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What do lawyers, plumbers, architects, and therapists have in common? Education. They may not have found the same subjects fascinating or attended the same schools. Still, they all continued their studies after high school and engaged in career-specific training to build a successful future.

It’s tough to succeed with only a high school education when it comes to starting a career. Yet, as college’s cost increases, does it make sense to pursue getting a degree from a community college or technical school? And which is the better choice?

“The high school experience is filled with varying opinions about the correct next step for students, and the truth is, there is no one perfect path. However, now, more than ever, community colleges and technical colleges are valid options to be considered,” says Hollie Albright, Student Success Coordinator at Rustic Pathways.

If you’re continuing your education after high school, the good news is you have options. A community college or technical school education can give you the practical skills and background you need to launch a successful career

What’s the Difference Between Community College and Technical College?

There are several key differences between community and technical colleges. Community colleges offer affordable, generalized education and grant a degree in two years. On the other hand, technical college degree paths vary widely in terms of specialization, duration, and cost. 

There’s another fundamental difference that speaks to the purpose of each school: what motivates each student.

Visit your local community college, and you’ll find students with a wide range of interests. Some students might be enrolled on a full-time basis and working toward an associate’s degree. Others may be taking a class or two because they want to transfer the credits to their four-year university. And many may enroll just for fun.

Career spelled in a game of scrabble

But at a technical school, the curriculum is specialized to suit a narrow field of interest, and the study body reflects that. For example, there are technical or trade schools devoted to culinary arts, aircraft machinery, cosmetology, website development, and surgical technology, to name a few. And though you may find a few souls taking a class on sonography because it’s a great way to spend a couple of months, chances are most are there to prepare for a career in that field. 

“If the student wants a more academic environment, either esthetically or in their studies, community college would be a better fit. If the student has goals to take general credits to transfer to a four-year college or wants to include general or conceptual classes into their program, a community college will be better,” says Arash Fayz, Co-founder and Executive Director of LA Tutors 123.

The Pros of Community College

Community college is a fantastic option to consider for a wide variety of reasons, for example:

  • You want to continue your education but haven’t found the right academic fit at a four-year college.
  • You’re unsure what you want to do for your career and would like to explore your options at a lower cost.
  • You’re interested in studying at an expensive four-year private liberal arts college or a prestigious four-year technical college but want to avoid student debt.
  • You want a chance to improve your grades before applying to a four-year university.
  • Your community college offers a specialized certification program – such as a coding Bootcamp – at a comparatively low cost.

There’s more. In some states, community college tuition is free for students who meet specific criteria. Those criteria could be related to high school grades or family income. It’s hard to turn down two years of free college education, regardless of what your future career plans hold. 

Another major plus is that some state flagship universities offer automatic acceptance to students who graduate with a certain grade point average. This is a significant benefit for students who didn’t win admission to State U right after high school.

The Cons of Community College

At a community college, you’ll find the student body includes all of these people and more. And though the lower cost is a huge advantage, you’ll also find that community colleges don’t offer the glamour of your state flagship university. 

Day-to-day life is different than at your typical residential four-year school. Many community college students live at home. You probably won’t find swag-covered football fans swarming the campus on Saturdays. And those amenities like fancy student activity centers? Your local community college probably can’t compete with that bigger state university down the road

But perhaps the biggest con to community college is that you’ll have to spend time studying subjects you don’t have any interest in pursuing once you graduate. 

“If you’ve already decided on a career path to pursue and you’re confident in your decision, it can make very little sense to go to a community college when there are technical colleges out there offering far more comprehensive programs and more opportunities for the field you’ve picked,” says McLean Mills, Co-Founder of Resume Writing Services.

Female College Student

The Pros of Technical College

Fayz agrees. A trade school education makes good financial and practical sense for the student who is less interested in pursuing a generalized education

“If the student is focused purely on job preparation, the technical college will prepare them for their career quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively,” says Fayz.

There’s more to trade school than learning how to be a plumber or electrician. You might be surprised to discover that the types of technical schools include:

  • Automotive and aircraft machinery and technology.
  • Business administration.
  • Computer technology.
  • Cosmetology.
  • Culinary arts.
  • Fashion design.
  • Heating and cooling (HVAC).
  • Massage therapy.
  • Sonography and surgical technology.

