Skip to Main Content Skip to bottom Skip to Chat, Email, Text

Key differences between trade school and college

At a glance

  • Colleges offer an academic education that prepares you for a variety of paths ranging from career-related business, technology or healthcare jobs to general knowledge enhancement to serve the community.
  • Trade schools focus on specialized technical training for a particular vocation, like working as a mechanic or electrician.
  • College offers a more well-rounded approach to education that includes studies in subjects outside one’s chosen degree program.
  • If college is in your future, explore University of Phoenix’s more than 100 online programs that are aligned to more than 300 real-world careers.x.

Understanding the differences between college and trade school

Whether you’ve just graduated from high school or are already a working professional looking for a career change, college and trade schools are both viable education options. Each provides distinct advantages and opportunities.

College is often associated with an academic education that allows students to prepare for a wide range of occupations within a field of study. Trade schools are known to offer more specialized training, which may be better suited to specific technical vocations.

When considering trade school versus college, you must factor in your career goals. College may be the right choice if you plan to pursue a degree in a field that requires a breadth of skills, such as business or IT. Trade school, on the other hand, can be more suitable for those looking to enter trades and technical fields that rely on specialized training, such as carpentry or plumbing.

If you’re deciding on which path to choose, the following explores benefits and opportunities of both options, so you can be better prepared to make an informed choice. 

What is trade school?

A trade school is a type of educational institution that offers specialized, career-specific training in manual and technical vocations. Trade schools prepare students with the necessary knowledge and skills to work in specific fields, such as:

  • Construction
  • Auto mechanics
  • Welding
  • HVAC
  • Carpentry
  • Cosmetology

This type of education teaches how to apply trade-specific knowledge, tools and techniques, giving students the foundation to gain entry-level employment in a skilled trade of their choice.

What is college? 

A college is an educational institution where students pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees. Colleges are designed to provide a comprehensive education that covers practical and theoretical aspects of a chosen field of study with a breadth of knowledge.

At the undergraduate collegiate level, students typically take general education courses  as part of their degree program in several areas, such as:

  • Science
  • English
  • History
  • Psychology
  • Mathematics
  • Foreign language
  • Political science

General education courses help students learn how to think critically, analyze data and solve problems — skills essential for many careers or to be a valuable contributor to society at large. The general education portion of an undergraduate degree program is combined with a major or required course of study portion of the degree, which provides students a depth of knowledge in their chosen discipline to contribute to their field of study.

Beyond undergraduate programs, colleges also typically offer graduate-level education for those looking to pursue a master’s degree or research in a particular field. Graduate-level degree programs are designed to refine students’ knowledge and skills even further and can sometimes include real-life applications.

College vs. trade school programs  

Before choosing a program, it’s important to consider your educational and career goals as well as the following processes, requirements and costs.

Admissions 

Admissions for trade schools may require only a high school diploma or a GED, but applicants’ aptitude for the trade they want to pursue will impact their admission.

On the other hand, college admission requirements tend to require a formal application and other materials such as letters of recommendation, transcripts, test scores and essays. In addition, college admissions processes can be competitive because of the limited number of spaces available and the number of applicants.

There are also open enrollment institutions such as University of Phoenix. No SAT or GMAT scores are required to be admitted. Traditional essays are also not required. The following are required for eligibility:

  • Be at least 16 years old at the time of application if applying to a bachelor’s degree program
  • Be a citizen or permanent resident of the United States or hold an approved, valid visa if residing in the United States
  • Not have been expelled from a previous institution
  • Complete all required forms for admission as well as submit official test scores and official transcripts from all colleges and universities you’ve attended

Duration 

The time to complete a trade school program is typically shorter than that of college degrees. Trade schools usually offer one-year or two-year certifications or two-year specialized associate degrees. At colleges, bachelor’s degree programs usually take four years to finish. Shorter trade school programs can benefit those looking to enter the job market sooner or with limited time and resources to devote to a college degree.

Nevertheless, there are ways for college students to earn their degrees faster. For example, some colleges allow students to take accelerated classes or pursue dual-enrollment programs that combine high school and college courses. Moreover, online degree programs often offer flexible schedules.

Cost

The cost of college and trade school can vary greatly depending on several factors, such as the type of institution (public or private), living arrangements and the length of the program. Trade schools sometimes accept scholarships and grants, but they may be limited compared to those accepted by college programs.

