Trade School vs. College: Where Should I Go After I Earn My Diploma?

Posted on October 27 2020

A high school student sits in the library writing in a notebook.

No matter what kind of dreams they have for the future, every student wants to choose the path that helps them achieve their goals. Some high school students decide college is that path, while others select an increasingly popular option: trade school.

Today, nearly 17 million students pursue undergraduate degrees, and 16 million are enrolled in trade schools. If you are a high school student deciding on your future path, it’s good to know the educational costs and career options open to you when considering trade school vs. college.

It also makes sense to keep flexibility in mind. For instance, The American Academy’s online high school diploma allows high school students to tailor graduation plans based on individual circumstances. It also prepares them to succeed, whether they ultimately choose trade school or college.

Pursuing Trade School After High School

Trade schools are institutions that prepare students for specific careers. They give students hands-on training that arms them with practical experience and knowledge in their chosen fields.

Trade schools can prepare you to pursue a variety of satisfying careers, including the following examples.


Sonographers perform medical scans of patients using special equipment that sends sound waves across the body to create images. Ultrasounds, for example, help doctors track pregnancies, assess the spread or remission of cancer, and diagnose diseases. Duties include preparing patients for scans, conducting scanning procedures, and consulting with doctors. The 2019 median annual salary for sonographers was $74,320, according to the BLS.

Licensed Practical Nurse

Licensed practical nurses deliver basic medical care with direction from registered nurses and doctors. Their duties include monitoring patients’ health by checking their temperature or blood pressure, changing bandages, and taking blood. They care for patients by helping them bathe or dress. They communicate with registered nurses and doctors about patient status. The 2019 median annual salary for licensed practical nurses was $47,480, according to the BLS.


Electricians install and repair electrical power systems. Their duties include installing or replacing wiring and lighting systems, as well as inspecting electrical components such as circuit breakers. They also identify electrical problems, offer price estimates, and follow state and local building regulations. The 2019 median annual salary for electricians was $56,180, according to the BLS.

Respiratory Therapist

Respiratory therapists treat patients experiencing breathing problems that can result from conditions such as asthma, emphysema, and lung disease. Their duties include examining patients and working with doctors to create treatment plans. They perform diagnostic tests and use methods such as aerosol medications to care for patients. The 2019 median annual salary for respiratory therapists was $61,330, according to the BLS.


Plumbers install and repair pipes and piping systems that carry water, gas, or other fluids. Their duties include determining needed materials, connecting pipes, and testing pipe pressure to make sure systems are airtight and watertight. They use a variety of equipment, including welding torches, press fitting tools, and drills. The 2019 median annual salary for plumbers was $55,160, according to the BLS.

Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists deliver oral health care to patients under the direction of dentists. This role involves providing maintenance cleanings and fluoride treatments. They remove tartar and plaque from teeth, take dental X-rays, evaluate patients’ oral health, and report their findings to dentists. They also educate patients about how to correctly brush and floss their teeth and consult with dentists about patient care. The 2019 median annual salary for dental hygienists was $76,220, according to the BLS.

Radiation Therapist

Radiation therapists help treat patients who have cancer and other diseases by administering radiation therapy. Their work involves explaining treatments to patients and operating specialized equipment to target specific areas of the body with concentrated radiation. Radiation therapists work as part of an oncology team to remove cancers and tumors from patients’ bodies. The 2019 median annual salary for radiation therapists was $85,560, according to the BLS.  

Trade School vs. College

Investigating the pros and cons of trade school vs. college will give you valuable insights about which path is right for you.

Cost Considerations of Trade School vs. College

One notable difference is cost. Typically, college is more expensive than trade school. For example, a bachelor’s degree costs $127,000 on average, while trade school costs $33,000 on average.

College’s high price tag means high school graduates who pursue college degrees often need to take out loans to pay for their education. Today, 44.7 million college graduates across the U.S. have student debt. In contrast, trade school graduates end up owing considerably less for their education.

