Education is more important now than ever before. In the ever-evolving, increasingly complex modern world, it’s essential that each individual chooses a field where they can focus their professional efforts.
The traditional path to professional education — at least in the modern world — is to pick a college and get a degree. However, the alternative option of attending a trade school has gained a great deal of public attention in recent years. This has left those who are trying to further their education with the common question of which one pays off better in the long run.
What Pays More — College or Trade School?
The topic of potential compensation is as old as time itself. The first question that most people ask when they begin to look into a career is how much money they can ultimately make if they succeed.
It’s an honest question, and an important one, too. After all, while it should never be an end unto itself, money is a driving force that makes the world go round in many ways. This isn’t just a traditional mindset, either. For instance, Generation Z is currently the youngest demographic of the workforce. The youthful group has an impressive focus on concepts like maintaining a healthy work environment, work-life balance, and corporate social responsibility. However, when asked, Gen Zers still reported that salary and benefits (read: cash) were their top priority.
In other words, the potential money that a person can make is a genuine factor in their educational decisions. With that said, the straight and simple answer about which option pays more is typically college.
Now, that answer comes with a host of caveats. However, before we consider those, let’s look at the numbers.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in the last several years, typically, income has increased in nearly direct proportion to the amount of education that an individual possesses. In 2016, for instance, a laborer with a high school diploma made an average of $504 per week, one with a bachelor’s degree made over $1,300, and one with a doctorate nearly cracked the $1700 mark.
Here’s where the caveats come in, though. These are average numbers, meaning many individuals do not make this much, even though they spend the same amount of time and money on a degree. Also, a college student must complete an enormous level of education over a protracted period of time to truly make a “high” salary.
In comparison, many trade-based occupations generate very healthy incomes. For example, many skilled trades in demand, such as electricians, plumbers, and even wind turbine technicians, all make over $1,000 per week. While the ceiling in these trades may not be as high as those with a doctorate or a master’s degree, they often average much healthier incomes than many with college degrees.
Deciding whether you’ll attend a traditional college or a trade school can’t necessarily boil down to the salary alone at the end of the day. Each option involves a variety of different factors, all of which can significantly impact what is best for each individual.
The College Option
The concept of “attending” college has gone through a significant amount of change in the last few decades — and even the last few years. A modern college student can attend classes in person and online.
They can do so at either a private or a public university. The flexibility and availability created by technology have also made it increasingly possible for students, including many adults, to attend school and complete degrees without even needing to be on campus.
Regardless of the particular situation, though, college always consists of postsecondary education and training, most of which is typically focused on a single field of study, referred to as a major.
The Pros of Getting a College Degree
Many pros come with the modern college experience. These include the following:
- A college education focuses on a well-rounded approach to school that covers liberal arts and general education and more field-specific studies.
- College education tends to teach subjects broadly, often focusing on entire industries and fields of study and equipping students to get one of many different jobs within that field.
- A college education is flexible, allowing students to shift their focus and even their major as they go along.
- A college education provides a plethora of different fields of study, enabling students to work towards all kinds of careers, from healthcare to tech and nearly everything in between.
- A college career offers the potential of landing a very high-paying job.
These are compelling factors that can make the college experience a particularly fruitful way to either start a professional career or enhance an existing one.
The Cons of Getting a College Degree
Along with the pros, there are always cons that should be considered, such as the following:
- A college education requires an often exorbitant amount of time, effort, and resources to complete. However, it should be pointed out that the flexibility, adaptability, and pragmatism of the modern college experience has made this much less prohibitive, even for working adults and parents.
- Along with the time, effort, and resources, college can be costly. In 2017-2018 the cost of attending an affordable public institution was $17,797 per year.
- College was once a golden ticket to success; the sheer number of graduates has created a saturated market. This can make finding success as a college graduate more challenging than it’s been in the past.
These should not be taken as dealbreakers while deciding between trade school or traditional college, but rather legitimate concerns that should be weighed when considering attending a traditional college.
The Trade School Path
Trade schools are also commonly referred to as vocational schools and even “career” or “technical” schools. They typically focus on teaching and training students to excel in a specified field, such as a home inspector or an HVAC technician.
The Pros of Attending ATrade School
Trade schools can be a viable alternative to a college degree for several different reasons. Here are just some of the many positives that come with vocational education:
- A trade school education allows you to skip general education courses.
