Trade School vs. Community College - What's the Difference?


Both trade schools and community colleges have a variety of programs that provide a hands-on experience so you can get a job as soon as possible. However, it is important to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of these educational institutions to determine the best option for your learning style.

Know Your College

Nowadays, there are many ways to get a higher education, from a traditional college or university to a trade school or community college. There are many reasons why a traditional university or college is not the right choice, from the type of learning environment to the cost of tuition. For many people, looking at trade school or community college is another option that is more affordable and provides another approach to learning.

While both community colleges and trade schools have their benefits and drawbacks, the most important thing to keep in mind when making a decision is - what type of environment do you learn best in? To answer this question, you need to know how you learn, what your goals are for the future and what your financial situation is. The U.S. Department of State provides information on some of the most frequently asked questions about choosing where to study.

Difference in Learning Environment


In most cases, trade schools offer a hands-on approach to learning that is centered around career-specific training. There are some classroom lectures, but the majority of the time spent will be doing the things you are learning about. Trade schools give students experiences related to their future career, including hands-on work in fields like medical imaging or cosmetology. There are two types of trade schools:

1) Technical schools teach students the science behind their jobs

2) Vocational schools train students through hands-on application of the skills required for the job

Whereas, community colleges are focused on theories and use more lectures to help students learn. The programs and courses offered at community colleges are often linked to the job market in your area to ensure that you are ready for a career. However, both community colleges and trade schools will help you find a job and provide the tools and resources needed to succeed.

For older adults who are considering going back to school, there are many different factors to consider - from expectations to different types of needs.

Difference in Focus


Community college gives students a rounded education and requires students to take courses that are outside of their career choice. This includes basic courses, like writing and mathematics, which helps them in many other areas of the business world. In fact, the diplomas, degrees or certificates obtained (or the equivalent) can be used toward a degree at a traditional college or university.

Trade schools focus on the career choice and get right into the details of the coursework and applications of that particular job. Rather than taking a bunch of general classes that are not in your chosen field, trade schools focus on specialization and mastery. While this is a great way to master a skill set and get into the workforce fast, it doesn't leave any room to change your mind about your career choice or even transfer your education towards another degree in the future.

Difference in Programs Offered


From the length to the cost of the courses and programs offered, there are many differences between trade schools and community colleges. The length of trade school programs can vary depending on the program, but overall they are shorter than community college programs. In most cases, a two-year program at a community college is the norm. Due to the fact that costs are lower and admission is open at community colleges, many students are starting their college experience here, then transferring to a traditional four-year school later on. However, if you wish to transfer your credits from a community college later on, you must be sure the credits will transfer toward your degree. In most cases, colleges or universities will have a policy that outlines which credits will transfer from which schools.

Due to the fact that the programs offered at trade schools are more specialized in nature, they usually require a larger investment. This includes jobs like carpentry to plumbing, vehicle repair to welding, and many more. However, trade schools have many opportunities to receive financial aid, from loans to scholarships, and even more. On the other hand, community colleges are way more affordable even though they take longer to complete than trade school programs. In fact, many students are choosing to attend a community college before they go to a university or college to obtain a degree, as it is an easy way to get all the general requirements at a lower cost.

The Federal Student Aid Office of the U.S. Department of Education provides information on the difference in cost and other things between community college and trade schools.

Difference Between Certificates and Diplomas

In most cases, community colleges award associate degrees after students have completed their two-year program. However, some community colleges will grant certificates, diplomas or other equivalent documents to students who have successfully completed all course requirements and are now ready to start practicing in their chosen fields, like nursing. On the other hand, students from a trade school might need to earn a certificate or diploma, take a licensing exam, or even study to work as a journeyman or apprentice in a skilled trade, before entering the workforce.

While some institutions use the term diploma and certificate interchangeably, there are a couple of distinct differences. First, earning a diploma requires taking a program that is usually more comprehensive than a program for a certificate. Second, the amount of time to complete a program for a diploma versus a certificate also varies by educational institution. Finally, how employers view certificates and diplomas differ, as more is learned when you obtain a diploma.

Both community colleges and trade schools offer practical programs and a bunch of hands-on support so that you can earn a diploma or certificate and get into the workforce as soon as possible. However, it is important to take the time to weigh the pros and cons of both types of education, as both can be attractive ways to get a higher education for a reasonable price.

By Kyle Aken
November 2016
college postsecondary education options

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