Trade School vs. A College Degree – Which one is best for you?

To each their own, is what they say. The important decision of choosing a career is something most of us face early in life, as young as fourteen years old. From specialty schools that began early college education in a specific study to vocational schools that teach the ins and outs of a specific trade, there is no wrong way to go about continuing education as long as it will serve you in the long run. How you go about getting that education though is never a one-size-fits-all process and more students are beginning to understand this.

Today, most truck drivers on the road started out in trade schools. Like most trades, the process is a less expensive, less time consuming one than pursuing a degree but as previously mentioned, you would need to be certain that this is the route you would like to choose.

Focusing on Your Future

It is safe to say that in American culture, there is an expectation for older teens to think about what career they will pursue, seemingly long term if not for the rest of their lives. The traditional route, up until recently, is that the student will go into a university, studying a specific field (for anywhere between four to ten years) to earn their degree in then land a job with an established company, earning a comfortable salary. There also is a growing set of the population that are going directly into the workforce out of high school with no intention of continuing their education for either family, health, or financial reasons. Lately though, many schools are starting to look into alleviating the financial wall that bars many from pursuing an education after high school. Most of these are vocational schools that offer training on top of a certification for a specific trade.

Their appeal comes at an angle of a quick return at a lower cost that is ideal for those that may not have an opportunity to attend a university for whatever reason. Another option that a few students are picking is to take a year or two break and work a lower pay job to either save up for school and/or taking that time to decide what industry they would like to go into.

This may seem like an out-of-the-norm approach, but more and more recent high school graduates are taking what is called a gap year to grow themselves personally and sometimes professionally which enables them to pick a career path more clearly and thoughtfully.

Students that go straight into university out of high school are often under more pressure from the expectations that surround them. Depending on the type of person you are this can either be conducive or it can be debilitating. While there are plenty of those that still thrive in this type of environment, going immediately into a continuing education that is built to commit you to a career for the rest of your life can lead to burnout sooner or later. This burnout can lead to dropping out and then hindering your future in a way that makes it difficult to decide on what to do next. That is why it is important to consider what the right path is for you early on.

There are so many paths available to students now that making sure you take the time to research and decide on your next step is critical.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Trade School / Vocational Degrees

“For far too many parents with kids in their junior or senior years of school, the stigma surrounding having a child skip four-year college would just be too much to bear.

But, it's time to change the narrative, and for more reasons than one. Not only does trade school help students land a job faster, it also costs significantly less than traditional college. Plus, jobs in the trades are booming in general, whereas many other industries are oversaturated with new graduates looking for work.” –

Breaking this down, let’s start with the stigma that sits on trade school education. This alone can be a downside of deciding to attend a trade school. For those of you that are set on a trade and have thick skin, this may not apply to you. Manual labor jobs are a necessity and will always have a place in our society even as we progress with technology. Though they are a necessity they have always been looked down on as a lower-class job and given less respect than those in the white-collar industry. Plumbers, HVAC technicians, carpenters, truck drivers, welders, the list goes on of vital trades that a society needs in order to function, yet we have some how deemed the workers that do the heavy lifting lesser than. Thankfully, as more students turn to these trades the attitude shifts towards a respectful and appreciative tone.

Going into one of these trades not only takes less time to complete and start gaining experience in the field, but you likely will not be left with a bag of student debt to weigh you down financially for an undeterminable amount of time. This can be most beneficial towards those that have to pay for college out of their own pocket or need to start earning more money, quicker. Another pro of going into a vocational school is that for those with high ambitions, they can gain multiple certifications in multiple industries over a short period of time. One last benefit of going into a “blue-collar” industry is job security. There are far more positions available and less competition (in the long run) in the market for those who learn to work with their hands.

One of the biggest drawbacks of going this route may be that compared to those that enter a university and graduate, you might earn less overall. There are exceptions to this but as a majority, vocational occupations are reported historically to have lower pay over a lifespan than those that pursue a bachelor’s degree in an in-demand field. Another con you may experience is a growth ceiling as you stay in a particular industry. Seniority and longevity of your occupation unfortunately has very little or no effect on your salary at some point. That ceiling typically hits sooner than those who have chosen careers in white collar industries. Lastly, it is widely known that most trades will take a toll on your physical health whether the job is physically demanding or (like truck driving) has you sitting for hours on end.

All of this is important to consider when looking in to the possibility of attending a trade school.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Traditional University

If a student has decided to pursue a degree in a field that is in demand and has shown historic job security, it is likely they will find sustained success. This student would also need to be prepared financially whether it be scholarships, grants, and/or financial aid to complete the degree. Once this degree is completed they would need to find their first job in order to start paying off those loans that they may have needed in order to get the degree.

This may not sound like such a bad deal as long as the line of work you have chosen will pay enough to provide a decent living and give you the ability to pay off your student loan debt in a reasonable amount of time. In the past decade though, student loans and interest on those loans have exploded, putting newer employees to the workforce in a bind. While studies have shown the sustainability of a degree or two, the cost of higher education is making soon-to-be high school graduates question their next move and look closely at that kind of commitment.

“Money is the top reason why college students leave school, according to a recent study by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA). About two in five (42%) college dropouts cited financial reasons for leaving school, outweighing the percentage of students who left for other reasons like family commitments (32%) and health reasons (15%).” - Fox Business

As the issue of costs persist many colleges are turning towards innovating new ways for those that are financially limited to work towards a degree in different ways. From shorter, cheaper summer classes to associate programs that will be accounted towards a bachelor’s degree later on, community colleges are gaining in popularity with more realistic routes to a degree.

When weighing their options, it is important to think of how employers that typically require a degree in their industry compare a candidate that has a degree versus a candidate that has field experience. In theory, one thing a degree shows an employer is that the candidate can stick with something, see it through, and complete goals and tasks reliably compared to a candidate that may have dropped out or took a break. They have also stated that those with degrees have better soft skills and are more capable of becoming mentors and leaders in the workplace from the experiences gained while in college. A college degree can show that an employee has a base line understanding in their field where they can form their own unique solutions and processes from that knowledge as they go through their career.

Though a college degree may sound like it is out of reach for some, there is no denying that it leads to higher pay long term as well as provide a built-in network of professionals in that chosen field.

Bottom line: Which one is better?

The outlook of which route is better is completely subjective. Whether you are pro trade school or pro university, there really is no one better than the other. Every student’s needs, talents, passions and circumstances are so varied and distinct that there truly is no one-size-fits-all answer to continuing education. What works best for one person might seem like a non-starter to another. More educators and schools are beginning to embrace the diversity of continuing education by offering various programs and ways to earn an education. This is shaking the foundation of what defines a higher education and has employers rethinking what defines a “qualified candidate.”

No matter what side parents and educators may be on in regard to a student’s education, there is one principle belief everyone can agree on: getting any education is better than not. Learning remains the key to progress in society and whether you are looking into quality control or quantum physics, the choice should be yours.

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