College tuition can be more expensive than trade school tuition depending on your school of choice. However, there are several ways students can explore paying for college such as:

  • Financial aid: Money awarded to students based on their financial needs.
  • Scholarship opportunities: Awards given to students who demonstrate exemplary academic performance, talent or other specified parameters.
  • Grants: Funds provided by the government that can be used for tuition, books and other college-related expenses. These funds typically do not have to be repaid.
  • Tuition reimbursement programs: Some companies offer tuition reimbursement programs to their employees so they can further their education without paying out of pocket.

When looking at cost, it’s important to understand the difference between grants and scholarships. Grants are typically need-based, while scholarships can be based on merit, interests, experiences and other factors. Furthermore, while scholarships and grants usually don’t have to be repaid, scholarships may require repayment if the student fails to fulfill specific requirements such as a certain grade point average.

What education do you earn in trade school?

Trade school programs typically offer certificates or diplomas that can be earned in lieu of a college degree. Certificates generally take less time to earn than a college degree, anywhere from several months to two years and are geared toward a career-focused goal.

Certificates and industry certifications often cover specialized knowledge and technical skills individuals can apply to specific jobs or roles. Certificates and industry certifications may require less investment of time and money to enter a specific vocation or job, but may not be transferable across locations or employers if you want to advance your education later on.

Career opportunities for college graduates 

Just as a college education involves more time and areas of study, the career paths available to college graduates are diverse.

Of course, the career a college graduate chooses depends on a variety of factors, such as degree level, area of study, location and experience. Graduates may choose to work in areas like healthcare, business, information technology, education or nursing, or in the nonprofit sector.

At University of Phoenix (UOPX), college graduates often pursue careers in the following industries:

  • Business: Whether students wish to pursue their entrepreneurial goals or climb the corporate ladder, online business degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate levels offer plenty of opportunity.
  • Information technology: The growing field of information technology answers many interests, from cybersecurity to data analysis to network architecture.
  • Nursing: Designed for registered nurses looking to enhance their nursing practice, the nursing degrees at UOPX can lead to a variety of careers, from nurse educators to nurse practitioners.
  • Healthcare: Working in healthcare doesn’t always involve patient-facing roles. From administration to management to public health, online healthcare degrees at UOPX can prepare graduates for rewarding careers that impact the healthcare industry.
  • Education: Aspiring teachers can pursue such specialties as early education, special education, curriculum design and more with a college degree.
  • Criminal justice: College graduates can pursue careers in corrections, court systems, law enforcement and security with a criminal justice degree from UOPX.
  • Behavioral sciences: From social work to counseling, students who earn an undergraduate degree in the behavioral sciences can dedicate their careers to helping others.
  • Psychology: Merging the art of understanding human behavior with the science of business and productivity, psychology degrees at UOPX can lead to such career paths as human resources specialist, training and development specialist, and communications specialist.

Career opportunities for trade school graduates

Since a trade focuses on a singular area of expertise, graduates have a focused career path in a more linear direction based on their area of study. University of Phoenix is not a trade school, but institutions that do offer trade education may lead to employment in skilled trades such as:

  • Plumber*: Plumbers are responsible for installing, repairing and maintaining plumbing systems in homes and businesses.
  • Electrician*: Electricians install, maintain and repair electrical equipment such as wiring, circuit boards, motors and transformers.
  • Automotive mechanic*: Mechanics specialize in repairing and maintaining vehicles.

Ultimately, the decision between going to one or the other should be based on individual goals in alignment with job outcomes.

*University of Phoenix is not a trade school and does not offer a program that guarantees alignment with career requirements.

How to pursue your educational goals

Deciding you want to go to a university or trade school is only part of the equation. It’s also important to understand how the admission process, program duration and tuition costs all break down.

Admissions 

Admissions for trade schools may require only a high school diploma or a GED, but applicants’ aptitude for the trade they want to pursue will impact their admission.

On the other hand, college admission requirements tend to require a formal application and materials such as letters of recommendation, transcripts, test scores and essays. In addition, college admissions can be competitive because of the limited number of spaces available.

