What Is Trade School?
You’ve reached the point in your high school journey where it’s time to apply to colleges, but you aren’t sure college is right for you. Although it may feel like college is “the right path,” or perhaps the only path to success, you have other options.
Trade schools offer training and education for technical jobs. Like college, trade school can prepare you for a positive and profitable future. The best path for you depends on the types of jobs you’re interested in pursuing.
In this guide, we’ll explain what kind of training you can get at trade schools, the cost of attendance, how to apply, and much more.
Trade School Definition
If you’re like many students, it’s possible college is the only post-secondary education option you’ve heard about. So, you may be wondering: What is trade school?
Trade schools, sometimes known as vocational schools or career schools, provide hands-on training and education to prepare students for skilled jobs. “Skilled” means the job requires specific skills and knowledge — it’s not something a person with no training could do. The trade school curriculum is focused entirely on relevant job training, and courses are often developed and taught by industry professionals.
Some trade schools operate as independent institutions, while others are programs within two-year community colleges or technical schools. Most trade school programs take two years or less to complete.
You won’t earn a bachelor’s degree when you graduate from trade school, but you will receive a diploma and/or certification(s). In some programs, you can earn an associate degree, the same degree students get at a two-year college.
Upon graduation, you’ll be prepared to start working in a skilled trade. If you attend an accredited trade school and decide to go to a four-year university later, you may be able to transfer your credits.
What Can You Learn at a Trade School?
Trade school programs are highly tailored to a specific field. One trade school may offer a variety of programs, but each program will prepare students for a different trade.
That’s because in trade school, you learn specialized job skills. You won’t take classes in literature, history, music, chemistry, or geography. You’ll focus on gaining hands-on experience in your chosen field. Everything you learn in trade school is knowledge you’ll use on the job.
Let’s consider a welding program as an example. Most welding programs take about 9-12 months to complete.
Students receive hands-on training from professionals on a wide range of welding procedures. Using these procedures, they learn how to weld plates in various positions, including overhead, vertical, and horizontal. They also learn about safety protocol, equipment, and various techniques for cutting and preparing metal for welding.
Graduates will be prepared to work as welders in industries like construction, manufacturing, agriculture, and railway transportation.
Of course, welding is just one of many trades you can learn in trade school. Trade school can prepare you for careers like:
- Pharmacy technician
- Car mechanic
- IT technician
- Medical assistant
- Dental assistant
- Dental Hygienist
- Veterinary technician
- Electrical lineman
- Radiology technician
- HVAC technician
- Massage therapist
- Licensed practical nurse
- Oil and Gas Technician
- Helicopter Pilot
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How Do You Apply to Trade School?
To apply to trade school, fill out an application on the school’s website. They typically have rolling admissions. That means you can apply at any time throughout the year, but you may have to wait for the start date of your selected program before you can enroll.
Many trade schools accept all applicants with a high school diploma or GED. In most cases, you won’t have to submit SAT/ACT scores, recommendations, a list of extracurricular activities, or an essay.
You may have to schedule an interview or speak with an admissions representative, but these are informal conversations. The representative wants to learn more about your goals and point you toward the best program for you.
How Much Does Trade School Cost?
The cost of trade school varies widely, depending on the type of training and the length of the program. According to the U.S. Department of Education, tuition typically ranges from $3,674 to $15,923.
Like universities, trade schools can be private or public. Public trade schools are significantly more affordable than private trade schools. Still, even private trade schools are cheaper than four-year universities because they require fewer classes.
If you can find an apprenticeship, you may be able to earn money while receiving training. You can also reduce the cost of your trade school education with financial aid, grants, or scholarships.
Some trade schools are eligible for federal financial aid. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and you may receive an aid offer that your school will apply toward your tuition costs.
If you qualify for federal financial aid, you may receive grants. Grants are need-based and do not have to be repaid, unlike loans. Some state governments also offer grants to trade school students, but requirements vary by state.
Scholarships are a final source of funding that doesn’t need to be repaid. Scholarship sources include state governments, trade associations, and the trade school itself. Scholarships can be merit-based, need-based, or even vocational. Vocational scholarships are awarded to students pursuing specific vocations. For example, some professional organizations offer scholarships to future electricians or plumbers.
How Much Money Can You Earn After Trade School?
On average, trade school graduates earn around $47,000 annually. In comparison, the average starting salary for college graduates is $55,260.