- A trade school education can often be accomplished in less time than a full college degree.
- A trade school education often allows you to learn in smaller classes with like-minded individuals.
- Trade school education is often much more affordable than getting a college degree.
- A trade school education tends to provide hyper-specialized training that allows you to stand out in competitive industries.
- A trade school education provides a certain sense of job security since you’re considered a fully-certified professional with elite training within your field.
While different in nature from a more broadly focused college degree, the trade school experience is effective and efficient. This allows a student to quickly achieve training in an affordable manner that enhances their professional potential.
The Cons of Attending ATrade School
While trade schools are an excellent alternative option to traditional colleges, like a university, they have a few significant drawbacks that should be carefully considered, such as the following:
- Trade schools, by their very nature, are fairly limited in the number of career options available. Most of those options are naturally tailored to particular work, such as a hazmat worker, an elevator installer, or a cargo and freight agent.
- Right along with the limited options, a career in a trade is often very focused and one-track-minded. This has created the common trope that trade schools lead to a “dead-end” career. However, that tends to be an extreme reading of reasonable concern. While they lack the flexibility of broader college education, a trade school certification can launch you into a career where you can make pivots and engage in continual learning and development for as long as you’re on the job.
- There can be stiffer competition when it comes to finding employment. This may sound opposite to the above pro regarding job security, but both the pro and the con are actually intimately connected. By training in a trade, you become an elite labor option for your particular industry. However, your skillset’s very exclusivity can often mean if there isn’t a demand for labor, you must either wait for a position to open up or relocate to find work.
Much like the cons associated with college, none of these should be taken as an automatic reason to ditch the option of attending a trade school. However, it’s important to be fully aware of the risks when choosing a vocational school as a path to your education.
The Alternative Paths to Trade Schools And College Degrees
Along with the traditional college option and attending a trade school, there are other alternative education paths worth considering.
1. Starting Your Own Business
Starting your own business isn’t just something to aspire to. It’s more attainable now than ever before. This is a fact that the youngest portion of the workforce is already well aware of.
An impressive 54% of Gen Zers are planning on becoming entrepreneurs — with the possible side effect of delaying or even skipping traditional college in the process. With so many powerful tech tools, and an easily accessible global market, the opportunity to start your own business has never been more real.
2. Finding an Employer Who Will Pay for Your Education
One way to get the benefits of a traditional college education with less of the cost is to look for an employer willing to cover all or at least part of your educational expenses.
This can allow you to attend school part-time while making a salary and having your employer’s tuition covered. Admittedly, this can create a stressful scenario as you try to balance work and school, but it certainly has worked for many adult learners. This is especially true in the modern era, where technology has made attending virtual classes and submitting assignments much easier.
4. Asking the Right Questions
It can be difficult to decide if you should go the college route, opt for a trade school, or ditch everything and roll the dice on starting your own business. If you’re still struggling, it may be helpful to ask yourself a few poignant questions:
- How long could you spend in school? This includes how long you want to and how long you logistically can afford to develop your professional skills.
- How sure are you about the career path, job, or industry that you want to follow? If you’re very specific about the job you want, is there a trade school that can speed you along? If you’re not sure, would a college degree help you make a more honed decision in a particular field?
- Do you prefer a certain learning format? Trade schools have smaller classes. Colleges have larger in-person meetings but also virtual options.
- What can you afford to spend on your education? Do you have a strict budget? Can you apply for grants? How will you cover living expenses while you’re paying for school? How will you pay back school loans?
Asking yourself important questions like these can go a long way in helping you figure out the best course that you can take.
Trade School or Traditional College? That is the Question.
It really is the question. How often do you make years-long, life-altering decisions that cost tens-of-thousands of dollars?
In fact, when looked at pessimistically, choosing your course of education can be a completely overwhelming, paralyzing decision.
However, you must try to look at the choice before you as an opportunity, not a chore or a burden. You get to choose between multiple education options in a world where many people never get even to consider going to school in the first place. You get to push further into a path that will allow you to learn and grow professionally. You get to explore new things and impact the lives of those around you — and it all starts with your education.
So ask yourself the important questions, weigh the pros and the cons with Trade School or Traditional College, and then choose your course with confidence. As you do so, remember that you’re learning how to make a meaningful difference in both your own life and the lives of everyone that you impact over the course of your career.