What Is a Trade School and Is It Right for You?

By Julia Califano · September 18, 2023 · 6 minute read

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What Is a Trade School and Is It Right for You?

High-paying, high-demand occupations don’t always require a degree from a traditional four-year college. What if you could dramatically increase your income with a certificate or two-year degree from a trade school?

A trade school (also known as a vocational school) prepares students to enter a career that requires specialized training, such as being a medical assistant, plumber, dental hygienist, paralegal, or veterinary technician. Trade schools also offer a more affordable alternative to a four-year college or university.

Is trade school for you? Here’s a look at the pros and cons.

Is College Necessary for Your Career?

It seems like there’s more and more emphasis on attending a traditional four-year college or university right after high school, but is it absolutely necessary for your career?

It depends on the type of work you want to do. While traditional four-year schools provide students with the general skills necessary to become well-rounded learners, a trade school provides vocation-specific courses. Trade school students don’t need to take classes outside of their field of study but instead focus only on preparing for a specific occupation. Depending on the type of career you’re looking to get into, you may or may not need a four-year degree.

💡 Quick Tip: With benefits that help lower your monthly payment, there’s a lot to love about SoFi private student loans.

Understanding What a Trade School Is

A trade school, or vocational school, focuses its curriculum on specific skill-based vocations. But don’t let the name “trade school” fool you into thinking these schools are just for mechanics or electricians.

There are a wide variety of trade school programs specializing in careers in web design, entrepreneurship, software development, culinary arts, film production, nursing, paralegal studies, and many other areas of study.

Pros of a Trade School

Trade schools can have plenty of advantages. Here are a few to consider.

Specific Course of Study

A trade school can be a solid option for those who know what career they want. Trade schools often have a more focused curriculum. Students generally won’t have to spend time filling general education requirements. Classes are curated to the student’s chosen field and some programs offer hands-on training.

You won’t have to worry so much about choosing the right major. Trade schools cover specific areas of study, which can help you zero in on your career choice.

Less Time to Complete Than a Four Year Degree

Another pro of a trade school is it typically takes less time to complete your degree. Students can often pursue short-term certificates, one-year diplomas, and two-year associate’s degrees, although they may need to get additional training or an apprenticeship for certification or licensing depending on the chosen career field.

Recommended: What Are Apprenticeships?

Faculty Attention

Attending a trade school can also mean more one-on-one attention from faculty. Generally, trade schools boast smaller class sizes than four-year colleges and universities. This could mean more individualized attention from faculty.

If you study better with less distraction (and fewer people), a trade school may offer a conducive learning environment.

Cons of a Trade School

While trades schools have many advantages, they’re not for everyone. Here are some cons to consider.

Extremely Focused Curriculum

For students who know what they want out of a career, the focused course of study is a pro. But for students who aren’t sure what they want to study, the narrow focus may be limiting.

Non-Traditional College Atmosphere

Things are done a little bit differently at a trade school versus college. If you end up attending a trade school, you might not have that traditional university feel of game day Saturdays, Greek life, or pulling an all-nighter at the library.

You most likely won’t be living on campus in a dormitory setting, either. This could be seen as a disadvantage if you’re craving a more traditional college atmosphere where students wear school gear daily.

Narrow Focus May Limit Career Options in the Long-Term

With a trade school degree, students specialize in a specific area. This can be great for job placement after graduation, especially when there is a skilled-labor shortage. However, over time, trade schools may not prepare students for changes in their chosen industry. A broader degree may lead to more flexibility and versatility in the workforce.

Recommended: Community College vs College: Pros and Cons

How Much Trade School Costs

So, how much does trade school cost? It depends on what program you apply for and how long the program takes to complete. Generally speaking, however, you can enroll in a trade or vocational program for around $5,000 per year and graduate within two years. Keep in mind that there could be additional costs, such as licensing, outside of school to get started on a career path.

This is significantly less than attending a traditional college. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average cost of going to a four-year college is $36,436 per student per year, including books, supplies, and daily living expenses.

Trade school can be a more affordable option, and many schools offer financial aid and scholarships that could help further lower the overall cost.

Recommended: How Much Does Culinary School Cost?

Can You Take out Loans for a Trade School?

There are plenty of student loan options for traditional colleges and universities, but what about taking out loans for a trade school? Some private lenders may provide private student loans for trade schools or associate’s degree programs, but many do not. Additionally, the lenders that do offer these types of loans will review your credit history and other factors before determining the type of financing you’ll qualify for.

Federal aid, including subsidized federal student loans, is also available for some trade schools, though you must meet certain requirements. For instance, you must be enrolled at least half-time in a program that leads to a degree or certificate. In addition, the school must be accredited. You can search for accredited schools through the Department of Education’s database .

To apply for federal student loans, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is the government’s official application for federal student loans, as well as federal grants and work-study.

💡 Quick Tip: Would-be borrowers will want to understand the different types of student loans that are available: private student loans, federal Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans, Direct PLUS loans, and more.

The Takeaway

Trade school can be a smart choice for students who have a specific career path in mind. Generally, trade school is more affordable than a four-year college degree, and can take a shorter time to complete. Some schools may be eligible for federal financial aid. However, You may not qualify for federal student loans if your program is not accredited. And while some private lenders offer loans for trade school and associate’s degree programs, others (including SoFi) do not. You generally have more financing options when choosing a four-year college or university.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.

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