earning potential over time.

Opportunities for Advancement

Trade school graduates have numerous opportunities for career advancement. Many professions offer pathways for specialization, allowing individuals to gain advanced skills and certifications that can lead to higher-paying positions.

For example, an electrician can become a master electrician or electrical contractor, while a welder can obtain additional certifications to work on specialized projects or become an inspector. Additionally, trade school graduates may have the opportunity to start their own businesses, becoming entrepreneurs in their chosen field.

Should You Go to Trade School or College?

When considering your educational path, it’s important to evaluate whether trade school or college is the right choice for you. Both options have their own unique advantages and considerations, so it’s essential to weigh them carefully before making a decision. Here are a few key factors to consider:

Consider Your Career Goals

One of the first things to think about is your career goals. Trade schools typically offer specialized training in specific fields such as plumbing, electrician work, or automotive repair. These programs are designed to equip you with the skills needed to enter the workforce quickly and start earning a living in your chosen trade.

On the other hand, college provides a broader education that can open doors to a wider range of career opportunities in fields such as business, healthcare, or engineering. Consider which path aligns better with your long-term career aspirations.

Evaluate Your Learning Style

Another important factor to consider is your learning style. Trade schools often focus on hands-on training and practical skills, which can be a great fit for individuals who prefer a more experiential learning approach.

College, on the other hand, typically involves more theoretical and academic coursework. If you thrive in a classroom setting and enjoy delving into academic subjects, college may be a better fit for you.

However, if you prefer a more hands-on learning experience and want to get started in your chosen field as quickly as possible, trade school might be the right choice.

Compare the Costs

Cost is a significant consideration when deciding between trade school and college. Trade school programs tend to be more affordable and have shorter durations, allowing you to enter the workforce sooner and start earning.

On the other hand, college tuition costs can be higher, especially for four-year degree programs. Additionally, college often requires additional expenses such as textbooks, housing, and meal plans. It’s essential to evaluate your financial situation and decide which option aligns better with your budget.

Think About Time Commitment

The time commitment required is another crucial factor to consider. Trade school programs can typically be completed in a shorter time frame, ranging from a few months to a couple of years, depending on the program. This allows you to enter the workforce sooner and start earning a steady income.

College, on the other hand, usually takes four years to complete for a bachelor’s degree, and even longer for advanced degrees. If you’re looking to get into the workforce quickly, trade school may be the better choice.

However, if you’re willing to invest more time in your education and have long-term career goals that require a higher level of education, college could be the right path for you.

Ultimately, the decision between trade school and college depends on your individual circumstances, career goals, learning style, financial situation, and time commitment. Consider all these factors carefully and make an informed decision that aligns with your aspirations and priorities.

Remember, both trade school and college can provide valuable education and excellent career opportunities, so choose the path that suits you best.

Alternatives and Hybrid Options

While trade schools offer specialized vocational training, there are other alternatives and hybrid options that individuals can consider when deciding whether trade school counts as college. These options provide a blend of practical skills and academic knowledge, offering individuals a well-rounded education.

Apprenticeship Programs

Apprenticeship programs offer hands-on training combined with classroom instruction, making them an excellent alternative to traditional college education. These programs allow individuals to earn a wage while learning a specific trade under the guidance of experienced professionals.

Apprenticeships are available in various industries, including construction, healthcare, manufacturing, and more. Not only do apprenticeships provide valuable skills, but they also often lead to long-term employment opportunities.

Community College Then Transferring

Another hybrid option is to start at a community college and then transfer to a four-year college or university. Community colleges offer a range of vocational programs that can provide individuals with the necessary skills to enter the workforce.

Additionally, community college credits are often transferable to four-year institutions, allowing individuals to continue their education and earn a bachelor’s degree if desired. This option provides flexibility and affordability, making it an attractive choice for many.

Online and Hybrid Trade Programs

In today’s digital age, online and hybrid trade programs have become increasingly popular. These programs offer the convenience of remote learning while providing the necessary practical skills for various trades.

Online trade programs often include virtual simulations and interactive modules to ensure students receive hands-on training. Additionally, hybrid programs combine online coursework with in-person practical training, offering a balanced approach to education.

Institutions like TradeSchools.net provide a comprehensive directory of online and hybrid trade programs available.


Trade school provides focused career and technical training for students interested in skilled trades and manual occupations. While it does not provide the traditional, rounded collegiate experience, trade school graduates earn certifications and licenses that lead directly to employment.

With the right program choice and strong academic performance, trade school can be an affordable path to rewarding, high-paying careers. Carefully weigh the pros and cons and evaluate your career ambitions before deciding between trade school versus college.

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