Trade School vs. College: Which Should You Choose?

Trade School vs. College: Which Should You Choose?

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Posted by Drew Page

February 26, 2020

For the last 375 years (since Harvard was founded), college has been

almost universally considered

the best choice for a bright future. 

But in the last 30-40 years, the price of a college education has skyrocketed (at

a rate that is significantly faster

than that which wages are increasing), creating massive

student loan debt

And it’s left people wondering:

“Is college really worth it?”

Many have already decided it’s not… in fact, post-2000 enrollment in America’s universities has

shrunk significantly

compared to the 20 years before the turn of the millennium. But we decided to run the numbers ourselves to see if a college education still does set you up for a brighter future.

Here’s what we found.


There are a significant number of variables that make a universal comparison between trade school and college complicated (not to mention, an exceptionally diverse amount of data). 

For example, the expected starting salaries for skilled trades vary wildly, as do tuition costs between universities (and even specific fields of study).

So we made a few assumptions to make our analysis:

  1. We analyzed the average “all-inclusive” costs of a

    private for-profit trade school


    public, in-state college


  2. We analyzed the average expected starting salary for all

    college degrees


    all trades


  3. We assumed a

    3% annual wage increase

    for both college and trade school students over the course of their lifetime.

  4. We assumed

    a market-average return of 10%

    for savings invested.

  5. We assumed both trade school and college grads would save at

    2019’s national personal savings (7.9%)

    for the duration of their careers and that while in debt, all savings would go towards paying that debt off.

Here’s what we found when we crunched all of the data.

Trade School vs. College: Lifetime Earnings and ROI

the long term financial implications of taking on college debt versus trade school and career earnings.

If you look solely at starting salary and lifetime earning potential, overall, college is a better choice. 

However, salaries and lifetime earnings do not tell the whole story – trade school allows you to start earning and saving sooner, thanks to less debt and a shorter education timeline. 

This has several benefits:

  1. Since you’re earning debt-free years before a college grad, you’ll have money for life events like purchasing a house or having kids sooner.

  2. Assuming you started saving and investing for retirement the day your student debt was paid off, you’d end up with nearly $250,000 more in your retirement account after 40 years compared to a college graduate.

Furthermore, for the amount of money you invest upfront for trade school, you get much more back compared to college. In our analysis, a trade school grad could expect to earn 22x what they spent on education, compared to only 15x for college.

We selected an average cost for both in our analysis. But what you spend for each can vary depending on what type of school you choose to pursue.

The Cost of College and Trade School 

costs of trade school vs college

Trade schools and colleges vary drastically depending on where they’re located, whether they’re public or private, and more. However, you can expect to pay significantly less for a trade school education than for college. 

The most expensive 2-year trade program is still just 36% of the cost of the cheapest 4-year university degree. You also graduate with a third of the debt on average.

However, post-secondary education is more of an investment than purely a cost (meaning it should provide a return). So saving money on your education isn’t really all that beneficial if you make significantly less once you graduate. 

Here’s what you can expect to earn in each scenario.

Starting Salaries for Trade School and College Grads

college vs trade school vs high school education average starting salaries

Ultimately, what you earn post-graduation depends heavily on the trade or degree you choose to pursue. Some trades such as an

HVAC tech salary

can earn you more than $50/hr, whereas others may not pay you much more than $18/hr. 

Similarly, some bachelor’s degrees will set you up for immediate employment whereas others have no direct industry associated with them.

So while the numbers above are estimates, the major/trade you choose can increase or decrease that significantly. See many

high paying trade jobs

and college degrees below.

Employment Opportunities For Each Career Path

the statistic about the fastest growing industries in 2019 reliance on heavily skilled trades.

According to an analysis by Abrigo, 6 of the top 10 fastest-growing U.S. industries in 2019 were part of the construction industry – which employs skilled trade workers extensively.

This is also probably why the

Bureau of Labor Statistics

found that the most lucrative trade job in the U.S. was a Construction Manager – with a top earning potential of over $77/hr.

How does that compare to the most lucrative college degree? 

According to


, it’s significantly more than the top major’s starting salary – computer science majors can expect to earn $33.65/hr (or $70,000/yr annual salary) in the first 5 years after school.

Here is a comparison of the other top-earning college majors and trades:

most profitable trades and careers after college majors degree or trade school certification

College or Trade School? The Pro’s and Con’s

Ultimately, choosing between college and trade school depends on what is most important to you.

Is a flexible career path and higher earning potential worth the additional cost, debt, and time in school for a college degree? Would you prefer to get started in life sooner with the potential to begin saving earlier?

There is no wrong answer – especially given that some of the most lucrative trades can often reverse the narrative of “college grads earn more.”

The pro’s and con’s below can help you think it through:

the advantages and disadvantages of attending both college and trade school

Learn More About Trade School Employment Opportunities

Want to see what kind of employment opportunities exist for trade school grads? We’ve compiled a list of top companies that are hiring in several industries below. Click the link to learn more about them.

trade school versus college financial decision

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