But the amount of money you’ll earn depends on the trade you learn and the job you get afterward. For more accurate income projections, you’ll need to research specific careers.
For example, plumbers earn a median income of $60,000. And Bloomberg reported that plumbers in Atlanta earn up to $90,000 in wages and commission. Radiology technicians earn a median income of $61,980, and linemen earn a median income of $78,310.
Currently, trade school graduates earn less on average than their college graduate counterparts. But it’s a difficult comparison to make because income varies widely for both groups. Many vocational careers are catching up, and some trade school graduates earn more than the average college graduate.
Benefits of Attending Trade School
So, what are the benefits of attending trade school instead of a four-year college?
No College Application Stress
Applying to college can be a stressful, time-consuming experience. If you attend a trade school, you’ll get to skip this process entirely.
That means you don’t need to worry about earning good ACT/SAT scores, writing college application essays, or asking for teacher recommendations.
It also means you won’t have to worry over rejections from colleges. Instead, if you have a high school diploma, you can choose just about any trade school you’d like to attend.
Less Time and Money
Almost all trade schools can be completed in less than two years, while it takes four years to earn a bachelor’s degree. This means you can graduate faster, launch your career, and start earning money. And the sooner you start working, the sooner you can progress in your career.
Less time in school also means less money spent on your education. You can finish trade school with less student loan debt, or no debt at all.
Colleges provide a broad, scholarly education. Depending on the degree program, college students don’t necessarily get a lot of practical training.
Trade school is all about hands-on learning, and you build the exact skills you’ll need in your chosen field. The knowledge you learn in class will translate directly to your future job. This can make it easier to find a job and to perform it well.
In-Demand Job Opportunities
Most trade schools train students for in-demand jobs, meaning there will likely be plenty of job opportunities when you graduate. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only one of the 10 fastest-growing jobs in the United States requires a college degree. So, you’ll be trained in vocational skills that many employers will be seeking for years to come.
Disadvantages of Attending Trade School
On the other hand, here are some potential disadvantages you should consider before enrolling in trade school.
Less Job Flexibility
The highly specialized job training you’ll receive at a trade school is beneficial in many ways, but it can also be limiting. Trade school prepares you for a specific job. With a bachelor’s degree, however, you get a broader education that can translate to a wide variety of careers.
If you complete a welding program, that program will prepare you exclusively to be a welder. If you later decide you don’t want to be a welder anymore, it may be difficult to find a different job. The same is true if you struggle to find a job in your chosen trade.
Lower Average Income
Again, trade school graduates earn less on average than college graduates. And the upper range of earning potential for college grads is much higher than the upper range of earning potential for trade school grads.
Ultimately, it depends on which trade you decide to pursue. Outcomes for both groups vary widely. If you’re undecided, grab a sheet of paper and fold it in half. On one side, list a few careers you’re interested in that require a college degree. On the other, list a few careers you’re interested in that you can prepare for through trade school.
Research the average income for each of the careers on your list, write them down, and compare. Investigating specific jobs will give you a much more accurate comparison than looking at overall averages.
No College Experience
Attending a trade school means you’ll miss out on the classic college experience. Many people gain lifelong friends and favorite memories during their four years of college. At a university, you’ll have the opportunity to live in dorms with your friends, join clubs and a fraternity or sorority, attend sporting events and campus parties, and meet people from all over the world.
Of course, classes are another key part of the college experience. College gives you a glimpse of many fascinating subjects and requires you to learn about a variety of topics. It expands your perspective and sharpens skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. In college, students often discover that they’re passionate about a subject or career they never knew existed.
Trade school won’t provide the same experiences or broad-based education. It’s up to you to weigh the pros and cons and decide how important the overall experience of college is for you.
Final Thoughts: Is Trade School Right for You?
In short, trade schools teach you the practical skills needed to succeed in a technical job. Most programs can be completed in less than two years, and they prepare you for in-demand jobs with solid earning potential.
The most important factor when deciding between college and trade school is the career(s) you want to pursue. If you know you want to be an auto mechanic or an electrician, trade school is the fastest and most affordable route. If you’re undecided, college will give you a chance to explore many subject areas and topics before making a choice.
Like college, trade school has its pros and cons. Whether trade school is right for you depends on your personal goals, preferences, and priorities. Consider the information in this guide, and talk through it with your high school counselor, Transizion mentor, parents, or other trusted adults.
Whatever you decide, know that there’s no single right answer. Your future is yours, and you should make an informed decision about what’s best for you.
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