Potential Earnings for Trade School vs. College

Students who graduate from college earn a degree, while those who complete trade school earn a diploma or certificate that helps qualify them for specific jobs. While more expensive, college degrees generally yield higher salaries.

For example, college graduates earn an average of $46,900 annually, whereas trade school graduates earn $35,720, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Though college graduates tend to have more debt than those who complete trade school, they also generally have more earning potential.

Preparation Time for Workplace Entry: Trade School vs. College

Both colleges and trade schools prepare students for future careers. Trade school graduates, though, can join the workforce more quickly than college graduates. It can take college graduates two or more additional years to join the workforce compared with trade school graduates.

Trade school curricula offer only specialized classes that focus on developing the skills needed for a single vocation. Colleges, on the other hand, offer broader curricula that allow students to explore various fields in addition to their major and develop more generalized knowledge. These educational approaches explain in part the reason behind the different timetables for workplace entry.

Earning a College Degree

Colleges and universities offer various degree types. After earning a high school diploma, individuals can pursue an associate degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, or doctoral degree. Each subsequent degree can open up additional job opportunities and possibilities for career advancement.

Associate Degree

Associate degrees are two-year postsecondary degrees that translate into the first two years of a bachelor’s. They cover the core curriculum requirements of bachelor’s degree programs. Students may choose to earn associate degrees at community colleges, which cost less than many four-year schools. After graduation, individuals can join the workforce in entry-level positions or transfer their credits to a four-year college or university and complete a bachelor’s degree. 

Bachelor’s Degree

Bachelor’s degrees generally take four years to complete. People who want to earn a bachelor’s degree can begin by choosing from a large number of majors, from chemistry and physics to art and communication. The specific major a person chooses will determine which type of degree they can get— e.g., Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, or Bachelor of Fine Arts. Upon completing one of these degrees, graduates can enter either entry-level or management positions depending on the field, or they can further their education.

Bachelor of Arts

Bachelor of Arts degrees offer broader curricula and focus on liberal arts subjects such as political science, journalism, and literature.

Bachelor of Science

Bachelor of Science degrees offer more technical and narrowly concentrated curricula, covering scientific subjects such as engineering, computer science, and biochemistry.

Bachelor of Fine Arts

Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees offer curricula focused on creating and studying the various artistic forms, such as creative writing, music, film, studio art (e.g., painting), theater, and dance.

Advanced Degrees

Bachelor’s degree holders can pursue a master’s degree. These degrees generally take two years to complete and further advance a person’s knowledge in an established area of study. They also allow people to build more specialized knowledge and skills in the humanities, sciences, or fine arts.

Doctoral degrees can take between three and five years to finish and often involve completing in-depth research projects. These degrees are considered terminal degrees, meaning they are the highest-level degree available in a field.

Learn More About American Academy’s Online High School Diploma

High school students have a lot to think about. While working toward graduating from high school, they also need to consider future educational paths that match their interests and needs. Examining options, such as college vs. trade school, puts them that much closer to future success.

Learn more about The American Academy’s online high school diploma program and how it helps prepare students to pursue their academic and professional goals.


Recommended Readings:

How to Graduate High School Early

How to Switch From Traditional Public School to Online School: Tips for a Successful Transition

Tips for High School Students Taking Online Classes While Working Full Time


The Atlantic, “The Stigma of Choosing Trade School Over College”  

Career Profiles, “Types of College Degrees”

Entrepreneur, “Trade School vs. College: Which Is Right for You?”   

Indeed, “12 High-Paying Trade Jobs”

MoneyWise, “Trade School vs. College: Is Skipping a Degree a Good Idea?”  

NBC News, “These Five Charts Show How Bad the Student Loan Debt Situation Is”

NCES, Fast Facts: Back to School Statistics

NCES, Fast Facts: Income of Young Adults

The Simple Dollar, “Why You Should Consider Trade School Instead of College”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Construction Managers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Dental Hygienists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Diagnostic Medical Sonographers and Cardiovascular Technologists and Technicians, Including Vascular Technologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Electricians

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Radiation Therapists