Trade School vs. College: Making the Right Choice for Your Future

Tyler York

After high school, many people think about going to college for higher income potential. According to NCES or National Center for Educational Statistics, a bachelor’s degree can earn a graduate about $16,900 more per year compared to a high school diploma holder. That’s a whopping $500,000 over a 30-year career. However, college isn’t the best fit for everyone due to rising costs and other drawbacks.

Trade schools offer a compelling alternative. They provide specialized training and direct career pathways, and are often focused on high paying jobs that are not typically trained for at four year universities. Jobs that trade schools cover can include electricians, locksmiths, mechanics, HVAC specialists, and more. Let’s find out more about trade schools and the tradeoffs you make between trade schools and colleges.

College pros and cons

Photo by Zhanhui Li on Unsplash

So let’s dig into it: what are the pros and cons of going to college? Below, we outline the various ‘double edged swords’ that college offers. 38% of Americans enroll in college, so you’re certainly not alone in making this choice, and a college degree undoubtedly offers a lot of upside. But now that high costs and other factors are weighing heavier on college students, it’s important to go into the decision with both eyes open.


Imagine spending a solid four years pursuing a bachelor’s degree and graduating at the age of 22. It’s even longer if you’re pursuing a medical degree. That means you’ve missed out on experiencing the “real world” and getting a headstart with your career by years. 

However, the time you spend in college offers chances to expand your skills and knowledge. When you’re a college student, opportunities to explore different subjects, discover new interests, and meet people from all walks of life abound. These experiences not only sharpen your critical thinking but also cultivate cultural awareness and provide a well-rounded education. Furthermore, there is a lot of opportunity in having adult freedom without the responsibilities of a job – many consider college to be the best years of their lives.

Among survey respondents who graduated from a four-year college, 74% say their college education was very useful in helping them grow intellectually; 69% say it was very useful in helping them grow and mature as a person; and 55% say it was very useful in helping them prepare for a job or career.

Is College Worth It?,

High Cost

Well, we all know this: college education comes with a hefty price tag. A bachelor’s degree in the United States costs around $127,000, according to research done by the Idaho Department of Labor. To pay this price tag, 70% of those who choose to go to college take out student loans to pay their tuition and many end up owing a large portion of those loans after graduation. And let’s not forget about the other expenses too. If you’re an out-of-state student, you will have to pay dorm fees on top of other daily costs, such as meals, supplies, and extracurricular activities.

And on the other hand, that $127,000 cost could be well worth it depending on the line of work that you get into and the salary that you can secure. Remember the $500,000 that you could make over the next 30 years? That is an almost 4X return on your investment! That said, 30 years is a long time and these results are not guaranteed. 

Dropout Rate

Not surprisingly, you’ll need to complete college in order to receive these benefits (except for some extraordinary exceptions). Surprisingly, statistics from the Institute of Education reveal that a significant 40% of students enrolled in a four-year college program drop out before obtaining their degree. This high dropout rate is a cause for concern, especially considering that even among those who do graduate, 64% take more than four years to complete their studies. Not only does this extended timeframe incur additional expenses, but it also delays their entry into the workforce, hindering their career progression. These blended costs come out to $70,000 per year according to the US News and World Report. Those considering college should make sure they have a firm commitment to graduating – and graduating on time – unless they want to incur significant additional costs.

Employment Outlook

The job market for college graduates has changed since the 2007 financial crisis, leading to higher unemployment rates among young individuals entering the job market. Data from the Economic Policy Institute indicates that these rates nearly doubled between 2007 and 2014 to 8.7% unemployment and 16.8% underemployment for recent college graduates. This creates challenges for new graduates who face fewer job prospects alongside the burden of student loan debt.

Conversely, a college education is often a de-facto requirement for the highest paying industries like tech and finance. Furthermore, a college education provides students with a curriculum that prioritizes theoretical knowledge, critical thinking skills, and a broad understanding of various subjects relevant to their chosen field. While this approach may require graduates to seek additional training for specific job roles, the advantage lies in the versatility and adaptability of their education, opening doors to diverse career paths beyond a singular focus.

