Community College vs Trade School: How They Compare

By Jacqueline DeMarco · October 30, 2023 · 7 minute read

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Community College vs Trade School: How They Compare

There is no one right path to take in life and that includes how someone decides to pursue an education after high school. Attending a four year university isn’t necessarily the best option for some and they may want to consider other options that can help them prepare for a fruitful career.

Let’s examine how trade school vs community college works for prospective students considering those options.

What Is Community College?

Community colleges serve their local community by offering affordable higher education options that can either lead to transferring to a four year university, obtaining an Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate of Science (AS) degree, learning a trade, or finding personal fulfillment by taking a class or two for fun.

Students may also choose to attend community college before transferring to a university to pursue a Bachelor of Science (BS) or Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree because doing so can save them a lot of money on tuition by transferring course credits from their community college to a university.

How It Works

Students who attend community college can choose from a wide variety of classes to take. Some may focus on academic courses so they can earn lower division credits that can transfer to a four year university. Others may decide to pursue technical certificates that prepare them for specific career paths. Or a student can take a mix of both styles of classes. One major benefit of community college is that the classes are affordable, so students can test out different areas of interest.

What You Learn and How You Learn It

What a student learns and how they learn it at a community college depends on the types of classes they choose to take. For example, a student pursuing lower division credits that transfer to a university may take a math or English class in a traditional classroom setting that involves lectures, homework, and exams. A student pursuing a career as an auto mechanic would instead take classes that combine lectures and homework with hands-on learning opportunities in an auto mechanic workshop setting.

What Is Trade School?

Trade schools are a type of school that students can attend if they are interested in focused training programs that can prepare them for a specific skilled trade or industry. Students work towards developing technical abilities such as operating, building, fixing, and maintaining mechanical systems.

Some examples of careers that can follow trade school include:

•   Welder

•   Construction worker

•   Auto mechanic

•   HVAC technician

•   Blacksmith

•   Electrician

It’s worth noting that some community colleges offer training in similar subjects to trade schools.

How It Works

Some trade schools focus on a specific training program, such as plumbing, whereas other trade schools may offer multiple training programs like HVAC and welding training. Even if a trade school offers multiple areas of study, they generally don’t overlap and each program has its own curriculum and teachers.

What You Learn and How You Learn It

At trade schools, students learn specialized trade skills that prepare them for mechanical careers, such as working as a construction worker or blacksmith. This type of education requires attending lectures and studying course materials, but also more hands-on demonstrations and training.

Trade School vs Community College

To better understand how a trade school vs. community college works, it helps to understand the similarities and differences of these two options.


When it comes to trade schools vs. community colleges, these are some of the similarities these two types of schools can have.

•   Learning environment. Because community colleges offer similar courses to trade schools, both take a hybrid approach when it comes to trade subjects like HVAC repair. Students tend to learn these skills in both a classroom and workshop setting.

•   Timeframe. While some community college degrees can take as long as two years to earn (such as with an AA), the technical training programs at a community college are still more in line with how long it takes to graduate from a trade or technical school (usually a year) whereas a university takes four years to complete.


Of course, there are also some community college vs. trade school differences worth being aware of.

•   Course options. Even though community colleges do offer trade courses, they also offer academic courses — with instruction taking place entirely in a classroom — with the aim of helping students transfer to a four year university.

•   Cost. Usually, trade schools cost more to attend than a community college. Though, this may vary based on factors like the type and length of the program.

Pros and Cons of Trade School

Now let’s examine the pros and cons of attending trade school.

Pros of Trade School Cons of Trade School
Specific career training Training is usually limited to one career path
Many programs only take a year May be more expensive than community college
Less expensive than a four year degree Students don’t earn academic credits that can transfer to a university
Flexible schedules that accommodate students with families and who work

Pros and Cons of Community College

Before attending community college, some students may want to consider the benefits and disadvantages of doing so.

Pros of Community College Cons of Community College
More affordable than attending a four-year college Credits don’t always transfer
Students can live at home Lack of socializing opportunities
Easier acceptance than at four-year schools

Choosing for Yourself

After comparing the trade school vs community college pros and cons, prospective students can make a decision about which path forward seems like the best fit for them based on their personal and professional goals, financial situation, and lifestyle. Thinking about what career they want to pursue and which education option can prepare them for that career is a great place to start.

The Takeaway

Again — there is no one right education path to pursue. While some may be set on earning a Bachelor’s degree and may find that community college is a great stepping stone for them, others may feel that a trade school can adequately prepare them for the career of their choice. In some cases, community college can prepare a student to further their academic career or to work in a trade, but trade schools also offer specialized training programs that some prospective students may find appealing.

Community college students may be able to qualify for federal student aid to help them pay for their education. Students who face funding gaps, might consider private student loans. Though, keep in mind these loans don’t offer the same protections as federal student loans.

If private student loans seem like a fit for your financial situation, consider SoFi. While SoFi’s private student loans aren’t available to community college students, they could be an option for those transferring to a four year program.

3 Student Loan Tips

1.    Can’t cover your school bills? If you’ve exhausted all federal aid options, private student loans can fill gaps in need, up to the school’s cost of attendance, which includes tuition, books, housing, meals, transportation, and personal expenses.

2.    Even if you don’t think you qualify for financial aid, you should fill out the FAFSA® form. Many schools require it for merit-based scholarships, too. You can submit it as early as Oct. 1.

3.    Would-be borrowers will want to understand the different types of student loans peppering the landscape: private student loans, federal Direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans, Direct PLUS loans, and more.

Private student loans from SoFi loans have zero-fees and qualifying borrowers can secure competitive interest rates.


Do community college or trade school graduates make more?

Because community college and trade schools both offer degrees and certificates that lead to mechanical jobs, graduates of both types of schools stand to earn the same income. Some students who pursue a higher education after community college, such as a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degree can have increased earning potential.

Which trades that you learn at trade school pay the best?

There are many trades that pay well, but a few of the best paying trade jobs include working as a transportation, storage and distribution manager (median annual salary of $98,230), an elevator/escalator installer and repairer (median annual salary of $97,860), and a nuclear power reactor operator (median annual salary of $94,970).

Is trade school or community college cheaper?

When it comes to the cost of community college vs trade school, generally community college costs less to attend on an annual basis ($3,800 per year for tuition and fees) than trade school ($5,000 to $15,000 for three to 18 months), but students may need to attend community college longer than trade school, which can make the costs rise.

Photo credit: iStock/andresr
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