What Is the Difference Between Trade School and College?

Choosing your next step after high school can be overwhelming, especially with the plethora of options for students now. From trade school and college to going into the military, it’s important to know what each route entails to see if it’s right for you. 

Particularly, knowing the difference between trade school and college can change the trajectory of your educational and professional career. In fact, a lot of students are now choosing to go to trade school (also known as technical or vocational school). But, that can bring up some important questions. Is trade school the same as college? What’s the difference between trade school and college? 

Don't base your decision on a campus tour

Flickr user Aigars Mahinovs

Don’t worry, we break it down for you so you can make the most informed choice as you choose your life path after graduating high school.  

Difference Between Trade School and College

1. Price: College Cost vs. Trade School Cost

It’s no secret that the cost of education is one of the biggest factors for students to consider when they want to pursue higher education. Without financial aid, scholarships, or loans, a lot of students wouldn’t be able to go to college. That said, one major difference between trade school and college is the price. 

According to the Education Data Initiative, the total cost of attendance (tuition and fees, supplies, and room and board) for a student at a public institution is $25,707 per year or $102,828 over four years. 

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average cost of technical school for trade school students can vary between $3,863 and $15,549, depending on the type of institution they attend. 

For many students, the price difference alone can make it more appealing to attend a trade school, but there are a few other factors to consider. 

2. Course and Programs

The courses and programs available are another big difference between trade school and college. You may hear people call trade school vocational school because of how it’s set up for students to learn the ins and outs of a specific trade, whether that’s as an electrician, plumber, hair stylist, or CT technician. Conversely, in college classes, there is a greater focus on teaching concepts that can be applied on a broader scale.

For instance, if you are studying business in college, you will take four years’ worth of classes that teach you about economics, mathematics, accounting, communications, and so forth. In the beginning, these classes will be very broad so that you can learn about each subject comprehensively. It’s not until the latter half of college that your courses become as concentrated as trade school courses. Upon graduating with an undergraduate degree, it is up to you to take what you’ve learned in all of your college courses and showcase to potential employers how the concepts you’ve studied have prepared you for their job opportunities. 

In a trade school, you’re still learning concepts, but you’re focused on the chosen profession or career field you like rather than learning general ideas. It’s career-focused training essentially. For example, if you’re going to trade school to become a welder, you’ll learn concepts about welding, not philosophy or other general courses that traditional college students learn.

In college, it’s not focused on your exact occupation though you’ll still learn things that will be applicable to your future job. The traditional college experience includes a variety of general education courses that trade school students just don’t take. 

3. Time For Completion

When you think about going to college, you likely think you’ll finish in four years. Though that is a common concept and the standard for many schools and students, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) states that it takes the average student up to six years to complete a four-year degree. When you get a traditional four-year degree, you’ll complete around 120 college credits over the course of your education. 

When you attend a trade school, it usually takes around two years to complete trade programs, and you must finish a certain number of hours doing your trade in practice to receive your certification. For example, if you’re going to a cosmetology school you must complete around 1,200 hours of specialized training depending on which state you’re receiving your certification in. 

4. Admissions Requirements

The entire college admission process can be overwhelming for students. Most schools will need your transcripts, standardized test scores, application essay, and other supplemental things like letters of recommendation. While that may not seem like a lot, when you’re applying to multiple schools it easily becomes redundant and expensive. 

When you apply to trade school, it’s usually more simple and the requirements aren’t as long as college. When you start your trade school application process, you’ll first pick a trade and a school you want to attend that is accredited. You’ll fill out an application and show your proof of GED or high school diploma. After you’ve applied, you’ll do an interview with an admissions representative and then take a trade school admissions test. The whole process is pretty short and straightforward which is why a lot of students choose to do it!

5. Real-World Application/Job Preparation

There are people with college degrees and trade school certifications working every day so we’re not saying one is better than the other for employment opportunities. But one of the biggest differences between trade school and college is the job preparation aspect. 

When you’re in trade or vocational school, you’re learning your skills as you’re learning the concepts in the classroom. If you’re going to trade school to become an electrician, you’ll quickly start doing electrical work while you’re learning so you can learn the skills as you go rather than waiting until you get your certification to start doing it.

When you’re in college, you’re learning the concepts first in the classroom with minimal real-world application opportunities. If you’re going to school to become an accountant, you won’t be doing accounting work as you’re learning the concepts. 

So to answer your question of what’s the difference between trade school and college, it’s these five key things! Understanding the difference between trade school and college will help you choose the right one for your future. Think about the career field you want to pursue and see if it’s best to get a specific degree from a college or participate in vocational programs. 

The possibilities are endless for students so finding the right fit for you may be different than your peers! And if you’re leaning toward attending college, make sure to use College Raptor to find a personalized college match and even FREE scholarships.