Blog Post |

Online College or Trade School: What’s Right for You?

Dan Johnston

September 29, 2019

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to education. For some, attending a 4-year college is integral to their professional goals or they believe education is worthwhile for its own pursuit. But for plenty of other students, they’re just going to college because they think it’s the “next step”.

And that next step can be expensive. Among the class of 2018, 69% of students took on student loans to attend university. And the average student graduated with $29,800 in debt and $393 in monthly loan payments.

All of which begs the question: is college right for everyone? Because if there’s one thing that is true for everyone, it’s that not everyone needs the same education to be successful.

Engineer Training Apprentices On CNC Machine

College vs trade school: what’s what

The best place to start is with a what’s what in the world of education.

Education Length Cost Where to get it Who it’s best for
Bachelor of Arts 4 years $85,000 average for 4 years 


$30,000 average for 4 years 

• Traditional university/ college

• Online college

• Your career path requires a BA or you want to go on to earn a Master’s
Associate’s Degree 2 years $14,000 average for in-state tuition for 2 years • Junior college

• Community college

• Online college

• Your chosen speciality requires an Associate’s Degree

• You’re looking for a shorter, more cost-effective general degree

Certificate Varies, but generally less than 1 year Varies Trade school or vocational school • You prefer hands-on learning

• You know what field you want to specialize in

Deciding between all the available options has a lot to do with what your end goals are. A few questions to ask yourself:

  • How much time do I have to complete my degree? If you’re looking to study while fully employed or pivot into a new career path as quickly as possible, your needs will be different.
  • What field would you like to enter? If you want to be a physician’s assistant, then it’s a BA for you. But if you’re interested in studying to be an HVAC technician, then you’re more likely to want a certificate program.
  • What are my finances like? Weigh your interests against your finances. Find out how much your desired program will cost and see if you’re eligible for financial aid before you jump in.
  • Evaluate your skills and interests. Are you highly organized and good at administrative work? Are you great at problem-solving? Doing an honest self-assessment is often a great place to start when deciding on the suitability of any given career.

Ultimately, you want to think about your end goal. Some people are driven by a passion for a very specific career path, while others’ main goal is to enter a field that offers a steady salary and plenty of job opportunities. If you fall into the latter category, then the next step would be to figure out where that opportunity lies.

Follow the job growth

First, let’s take a look at some of the jobs that are set to see the highest growth in employment from 2018-2028, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Top 5 jobs by growth 2018-2028

Job Growth Rate 2018 Median Pay Education required
Solar Photovoltaic Installer 63% $42,680 High school diploma
Wind Turbine Service Technician 57% $54,370 Certificate or postsecondary nondegree award
Home Health Aide 37% $24,200 High school diploma
Personal care aide 36% $24,020 High school diploma
Occupational therapy assistant 33% $60,220 Associate’s degree

What do all these positions have in common? None of them require a 4-year Bachelor’s Degree. And, if you widen the scope to look at some of the top-growing industries over the next decade, the opportunities in the skilled trades, health services, and other professions become even more abundant.

Industries with the most new jobs 2016-2026

Industry Number of new jobs  Typical jobs
Food & service 1,077,000 Food preparation, cooks, wait staff, managers
Individual and family services 877,000 Counselors, educators, HR specialists
Construction 864,400 Carpenter, construction laborer, manager, electrician
Home health care services 738,000 Health aide, administrator, social worker
Services to buildings and dwellings 252,000 Cleaning and maintenance workers, HVAC technicians
Warehousing and storage 195,000 Industrial truck operators, laborers, stock clerks, shift managers

So, once you’ve identified where your interests and skills intersect with the available opportunities, the next step is figuring out where to get the training you need.

Choosing a program

Assuming you’ve made up your mind what field you want to pursue, you’ll want to think about what kind of educational institution is right. For our purposes, online college (which often has two-year Associate’s degrees and four-year Bachelor’s options) and trade schools make the most sense to focus on since they’re both the broadest and often the most cost-effective options out there.

Educational Institution Pros Cons
Online college • Flexible schedule

• More cost-effective than brick and mortar institutions

• Wide variety of loans/financial aid available, including state and federal funding

• Explore different subjects/areas of study

• A lot of unaccredited schools out there

• Degree takes 2-4 years

Trade school • Programs often offer part time schedules

• Often take less than 1 year

• Cost-effective

• Get hands-on training

• Join the workforce quickly

• Less time or flexibility to explore different areas of study

But how to sift among the many options out there? If you’re leaning towards online college, there are some important things to keep in mind when choosing a school:

  • Accreditation: In recent years, there have been a number of stories about online colleges that put profits over students, taking their money and giving them a worthless degree in return. To make sure the program you’re considering is legitimate, check the school out on the college navigator tool on the Department of Education’s website. This will allow you to verify their accreditation as well as vital stats like graduation rates.
  • Credits: If you’re switching from another school or program, you’ll want to check to make sure your credits will transfer.
  • Support services: Even if a degree is online, you should still have access to benefits like academic, financial aid, and career counselors.
  • Red flags: Look out for red flags like a low graduation rate, which often indicates little support for students, or low employment rates for graduates, which can indicate schools that are little better than “diploma mills” churning out degrees with no real training.

If you’re leaning towards a path that leads you to vocational training or trade school, there are other factors to keep in mind:

  • Accreditation: Check to make sure the school is licensed and accredited. Licensings is usually handled by a state agency, so ask the school who handles their licensing. Another good resource is the US Department of Education’s database.
  • Facilities: Vocational/trade schools are mostly about hands-on training, so it’s vital that the school has good facilities. If you can, visit before you enroll. Ask about the type of equipment you’ll be using and teacher qualifications.
  • Job placement: Does the school offer apprenticeships upon graduation? What about career services? Are they forthcoming about employment rates for graduates? These are all signs of a reputable program with a good relationship with the industry.

Long term prospects

Okay, but what about the pay gap? It costs a lot more to become a doctor, but then you earn more money than you would in other career paths, right? While this is true, on average the disparity in pay levels out over time.

After 10 years, a worker with a 1-year certificate earned only $1,347 less than someone with a 4-year Bachelor’s degree. And more and more students with a Bachelor’s degree are working at jobs that don’t actually require them—44% of recent college grads in 2015 to be exact.

The takeaway

there are a lot of factors to consider when deciding between all the educational options out there. And, most importantly, success can be defined in many ways. So make sure you’re making the decisions that make sense for the future you envision.

Need help or guidance? Reach out to us at Our career counselors would be happy to help direct you to some vocational training programs in your area.

Dan Johnston

Dan Johnston, Co-Founder & CEO |