What’s the Difference Between a Trade School and a College?

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High school seniors often feel like they have two choices as graduation approaches: They can either go to college and mess around for four years, or they can get a job and start working 40 hours a week for the rest of their life. If you look at the student loan debt crisis, it may seem tempting to skip college entirely rather than risk becoming part of the $1.6 trillion in federal and private student loan debts. But there’s a third option that’s not always discussed—trade school. It’s not for everyone, but then again, neither is a traditional college education. Here are three things worth considering when weighing the differences between trade school and college.

Trade school is skill-specific.

When you go to a regular college, you typically have to sit through some core requirements before you can get to the really specific stuff with your major. Even English majors have to take some math and science classes, and even chemistry majors have to take classes in literature. There’s a good reason for that: Colleges want you to be well-rounded. But not everyone benefits from that experience in the same way. 

Some people would like to get to the hard-core studies of their major as soon as possible. They don’t want a general course of study. Instead, they know they want to repair cars for a living. That kind of person might be better off applying for automotive and diesel repair programs rather than four-year or community colleges. 

The fact is, a lot of students in college don’t know precisely why they’re there. They may feel like college is the next step socially, but that doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing. Drop-out rates are high in part because a lot of students don’t know how to study. Other students go into college thinking that they want to work in a certain field, only to switch their major a year or two in. Nearly a third of college students change their major at least once within three years. 

To be clear: It’s natural to be overwhelmed with your options when you graduate high school. There’s nothing wrong with being unsure about what you should do for the rest of your life. It’s common to change your mind, but unfortunately, a traditional college education can drain your finances while you’re trying to determine what degree program seems like the best fit.  

Trade school will get you working in your desired field quickly. 

If you go to a state school or university, you can expect it to be at least four years until you get your degree and join the workforce full time. Sometimes that can be a welcome break from the real world, but not everyone can afford that break. Not everyone wants to take a break, either. 

In most cases, trade school takes less than two years to complete. You’ll get certification and the chance to work as an apprentice alongside someone who has years of experience in your preferred field. With a mix of talent and skill, you can go from a newly-minted high school graduate to heating and cooling repair contractor, all before you’re legally old enough to drink. In a trade school, you’re getting hands-on experience that you can start putting into use almost immediately. 

That makes trade school a good idea for students who need to start supporting their families as soon as they can. In a lot of ways, going to school for four years and living on loans is a privilege. Not everyone comes from a wealthy or middle-class background. They need a job, but they know that things like retail and foodservice aren’t exactly stable. Trade school jobs can offer a much-needed sense of stability along with a decent income and benefits. 

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