Before enrolling, take the time to understand what degree or certification you’ll earn. And remember: the classes you’ll take may not transfer to a traditional college. Think about if a career promised by a technical school education is the one you want to pursue. 

The Cons of Technical College

What technical, trade or vocational colleges offer students in terms of post-grad job opportunities they lack in general education. If you’re devoted to your career path, and you happily work as your city’s best colorist or massage therapist, then that won’t matter. But if you have second thoughts, you could be stuck, later finding yourself back in school. 

“Technical schools cut out most or all of the general education courses to fast track to a more specific career field,” says Albright.

With a degree from a community college, you can transition seamlessly to a four-year college or university. And because it’s a general degree versus a specialized program, you may find that a broader range of employers is willing to offer you a job after graduation.

Tuition and Scholarships Community College vs. Technical College

One of the biggest reasons to enroll in a community college or trade school is value for the money. Even four-year public universities are stretching the bounds of affordability for many students, with four years of in-state college tuition sometimes exceeding $120,000. Out of state students or private college studies, that figure can balloon to $200,000 or more.

Nevertheless, you’ll still incur costs at community colleges and technical schools. To graduate from a community or technical college debt-free, you can:

  • Apply for need-based aid The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, is your gateway to need-based education grants, scholarships, and loans. Get a cup of coffee and block off an hour or two to complete the application because you’ll need to provide detailed information on your family’s income and assets. 
  • Apply for institution-funded scholarships Don’t forget to ask your college’s financial affairs office if the school offers scholarships. Some may require an essay or a separate application. At other schools, all applicants are automatically considered. Whichever the case, get yours in early, as available funds do run dry.
  • Apply for scholarships through local organizations Rotary clubs, women’s clubs, and other community organizations are an excellent resource for thrifty students. You’ll also reduce the size of the competitive pool!
  • Work part-time  Working part-time can go a long way toward covering the cost of your education, and you may be surprised at how much free time you have after you’re enrolled. You’ll also benefit financially from year-round employment, which is something college students returning home for the summer won’t have.
  • Maximize small-dollar savings and rewards Credit card rewards, browser add-ons, automatically rounding up debit and credit card purchases, and selling goods on eBay are all great ways to defray the cost of your education.

College Graduates

Career Options After Graduation — Community College vs. Technical College

For grads of both types of colleges, post-education opportunities are of critical importance. But the outcomes, depending on the degree path chosen, may look quite different from one another.

Community college grads can enter the workforce right away or continue their studies at a four-year college or university to earn a bachelor’s degree. Technical college students may begin working as an apprentice or trainee.

Fayz believes that the difference between community and technical colleges is stark.

“The choice between the two types of degrees is so specific to the job path of the student that a direct comparison is not relevant,” Fayz says. “Depending on the career goals and position availability that the student has, a community college degree may gain more attention in applications, or the technical college degree may be more convincing,” says Fayz.

In other words, the choice of school and degree, simply because of the type of education, matters significantly to employers.

How to Choose between Community College and Technical College?

Ask yourself: are you ready to choose a career now? You might be right for a technical school if:

  • You’re confident you know how you want to spend your days.
  • You’re anxious to learn job-related skills.
  • You don’t feel a general education is necessary to succeed. 
  • You want a clear pathway to employment.

But if you’d like more time to explore your options, community college probably makes more sense.

Albright notes that many students start college believing they’ll choose one career, only to wind up changing their major and pursuing another route entirely.

“A lot of students aren’t as sure about where they want to end up after high school, and statistics show that most college students change their mind once they start their post-high school learning,” Albright says. “A community college offers the opportunity to take some general education courses and end up with a more well-rounded experience.”

But regardless of where you land when high school ends, it’s up to you to set values-driven goals and make the most of your educational experiences. Whether that’s a community college or technical college is up to you, but applying yourself is essential for success in every career.

“As with most education, the biggest factor will end up being the knowledge that the student gains and their ability to apply and develop it in the workspace effectively,” says Fayz.

In other words, you’ll get out what you put into it.

Written By
Lisa Bigelow writes for Bold and is an award-winning content creator, personal finance expert, and mom of three fantastic almost-adults. In addition to CareerMetis.com, Lisa has contributed to WealthLAB, The Tokenist, OnEntrepreneur, College Money Tips, Finovate, Finance Buzz, Life and Money by Citi, MagnifyMoney, Well + Good, Smarter With Gartner, and Popular Science. She lives with her family in Connecticut.

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