Trade School or College: Which Should You Choose?

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Updated on Thursday, October 30, 2014

Students throwing graduation hats

Despite being inundated with news about student loans and the seemingly insane cost of college, high-school students are often still set on attending a four-year institution to receive a diploma. But perhaps it’s time we start evaluating if the traditional college route should be the path to success we continue preaching to America’s youth.

Trade schools (often known as vocational, technical, career or correspondence schools) provide students with career opportunities at a much lower price tag.

Differences between trade school and college

Cost and time are two of the biggest differences between trade school and college. Trade school typically takes less than four years, the average length for a bachelor’s degree. The cost of trade school is often significantly lower than that of a college. However, some may be close to the cost of four-years at a low-cost state school (if a student lives at home).

Other than cost and time, trade school prepares students to graduate and enter the workforce with a practical skill. College may prepare you to write 3,000 words on Aristotle’s Appeals (ethos, pathos and logos in case you forgot) – but that probably won’t come up in a job interview.

Trade schools include programs such as:

  • Electrician
  • Commercial pilot
  • Hair stylist/ cosmetologist
  • Dental hygienist
  • Computer specialist
  • Fashion design

An associate’s degree from a community college is another way to maximize employment opportunities while minimizing cost of tuition. 

Career opportunities

A 2013 report concluded only 27 percent of college graduates work in jobs directly related to their majors. The report also noted the odds of finding a position related to a college major did increase in major cities with larger job markets.

A report from early 2014 found nearly 44 percent of young college graduates, ages 22 to 27, with a bachelor’s degree or higher worked in jobs that didn’t actually demand a B.A.

Suffice to say, college by no means equals employment or employment related to four years of study and the cost of tuition.

However, it cannot be overlooked that many jobs in today’s world require a bachelor’s degree or higher. Even jobs that may not have demanded the same education level just a generation ago.

Alternatively, trade school takes less time and gives a student a practical skill, which often makes it easier to:

  • Find employment, and probably in most places around the country
  • Reduces the likelihood of losing a job to recession or outsourcing

Given the turbulent economy and job market most millennials have experienced their entire careers, a recession-proof job (like electrician or even hair stylist) may sound like an ideal alternative.

A lot can change for a college student between the time he or she picks a major at 18 or 19 and enters the workforce at 22. A graduate may try out a career in the field she majored in and realizes it isn’t actually well-suited for her, so she either switches to a job unrelated to her major, but still requiring a college degree, or perhaps she spends tens-of-thousands of dollars to return to graduate school. 

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Price point difference

To compare the cost of trade school and college, the following is a break down of attending trade school, state school and private school in New York State.

Empire Beauty School [Queens, NY]

Tuition – $12,100
Room and board – $5,536
Books and supplies – $1,688
Estimated other expenses (transportation, personal etc) – $5,992
Estimated grant aid: $3,433
Estimated price tag for program (8 months to complete as a full-time student): $21,883

*Estimate taken from the school’s online net price calculator, which accounts for tuition and fees, living expenses, books, tools and grand aid. Estimated cost was based on the following information:

Empire beauty school

SUNY Fredonia

Tuition & Fees: One semester (12 credits) for in-state students: $3870.25
Tuition & Fees: One semester (12 credits) for out-of-state students: $8695.25
Cheapest (non-commuter) meal plan: One semester: $2,260
On-campus housing: One semester: $3,600 (standard dorm with roommate)
Estimate for books: $500

Total cost for instate: $10,230.25 (One semester)
Total cost for out-of-state: $15,055.25 (One semester)
Total cost for in-state 4 years*: $81,842
Total cost for out-of-state 4 years*: $120,442

*Excluding the annual rise of tuition and increased cost of books.

New York University

College of Arts and Science

Full-time student, one semester, 12 to 18 credits: $21,873
Service fee: $461 (per semester)
Registration fee per unit after first unit: $65 ($715 for 11 credits)

School of Business

Full-time student, one semester, 12 to 18 credits: $22,130

Registration fee (per semester): $1,212
School of Business academic support fee (per semester): $495

Registration and service fee for NYU (per semester): $461
Registration fee per unit after first unit: $65 ($715 for 11 credits)

Room and board estimated by collegefactual.com to be $18,692 per year

Total cost for College of Arts and Science student: $184,392 before cost of room & board and books and excluding tuition inflation. $259,160 with room and board.

Total cost for School of Business student: $200,104 before cost of room & board and books and excluding tuition inflation. $274,872 with room and board.

These figures are low as they don’t account for inflation and increase cost of books and board.  

The $21,883 trade school option may seem steep for a program that usually takes eight months, but a student will be ready for the job market and employable. He or she will also start working three years before the college students. The next cheapest option would be instate at $81,842 and in last position, private school students in New York City paying over a quarter-of-a-million dollars for a degree.

How to find the right trade school or college

Unfortunately, there are plenty of scammers and con artists hoping to take money from hopeful youngsters looking to further their educations and improve their hiring potential.

Both trade school and college scams exist, especially with the rise of Internet-based schools.

Savvy students can avoid these scam schools (often referred to as a diploma mill), by being aware of a few key traits to look out for.

  • No transcript needed to apply – If a school doesn’t want to see if you’re a quality addition to and eligible for their program, they probably just want your money.
  • Minimal requirements – There isn’t much work involved in completing the degree or certification. Why would a thief want to put more effort in than required?
  • Lack of interaction – It seems awfully hard to track down a professor, because he or she doesn’t actually exist!
  • Tuition per-degree or discounts for taking multiple programs – colleges and trade schools typically charge for a full semester or course not based on a degree.
  • Job Guaranteed – Schools shouldn’t make this claim. They aren’t job sourcing departments, but educational facilities. While you should check the employment statistics, don’t believe a job is ever a guarantee.

Prospective students can also check the accreditation of schools and programs they’re interested in by looking it up in The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions. This database does include trade schools, such as aforementioned Empire Beauty School.

If you’re interested in learning more about which trade school to pick, be sure to explore the FTC consumer information here.

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