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What is a Trade School vs College? Learn the Difference & Which is Better

a female student works on an engineering project in a trade school

Choosing the right path to take after high school can feel daunting. You have an exciting future ahead of you and want to make the right choices.

Two popular routes to take after high school are going to college or going to a trade school. Each of these paths has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. So it's essential to evaluate them carefully before deciding on either of the two. 

This article will explain how trade schools and colleges work and what you'll learn at each of them. So let's jump in now. 

What is a Trade School?

A trade school, or a vocational or technical school, is an educational institution that provides hands-on training for trades and skilled occupations. Trade schools typically offer a variety of programs that can prepare you for careers in fields such as construction, automotive repair, welding, cosmetology, culinary arts, and more.

What you'll learn at a trade school

Trade schools focus on providing practical and job-specific training rather than the broad-based liberal arts education you'll find at a college. Trade schools also offer a wide range of programs that vary in length and focus. Some may take just a few months to complete, while others may take a few years. After completing one of these programs, you might obtain a certificate, diploma, or associate degree, depending on the school and program.

Trade schools typically instruct students through classroom lectures and activities, hands-on training, and real-world experience. For example, if you attended a trade school's automotive repair program, you'd get hands-on experience working on actual cars. You would learn how to diagnose and repair common problems like engine, electrical, and brake issues. You may also learn to perform routine maintenance tasks like oil changes and tire rotations.

Another example is a trade school that offers a culinary arts program. In this instance, you'd learn about food preparation, nutrition, menu planning, and other essential skills for working in the food service industry. Within the program, you may also be able to work in a commercial kitchen, catering events, or even run a pop-up restaurant.

What is a College?

As you probably already know, a college is a higher education institution that provides a two-year or four-year degree with majors such as business, engineering, arts, sciences, humanities, and more.

What you'll learn at a college

The curriculum in a college is usually designed to give you a well-rounded education that includes theoretical and practical knowledge. Therefore, colleges typically require you to take various courses across different disciplines, including those outside your major. This broad-based education helps you develop critical thinking, analytical, and communication skills that will help you in any career you choose.

Depending on what you choose to study, the method of instruction in college will be heavily concentrated on classroom lectures, but you will also have exposure to hands-on activities and real-world experience.

Colleges offer undergraduate degrees, like a Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BS), and Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA). They also offer graduate degrees, like a Master of Science (MS) or a Master of Arts (MA), or even doctoral degrees, like a Doctor of Fine Arts (DFA).

Additional college experiences

One of the benefits of attending a college is the abundant extracurricular activities and resources available for students. On a college campus, you'll usually find clubs and organizations, sporting events, and other activities to help you explore your interests and develop new skills. Colleges also have libraries, research facilities, and other resources to support your learning.

Moreover, you will usually have the opportunity to live on your college campus in a dorm or student housing, which gives you exposure to the college experience.

Finally, attending a college provides abundant networking opportunities. This can be useful for developing social and professional connections that will support you as you transition into the workforce after graduation. Many graduates remain connected to their college's alumni network their entire lives. 

Why Go to College? 6 Reasons It Could Be the Better Choice

Going to college offers distinct and long-term benefits. We'll cover some of the most common now.

  1. More Career Opportunities

College degrees open up more career opportunities than trade school degrees. A college degree is usually enough to get your foot in the door for countless different careers, whereas a trade school degree provides precisely what you need for one type of work.

For instance, if you have a trade school certification and eventually want to do something different, you'll have to return to school to learn a new trade or obtain your college degree. But if you have a liberal arts college degree and decide to do something else, it's far easier to make that transition. Since the average person now has several different careers in their lifetime, you can see why a college degree comes out on top here. 

  1. Higher Earning Potential

College graduates, on average, earn more over their lifetime than individuals who attended a trade school. While trade school degrees can lead to high-paying jobs in specific fields, college degrees provide a broader range of career opportunities, often leading to better-earning potential.

  1. Greater Flexibility & Job Portability

The rise of the digital nomad was primarily driven by college graduates who could enjoy job portability via laptops. Now, companies of all sizes have opened up remote work options for their full-time employees to attract and retain the best talent. The catch is that this job portability is difficult to achieve with a skilled trade job. Instead, it's the college-educated worker who primarily benefits from this flexibility. 

  1. Better Work Schedules

Generally, college degrees tend to open up white-collar job opportunities associated with more traditional daytime work schedules. These jobs usually come with nights and weekends off. Conversely, skilled trade work often comes with a more variable work schedule that sometimes requires being on call or working nights and weekends. This is just a generalization, of course. Each job is different and will have different conditions and expectations. 

  • Better Rates of Employability

A 2021 National Center for Education Statistics report shows that 25- to 34-year-old college graduates are employed at a far higher rate than their non-college-educated peers. This study shows that while some trades might be currently experiencing a shortage of workers, that's not true for all trades. Moreover, a college degree generally ensures greater upward mobility and long-term employability than a trade certification does. 

College graduates have an even more pronounced advantage when it comes to the jobs of tomorrow. A report released by Georgetown University shows that 99% of jobs created since the 2008 recession were awarded to candidates with postsecondary degrees

  1. Greater Personal Development

College provides a more comprehensive education that goes beyond technical skills, which is just another reason why going to college is important. Attending college helps you develop critical thinking, communication, and analytical skills useful in all aspects of life. College also offers opportunities for personal growth through extracurricular activities and exposure to diverse perspectives. 

Still Deciding Between College vs. Trade Schools? Take Our Majors Quiz

Trade schools and colleges both have their advantages and disadvantages. Trade schools are cheaper and offer specialized training, whereas colleges provide a more comprehensive education, a wider range of job opportunities, better long-term employability, and greater earning potential. 

If you want to learn more about college to see if it's a right fit for you, we suggest taking our college majors quiz.

Our college majors quiz will give you a better idea of the types of college majors out there and which might be a good fit for you. You'll answer a few questions about your working style, personality, and interests and then see possible majors and career options. Simply click the button below to get started. 

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