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Trade School vs. College: How to Decide Which Is Right for You

Trade School vs. College: How to Decide Which Is Right for You

trade school vs college how to decide which is right

After high school, there’s a variety of paths you can take — trade school, college, military service. It’s like a real-life choose-your-own-adventure game. In theory, all of these routes lead you to the same final destination: a fulfilling career. But the way they get you there varies widely. Some routes are short and to the point, providing you with a complete set of skills you can then turn around and use to make money for the rest of your life, like trade school. Others are longer, windier, and more exploratory, like law school or grad school.

In this guide, we’re going over the path less traveled: trade school. We’re covering everything you need to know about going from high school to trade school, and why it’s a great, often-overlooked option for many different kinds of students.

What Is Trade School?

Trade school, also known as vocational school, is a postsecondary (meaning you enroll after high school) training program that readies students for specific careers. Trade schools may teach students skills in fields such as information technology (IT), heating and cooling (HVAC), carpentry, nursing, plumbing, electricity, welding, dental hygiene, and more. 

Welcome to the Trade School Path

welcome to trade school path quoteWelcome to the trade school path. This option is seized by only a small portion of high school graduates, with more and more students choosing the path of academia. In the past several decades, there has been a steep decline in students pursuing the skilled trades, which has led to an influx in college enrollment (about a 28 percent increase in the past 20 years) while also creating a significant skilled labor shortage in the United States. 

What does this mean for you, future tradesperson? Well, for one: money! Among the best trade jobs are a number of high-paid roles that you can learn in under a year or two. For example, HVAC technicians earn a median pay of about $47,610 per year and dental hygienists earn a median pay of about $74,820 per year, and both routes take significantly less time and money to complete than a bachelor’s degree. Another thing the skilled trades shortage means for you is that jobs in this realm tend to have a higher level of security and a stronger outlook than many others.

Is Trade School Right for You?

Although trade school graduates have a high earning potential and can reap the benefits of a stable, rewarding career, this path is not always right for everyone. Here are some reasons why you might choose the trade school path over college.

  • You want to work with your hands. Although not every trade school path involves manual labor or working with your hands, if you’re a natural-born tinkerer, pursuing a skilled trade such as plumbing or electrical work may be a better option than pursuing a traditional desk job.
  • You aren’t super interested in the arts or humanities. Though some trade school programs can take up to three years, they typically don’t include the same broad spectrum of coursework that a traditional liberal arts education might. For example, you probably won’t be taking courses in philosophy, sociology, or art history in trade school, so if these things interest you, enrolling in a traditional four-year college may be a better choice.
  • Campus life doesn’t appeal to you. It costs a whole lot more and takes more time, but college does have some amazing benefits that will affect you for the rest of your life. Campus life is appealing to students who want to pursue extracurriculars, such as sports, clubs, and societies, or participate in Greek life. What’s more, trade schools usually don’t offer the option to live on-campus with fellow students, which may be something to consider if you’re the social type.
  • students graduate with debt quoteYou want to land a high-paying job relatively quickly. Some skilled trades take years to learn. For example, plumbers and electricians generally apprentice for four to five years before they can work on their own in the field. However, the difference between this and studying in college is that tradespeople generally learn as they earn, with many holding good-paying jobs and apprenticeships as they master the skills they can use for the rest of their lives.
  • You don’t want to go into debt. The sad fact is that the vast majority of students (nearly 70 percent) graduate from a four-year college with student loan debt, with most students owing somewhere between $26,900 and $39,900 upon graduation. Given that it’s more affordable and that many programs allow students to earn money and work as they go, trade school may provide a debt-free, postsecondary option for those who want to learn a skilled trade.

Get Your Trade On

One important question every high school student needs to ask themselves is this: where do I see myself in 10 years? How you spend the next few years will determine your life for the foreseeable and distant future, and the best thing you can do to make sure you reach your goals is to spend some time thinking about all your options. Trade school and college are two options that are well worth your consideration!