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Key differences between trade school and college

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By University of Phoenix

At a glance

  • Deciding whether to go to college or a trade school depends on your career goals and circumstances.
  • Trade schools focus on specialized training for a particular career path while colleges offer an academic education that potentially prepares you for a variety of paths.
  • Common areas of study for trade schools involve vocations like aspiring auto mechanics, welders, carpenters and beauty professionals.
  • If college is in your future, explore online programs at University of Phoenix.

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 consider 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, is often more suitable for those looking to directly enter trades and technical fields that rely on specialized training, such as carpentry or electronics engineering.

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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 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


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.


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.

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What credentials can you earn in college?  

The college degree levels range from undergraduate to doctoral degrees:

  • Associate: An associate degree program generally takes two years and includes general education courses.
  • Bachelor’s: A bachelor’s degree program generally takes four years to complete and often focuses on one field of study. Examples include a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science.
  • Master’s: A master’s degree program traditionally requires two to three years beyond an undergraduate degree (possibly longer). At University of Phoenix, however, it’s known to be a shorter program, some only 17 months. Many programs also require the completion of a research project or thesis in addition to classes.
  • Doctoral: The length of doctoral programs varies. Earning a doctorate typically involves a dissertation or academic research project. Practitioner doctorates, however, are specifically designed for those already working in their field.
  • PhD: These programs can take five to seven years to complete after earning an undergrad and graduate degree. Writing and defending a heavily researched dissertation is typically required in a PhD program.

What credentials can you earn in trade school?

Trade schools 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.

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

Why choose trade school over college?

Trade school can be a smart investment for those already sure of their career path or looking to develop trade skills and enter the job market. Some trade schools offer job placement assistance, which is helpful for individuals seeking employment after completing their program. Trade school courses are often more technically specific than college classes, allowing students to focus on the areas they’re interested in rather than general college courses that may not be directly applicable to specific job tasks.

Depending on your circumstances and goals, certificates may be a better option than a college degree. For example, if you’re already working as an HVAC repair technician, then earning a certificate can demonstrate to employers that you have the knowledge and skills to work competently in the field.

Career opportunities for college graduates 

Depending on the degree level, area of study and other factors such as location and experience, multiple potential career opportunities could be available.

Some career paths for college grads are:

Beyond these career paths, many other options are available to college graduates.

Career opportunities for trade school graduates

Trade school graduates have the opportunity to directly enter skilled trade professions from their area of study, 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.

Depending on preferences, talents and skills, trade school grads can find employment in many different trade industries through various certificate programs.

Ultimately, the decision between going to a trade school or college should be based on individual goals and job goals.

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

Online programs at University of Phoenix

From online certificates to degree programs, University of Phoenix has a variety of options to explore! Here are just a handful of our popular online programs to consider, depending on your career goals:

  • 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.
  • Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing — This program enhances post-licensure nursing skills, covering health administration, information management and more.


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