Community College vs. Trade School

Updated  September 14, 2016 |
Community College vs. Trade School
Is community college or trade school a better fit for your career of choice?

After you graduate from high school you find yourself thrust out into the world with an endless array of possibilities. For many people, the years after high school are filled with more school, typically at a 4-year university. Another option, however, is community college where you can receive an education (or at least take some of your classes) at a lower tuition than traditional universities in preparation for your future. Another option many people consider is trade school. But what is the difference between community college and trade school, and how do you know which option is right for you?

What Exactly is Trade School?

Also known as a technical school or a vocational school, a trade school is a program that offers students hands-on experience related to a specific career. Some of the careers that you can look forward to with a degree from a trade school include skilled labor positions like electricians, machinists, mechanics, pharmacy technicians, dental hygienists, and nuclear technicians. Compared to four-year schools that require students to take electives or general education courses, the education you receive at a trade school is more streamlined and the curricula focuses on developing a specific skillset and knowledge base to ensure success in your chosen career. Many trade school programs also require students to complete some kind of apprenticeship where they work with a professional in their chosen field to learn more about the occupation by doing the job.

The average starting salary for a trade school graduate is about $35,720 compared to about $46,900 for a bachelor degree-holder. You have to consider, however, the fact that most trade school programs only last for 2 years and degrees cost an average of $33,000. A bachelor’s degree takes two years (or more) longer to complete and can cost nearly $100,000 more, all told. So, while a trade school graduate may not start off with a salary as high as a college graduate, he is likely to have significantly less debt and he enters the workforce two years earlier which can significantly increase his lifelong earnings. One downside to consider is the fact that college graduates can increase their salary by furthering their education or by completing additional certificates – for many trade school graduates, increases in earnings are directly related to their years of experience, though there are some certificate options which could allow you to specialize and earn more.

What are the Drawbacks of Community College?

Once you have decided to further your education after high school, your main two options are college or trade school. While it may seem like a simple decision to make, there are many factors to consider and the choice you make will have a significant impact on your future. If you hope to start a career in academia or if you aren’t quite sure what direction your education might take you, community college could be a good choice. With more affordable tuition than a 4-year university or college and a variety of online class options, community college can enable you to sample a number of different career options or you can use it to fulfill your prerequisites before transferring to a 4-year college.

Although there are a number of significant benefits associated with community college, it is a very different experience than attending a trade school. Some of the potential drawbacks of community college when compared to trade school may include the following:

  • Most trade school programs can be completed in 2 years versus most bachelor’s programs which take 4 years to complete – community college degrees can be completed in either 2 or 4 years, depending on the program.
  • According to recent studies, the average cost of a bachelor’s degree is about $127,000 and nearly 70% of students need to take out loans in order to pay for college – most trade school degrees cost an average of $33,000.
  • Many community college and university programs offer theoretical knowledge and lecture-style learning with the exception of education (most programs require students to engage in student teaching as a method of hands-on learning) – trade schools are more hands-on in general and focused toward the skills needed for your chosen career.
  • There is a 40% dropout rate for students at 4-year colleges (according to the Institute of Education Statistics) and 65% of students who complete their degree actually take longer than 4 years to do so.
  • Job prospects for community college graduates (or college graduates in general) are not as bright as many expect them to be – there is an 8.5% unemployment rate and 16.8% underemployment rate for college graduates under 25.
  • Community colleges provide a more rounded education and students are often required to take general education courses in subjects such as mathematics and writing, even if it is not specifically relevant to their degree – trade school curricula are more hands-on and focused on the skills needed for your chosen profession.

One of the key differences between community college and trade school is that many trades are learned through apprenticeship programs – you actually work (and earn money) while completing your degree. Trade school graduates also have a higher degree of job security in many cases because the type of job you get with a trade school degree is difficult to outsource to another country and there is a growing need for high-precision skill work in the United States. Furthermore, as many of the nation’s skilled trade workers continue to get older, there are more and more opportunities for younger workers to step in and take their places.

Which Option is Best for You?

Choosing a college or trade school program is no easy decision because there are so many options to think about and each situation is unique. If you have a general idea what area you want to focus on for your future career but you don’t have any specifics lined up, a 4-year college or community college degree might provide you with the well-rounded education you need to survey the options and to hone in on your specialty. If you already know that you want to pursue a career in a skilled profession, trade school might be the better option. You will also need to secure an apprenticeship to learn the necessary skills through a hands-on approach.

Education is always changing, so the school program that is best for a certain career path one year might not be the same as the best option the following year. In the end, you really need to figure out what your career goals are and then choose your educational path to work toward that goal. Now that you know the basics about trade school and how it compares and contrasts with community college as well as 4-year colleges, you have a foundation of knowledge on which to base your decision. In the end, the program you choose will be determined by your career of choice.

The truth of the matter is that trade school is simply the better option for certain professions while other career options are best served by a 4-year degree. Do your research and really think about which option is the best fit for you before you decide – that is the best way to ensure your success now and in the future. Education is your best asset when it comes time to enter the workforce!


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