College vs trade school: How to choose the path for you

Is trade school or college the right choice for you?

You may have already decided that you’re going to keep doing the school thing after high school—but what kind? A traditional college isn’t the only kind of school out there. Trade schools are a thing too! Before you decide what path is best for you, learn what the differences are between college and trade school.

College vs trade school: what’s the difference? 

First things first: what’s college and what’s trade school? The phrases are common enough, but not always talked about in depth. College refers to schools that offer academic degrees in various areas of study. Think things like psychology, advertising, history. They often require students to have a major (a concentrated area of study) and take general classes that teach soft skills like problem-solving and critical thinking. Trade school, or vocational school, refers to schools that provide training in specific trade industries, like construction, health care, technology, and so many more. Students can get more hands-on experience and work on the job as they learn through a trade school.

Admissions process

The admissions process for colleges vs trade schools are a bit different. Colleges often require students to apply with their high school diploma or GED, high school transcripts, essays, letters of recommendation, test scores, and resumes. On the other hand, trade schools typically need just your high school diploma or GED to get admitted.

Cost and length of study

Cost. The number on everyone’s mind—the ticket price for school. College and trade school can have vastly different price tags, with college typically costing much more. The average cost of college per student is $36,436 a yearfootnote 1. This includes tuition, supplies, and living expenses. The cost of college also depends on a few factors:

  • If the student attends a public or private college
  • If the college is in-state or out-of-state
  • If the college is a two-year or four-year school

On the other hand, trade school costs an average of $17,600 per yearfootnote 2

Length. Most colleges take between two to four years for students to complete all graduation requirements. Trade schools tend to be much quicker and could require just a few months of study to two yearsfootnote 3. The amount of time in school can impact how much it costs to attend as well.

Credentials you earn upon graduation

The most important thing about going to school is what you can get out of it! For students who go to college, they’re earning associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees. These degrees can help them find jobs in particular fields. Trade school students earn diplomas or certificates that can enable them to work in their trade of choice in an apprenticeship or full-time job position.


Whether you go to college or a trade school, each type of school has its pros. You’ll have better odds of getting a job in a field you’re passionate about—isn’t that what going to school is all about? Plus, colleges and trade schools both tend to accept financial aid to help you pay to attend. At the end of the day, whichever school you choose will be the best choice for you.

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

footnote External links and third-party references are provided for informational purposes only. Sallie Mae cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided by any third parties and assumes no responsibility for any errors or omissions contained therein. Any copyrights, trademarks, and/or service marks used in these materials are the property of their respective owners.

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