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Trade School vs. Community College: Which is Right For You?

What’s Covered:


Both trade school and community college are great ways for students to enter academia through a path that allows and promotes academic growth. Both these kinds of schools are great opportunities for students to get accustomed to the difference between college and high school, an issue many freshmen deal with in their first year. 


In this post, we’re going to be breaking down what each option is, so that you can determine which would be beneficial for you.


What is Trade School?


A trade school is known by numerous terms including vocational school, technical school or a career college and these terms are considered interchangeable. These schools teach valuable skills and provide an education that is tailored to specific jobs, often with hands-on practices. 


An example of a career that might make use of this type of education would be an auto mechanic. An auto mechanic usually has two choices from which they could gain knowledge about their trade, learning at a company or existing practice by working (like an internship but more hands-on) or through a trade school. At the trade school, a mechanic would likely take classes that teach them how to use the tools required for their trade, as well as classes relevant to the knowledge required for their line of work. 


For example, the auto mechanic would take classes on how motors and engines operate. But this brings to question, why go to a trade school in the first place if you could learn these concepts via working directly? The answer to this is certification. Trade schools provide you proof of completing a program with a certificate, which could boost your trustworthiness in your line of work. Additionally, the total costs of studying at a trade school tends to be relatively cheap thanks to a shortened time frame, and can be done part-time as well.


What is Community College?


Community colleges in America are publicly funded institutions for those wishing to seek post-secondary education. The intention of these institutions are to make college-level classes available to a bigger audience via lower fees and costs. While some do offer four-year programs, most community college tracks take up to two years, with the opportunity to earn an associates degree over a bachelors


You might find that the student population at community colleges tend to be older, and this is because most of the classes are often designed to accommodate the lifestyles of working adults, hence the evening classes you’d often find at these institutions. This means instead of joining a group of students who are working on a similar timetable with you or towards the same expected date of graduation, you’d be meeting people of all sorts of backgrounds and different ages, all pursuing their own education pathway. 


Admissions Requirements at Trade Schools and Community Colleges


While the admissions process for trade school is significantly less tedious than a traditional four-year university, there are still prerequisites that need to be met for an application. This starts with at least having a high school diploma or a GED certificate. Not having either of these might mean having to take a standardized exam and pass it. A document regarding proof of residency (like any other college application) is also required. As for age requirements for these schools, it varies state by state, so it’s best to do your research on the minimum age of trade schools in the state you’re targeting. 


The typical requirements for a community college admission also tend to be more lax than a traditional university, usually requiring at least a high school diploma. Further requirements could differ depending on the state of the school. For example, in California there is no  minimum GPA requirement for community colleges. The admission process shouldn’t be too different either, starting with proof of residency. Submitting the FAFSA is also a vital step, as it’ll help in bringing the cost of attending community college down. Some community colleges may require you to take either the SAT or ACT exams for admission, so it’s best to check with the requirements of the school you’re aiming for. 


How to Decide between Trade School and Community College


When deciding between trade school and community college, it’s important to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each. 


Advantages And Disadvantages Of Trade School




1. You can hone a particular, specific skill

The opportunity to acquire specific skills makes one a more appealing candidate for jobs they apply for relative to their line of work. It can also possibly allow you to skip the training phase.


2. You’ll spend less time in school and save money

Trade schools are typically less expensive and shorter in length of time, allowing you to get in and out quickly and start working sooner.


3. Possible to enter the job market immediately after school

Thanks to the certification provided, you can instantly start working right out of school, as the certification serves as proof of understanding concepts and practices relevant to work.




1. Salary tends to be low

Most of the jobs associated with technical certifications tend to pay (on average) less than jobs that would require a bachelor’s degree.


2. Trade school isn’t the best option if you’re not set on a career choice


If you aren’t particularly set on what career you intend to go into, then a trade school isn’t for you as it is ultra-focused on a specific set of skills, whereas in college you can afford to make a choice on your career later than earlier.


3. It’s difficult to gain soft skills outside of your field


In trade school you won’t be taking classes that go outside of your practice/trade, therefore the skills you acquire won’t make you a diversified individual. For example, in college a computer science student can take psychology courses, further broadening their academic experience. 


Advantages And Disadvantages Of Community College




1. Lower tuition and fees than a four-year institution

Most universities tend to have their first two years of study consist of general requisite courses, so going to a community college to take these general courses that you would have to take at most universities anyway, could discount two years of your college education. Attending community college lets you get the basic courses out of your way for cheaper!


2. You get the opportunity to improve your transcript


Applying and qualifying for college scholarships isn’t easy, it usually requires a great highschool transcript for substantial amounts of aid, which leaves students with below-average transcripts from high school in a burdening situation. Using community college as a stepping stone to improve your transcript, and then later applying to university can help you get those scholarships!


3. Work closely with high-quality professors


There’s a stigma against the quality of community college education, but Community college professors are highly qualified individuals who take advantage of the flexible schedule community college provides. Thanks to later evening classes, community college professors tend to be working people who teach on their off time, usually classes related to their job or field of experience. Also, smaller campus size means that you’ll get more one-on-one time with your instructors.




1. You have a limited course catalog

About 81% of community college students transfer out (or at least intend to) to a university. Therefore the classes community colleges provide are catering to transfer students who want to meet their general education requirements, so there’s an abundance of general/basic classes. This means you wouldn’t find unique or specific classes pertaining to a certain major/practice, potentially leading to a less stimulating academic experience.


2. There can be a lack of campus spirit


Community colleges typically have less of a “campus spirit” or sense of togetherness amongst students, hence a lack of school events and activities. This is mostly attributed to the time spent on campus outside of studying, which is close to nothing for most students. Most students are busy with work or other responsibilities, leaving no time to stay on campus and form connections and bonds with the school and other students, at least not as much as a four year university student would.


3. You might be at a disadvantage for hiring

Unfortunately since the stigma of education at a community college is still pretty bad, if you don’t transfer out of a community college to a university, and get a degree at said university, your chances in comparison to a student with a Bachelor’s for a job might be slimmer. This is just something to keep in mind when considering your post-secondary education options.


What about traditional universities?


After discussing more about alternatives like community college and trade school, you might even come to a realization that neither of these options are for you, and you might prefer a traditional four-year university path instead. 


If you’re looking for things trade schools and community colleges don’t offer, such as a fulfilling campus experience, networking opportunities and in some cases, better post-academia opportunities for further study and work, then you might prefer a traditional four-year university. Admissions into traditional universities require numerous things ranging from letters of recommendation, standardized testing and strong high school transcripts. 


Deciding between a trade school, community college and university can be a daunting process in itself but taking your time to make a decision that you won’t regret is worth it. Wondering about your chances of getting into a traditional university? Try using CollegeVine’s admission calculator, a useful tool for getting further insight into your college admissions journey. This calculator considers your GPA, test scores, and more to determine your unique chances of admission.


Short Bio
Varun is a recent graduate from Arizona State University, Tempe, with a degree in Computer Science. He aims to share his knowledge of computer science, the IB Diploma Program, and all things college-related with high school students. In his free time, he can be found performing DJ sets or cooking!