Choosing a college, trade school, or apprenticeship

Learn all the differences between the three

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 and apprenticeships exist too! Before you decide what path is best for you, learn what the differences are between college, trade school, and an apprenticeship.

College vs trade school vs apprenticeships: what’s the difference?

First things first: what’s college, what’s trade school, and what’s an apprenticeship? 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, and 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 in-class and on-the-job training in specific trade industries, like construction, health care, technology, and so many more. Students can get more hands-on experience as they learn through a trade school.

Apprenticeships are positions where students are paid while receiving on-the-job training by a professional in the field. As they develop more skills, their salary may increase as well.footnote 1 Common fields for apprenticeships are manufacturing, transportation, cosmetology, and more.

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Admissions process

The admissions process for colleges compared to trade schools and apprenticeships 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.

Apprenticeships often require a diploma or GED as well, but they may also need a resume with relevant experience for the position you’re looking for. An employer or apprenticeship program will then follow up with an interview.

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 year.footnote 2 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 year.footnote 3

Apprenticeships are often considered the most affordable option of these three, as the only cost of the position goes towards the tools you need to do the job. You’re also getting paid to learn, so money is always coming in.

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 one to two years of study.footnote 4 The amount of time in school can impact how much it costs to attend as well. The duration of an apprenticeship depends on the type of work being done, but they can last anywhere from one to six years.footnote 5

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. After finishing an apprenticeship, students can be awarded a certificate of completion.


Whether you go to college, trade school, or do an apprenticeship, each type of program 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, all three 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.

footnote Sallie Mae, the Sallie Mae logo, and other Sallie Mae names and logos are service marks or registered service marks of Sallie Mae Bank. All other names and logos used are the trademarks or service marks of their respective owners. 

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