Community College vs. Trade School: Career Training Comparison

trade school v community college

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It’s well known that workers who’ve received career training beyond high school tend to fair better in the job market. They generally enjoy greater career stability and incomes. A four-year university isn’t the only route to these benefits, though. Trade school and community college are two viable paths to promising careers. However, when it comes to learning styles, time, cost, and value, they provide different educational experiences and outcomes. It’s wise to evaluate their offerings before choosing one.

trade school vs community college blog

Training Focus

Trade schools often teach a specific skillset for quick entry into a vocation. Since community college courses are usually designed to be transferrable to a university, they tend to be more academic. Check out the major differences below.

Trade School

  • Teaches practical skills
  • Hands-on learning
  • Smaller student-to-instructor ratios
  • Exposure to the field through industry partnerships

Community College

  • Additional educational requirements
  • Instruction in general education subjects
  • Focus on theory
  • University compatible coursework

If your goal is to enter your chosen profession as soon as possible, trade school can get you there. Not sure what subject you want to study? Still deciding on a career. Community college permits you to start taking general education courses while you hone in on what you want to do, but you’ll probably spend longer in school.


There’s no denying that trade school is quicker than community college. You might be surprised by how long community college students take to get their degrees when you look at the numbers.

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Trade School

  • 95% of trade school programs that offer a certificate can be completed in less than 2 years.
  • More than half of those programs can be finished in under 12 months.
  • Approximately 60% of students successfully earn their training certificate.

Community College

  • Community college students must spend at least 2 years in school.
  • Only 11.7% of students will have their Associate’s Degree after 24 months.
  • It takes 21.1% of students 3 years or more to get their degree.
  • About 40% of students spend 6 years in community college before they walk away with a degree.

These statistics suggest trade school is the quicker path to a career than community college.


How much will your career training set you back? Here are some estimates to consider.

Trade School

On average, a certificate from a trade school costs $33,000, or about a quarter of the expense of the average 4-year degree.

Community College

In 2014, community college students paid, on average, about $10,000 per year for their education, or over 50% less than they would have spent for a year at a university.

Upon first consideration, a year of community college costs less than a year of trade school. When you think about the fact the only about 1 in 10 students receive an Associate’s Degree after two years, community college starts to look much more expensive. Recall that 40% of students finish in 6 years: 6 x $10,000 = $60,000 for an Associate’s Degree for nearly half of the community college population.


Is the extra time and money spent on community college worth it? On the face of it, the answer is yes. Associate’s Degree holders typically earn median salaries that are $7,000 higher than those with trade school certificates. However, if it took 6 years and $60,000 to earn that Associate’s Degree, it could be years before workers start seeing substantial returns on their educational investment.

Sometimes the field a worker is trained in means more than whether they hold a certificate or a degree. For example, industries reliant on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) tend to offer some of the highest salaries. This might explain why workers with trade school certificates can earn more than those with Associate’s and even Bachelor’s degrees. Consider these statistics:

  • Men with trade school certificates take home more money than 40% of men with Associate’s Degrees and 24% of men with Bachelor’s Degrees.
  • Women with trade school certificates earn higher salaries than 34% of women with Associate’s Degrees and 24% of women with Bachelor’s Degrees.

Promising STEM Careers

Whether you choose trade school or community college, keep in mind that STEM careers can offer higher financial rewards.

Trade School

  • Electricians can earn $51,000 to $88,000 a year.
  • Welders with commercial diving certification can rake in up to $88,000.
  • Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning technicians make between $45,110 and $71,690 depending on their location and level of experience.

Community College

  • Information Systems Managers earn $43,600 to $76,400 annually.
  • Economists can make between $36,500 and $76,500.
  • Construction project managers take home $44,500 to $73,400.

Considering Pay and Demand

Oftentimes, what you study is more important than where you study it.

Trade school: Electricians earn a median annual salary of $52,720 and can expect 14% job growth through 2024—that’s twice as fast as the national average. 1

Community College: Medical Assistants take home $31,540 a year on average and will enjoy 23% job growth through 2024—more than three times the national average. 2

University: Social workers with Bachelor’s Degree make a median annual salary of $46,890 and will experience 12% job growth through 2024—faster than average but not as in demand as the other fields mentioned above. 3

Bright Future

Going back to school can often garner workers high wages. About 33% of trade school certificate holders earn additional degrees or certificates, and 40% of Associate’s Degree holders go on to obtain a Bachelor’s Degree.

Weighing Your Options: Time to Workforce Entry

Community college and trade school are both paths to in-demand careers. One of the main differences between them is how long it takes to finish learning and enter the workforce. Students on the fast track can benefit from trade school. Those who want a Bachelor’s Degree and have the time to pursue one might be better off choosing community college.

Additional Sources

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