There are also open enrollment institutions such as UOPX. No SAT or GMAT scores are required to be admitted. Traditional essays are also not required. The following criteria are required for eligibility at UOPX:

  • Be at least 16 years old at the time of application if applying to a bachelor’s degree program
  • Earned an acceptable high school diploma, GED equivalent or other secondary completion credential as outlined in University policy
  • Be a citizen or permanent resident of the United States or hold an approved, valid visa if residing in the United States
  • Not have been expelled from a previous institution
  • Complete all required forms for admission as well as submit official test scores and official transcripts from all colleges and universities you’ve attended

Duration 

As mentioned, the time to complete a trade program is typically shorter than that of college degrees. Some certificates can be completed in under a year, while other programs can take up to two years, depending on the certification or specialized credential or vocational degree being earned.

At traditional colleges, bachelor’s programs usually take four years, although there are ways for college students to earn their degrees faster. For example, some colleges allow students to take accelerated classes or pursue dual-enrollment programs that combine high school and college courses. Additionally, online degree programs often offer flexible schedules that can allow students to complete their degree faster.

Cost

The cost of college and trade school can vary greatly depending on several factors, such as the type of institution (public or private), living arrangements and the length of the program. Trade schools sometimes accept scholarships and grants, but they may be limited compared to those accepted by college programs.

College tuition can be more expensive than trade school tuition, depending on your school of choice. However, students can explore several ways to pay for college, such as:

  • Financial aid: Money awarded to students based on their financial needs or those who qualify. Vocational schools are covered as long as they are accredited.
  • Scholarship opportunities: Awards given to students who demonstrate exemplary academic performance, talent or other specified parameters.
  • Grants: Funds provided by the government that can be used for tuition, books and other college-related expenses. These funds typically do not have to be repaid. It is possible to use various grants for trade school.
  • Tuition reimbursement programs: Some companies offer tuition reimbursement programs to their employees so they can further their education without paying out of pocket.

When looking at cost, it’s important to understand the difference between grants and scholarships. Grants are typically need-based, while scholarships can be based on merit, interests, experiences and other factors. Furthermore, while scholarships and grants usually don’t have to be repaid, scholarships may require repayment if the student fails to fulfill specific requirements, such as a certain grade point average.

How to pick the right option for you

Ask yourself where you’d like to see your career go, what role interests you and the educational steps it would take to become qualified for such a role. Do the role and the responsibilities interest you, and can you see doing these tasks long term? These are just some of the questions to consider.

Aside from doing further research on the roles or role you’re interested in, you can also talk to enrollment representatives if you have further questions. This may help you make a more informed choice.

Online programs at University of Phoenix

If you decide that a college degree is the right path to reach your educational goal, UOPX can help. Here are just a handful of popular online programs to consider that aim to teach in-demand skills employers look for:

  • Bachelor of Science in Business — Knowledge of the ins and outs of running a business can spell the difference between success and failure in a competitive business world. 
  • Bachelor of Science in Information Technology — In this program, you’ll learn skills like business process, cybersecurity, information systems, operations and systems analysis.
  • Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity​ — This online program teaches such skills as security policies, network security, cybersecurity and more.
  • Bachelor of Science in Computer Science — This program equips you with the knowledge to apply information technology theory and principles to address real-world business challenges with advanced concepts in math, programming and computer architecture. You can also use elective courses to earn a certificate in cybersecurity, networking, cloud computing and much more.
  • Bachelor of Science in Data Science — Gain fundamental skills and knowledge for analyzing, manipulating and processing data sets using statistical software. Learn ETL (extract, transform, load) processes for integrating data sets for business intelligence. Focus on data mining and modeling, data programming languages, statistical analysis, and data visualization and storytelling. Discover techniques to transform structured and unstructured data sets into meaningful information to identify data patterns and trends and drive strategic decision-making.
Headshot of Michael Feder

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and its Writing Seminars program and winner of the Stephen A. Dixon Literary Prize, Michael Feder brings an eye for detail and a passion for research to every article he writes. His academic and professional background includes experience in marketing, content development, script writing and SEO. Today, he works as a multimedia specialist at University of Phoenix where he covers a variety of topics ranging from healthcare to IT.

 

want to read more like this?

Will My Credits Transfer?

Tuition and Financial Aid

August 04, 2023 • 6 minutes

What Is Financial Aid?

Tuition and Financial Aid

August 22, 2022 • 8 minutes

What is Tuition Assistance and How Does It Work?

Tuition and Financial Aid

November 29, 2022 • 5 minutes