Photo by Azhar Munir Din on Unsplash

Trade school as the savvy alternative?

What is a trade school?

Trade schools, also known as vocational schools, specialize in trade-specific training, with programs that last for two years or less. It focuses on teaching practical skills rather than general education courses. Trade schools, much like college, offer training in various fields such as nursing, electrician work, and culinary arts, which often have high demand and competitive wages. Some trades teach students entry-level skills that allow them to get employment where they then continue their training on the job.

The value of trade schools lies in their differences from four-year bachelor’s programs. Let’s talk about them here:

Time and Cost

Attending a trade school instead of pursuing a bachelor’s degree can lead to significant cost savings. On average, a trade school degree costs around $33,000, which is a remarkable $94,000 less than the average cost of a bachelor’s degree priced at $127,000. Taking into account loans with 4% interest over 10 years, the savings on a trade school degree amount to $114,000 compared to a bachelor’s degree costing $154,000. While most students find other sources of income to help with their education expenses, the average student debt for college graduates is approximately $29,900, compared to just $10,000 for students graduating from a two-year technical school.

Aside from the lower cost, trade schools offer the advantage of a shorter graduation timeline. Most programs can be completed in two years or less, and some disciplines have even shorter pathways. With multiple start dates throughout the year, applicants who missed certain enrollment dates may experience reduced waiting times. However, it’s important to note that certain trade school disciplines may still require additional training or licensure, similar to careers that demand a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Job Security and In-Demand Careers

Attending a technical trade school offers several advantages, including the stability of jobs that are difficult to export overseas. Many jobs in sectors like computer programming can easily be outsourced, but trade school jobs such as carpentry and electrical work require a physical presence, making them less susceptible to outsourcing. Moreover, there is a growing demand for high-precision skills, and as the older skilled trade workers retire, there are increased opportunities for young workers to fill those positions.

Trade schools also focus on preparing graduates for in-demand careers, offering pathways to essential professions, specialized high-paying jobs, and rapidly growing technical roles. Skilled technician roles like wind turbine technicians and solar photovoltaic installers are among the top trade school jobs. Essential careers such as plumbers, electricians, and ironworkers remain in high demand even during economic fluctuations. Companies seeking to fill these positions prioritize candidates with trade school skills and certifications, often leading to job offers immediately after graduation. As one student from Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics, an aircraft maintenance school, shared, job offers are almost guaranteed for trade school graduates.

Salary Potential

Trade school graduates earn comparable salaries to those with a four-year degree. With a median annual salary of around $35,720, trade school jobs differ by roughly $11,180 compared to bachelor’s degree holders earning about $46,900. However, trade school programs take just two years, providing graduates with an extra two years of income, amounting to approximately $71,440. When considering the added costs and time spent in college, trade school grads can be over $140,000 ahead, bridging the income gap. 

Location also impacts trade job salaries, with higher wages found on the East and West Coasts. Electricians, for instance, earn between $70,000 in California and $79,000 in New York. Prospective students should research local salaries before pursuing trade programs for insights into potential earnings.

Photo by Brian Stegman on Unsplash

Consider the road less traveled

It should be noted that the value of a four-year degree is not being dismissed. It can open doors and lead to higher lifetime earnings. However, trade school presents a viable and often overlooked alternative for individuals who are hands-on learners, don’t want to be burdened by high cost or loans, and eager to enter the workforce as soon as possible.

As you approach high school graduation or support someone making this decision, consider trade school as a wise alternative. Explore the wide range of opportunities that it offers. It’s crucial to explore your options and assess your personal learning styles and career aspirations. Remember, sometimes choosing the less conventional path can lead to extraordinary journeys.

Achievable ACT - $129
Achievable's ACT course includes endless math quizzes, hand-crafted practice exams, and our easy-to-understand online textbook (including the Writing section) with proven strategies to hit your target score.
View ACT prep course
Desktop and mobile screenshots of Achievable ACT
All rights reserved ©2016 - 2023 Achievable, Inc.