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When to Consider a Trade School, Community College or Online Degree Program

Personal Finance
male student meets with career advisor to discuss trade school, vocational school and online degrees

There's no hard-and-fast rule that says earning a degree from a four-year college is the only guarantee of success. Trade schools, vocational schools, community colleges and online degree programs can also be great, affordable options for students who want to further their education or learn a trade that will serve as the foundation of their future career.

Depending on your situation, alternative degree programs might be worth considering — but you should be aware of the financial requirements before choosing that route.

Trade School or Community College?

Trade schools or vocational schools teach students a specific skill set, typically focusing on a narrow course of study related to a specific career. If you want to be an electrician, an audio engineer, a paralegal or a software developer, for example, you might attend this type of educational institution to learn the skills of your trade.

Trade school programs are typically shorter than programs at traditional universities or community colleges. In some cases, students can complete their program in as little as 18 months, or by completing the requisite number of training hours, as with cosmetology school or a massage therapy program.

Whether you decide to attend a trade school or community college, the costs will vary. As of 2023, the average cost of a trade school education is between $5,000-$15,0001.

Another consideration for trade schools versus community colleges is your course of study and future plans. If you're sure of your future career, a trade school may be a better option because it's more specialized. But if you want to take general courses or get your prerequisites out of the way before attending a four-year college, community college might be worthwhile because it's much more affordable.

The average annual cost of a four-year public university in 2022-2023 was $22,1802. At private universities, the cost was more than double — a whopping $53,430.

Community college can also give you time to figure out your chosen career. It's safe to say that not every 18-year-old knows what they want to do in life. Taking two years to learn and explore before you and your family make the financial commitment a four-year degree entails can be a great idea — especially as college costs continue to rise.

Both trade schools and community colleges can set you up for success, as well as a salary that's often higher than people with only a high school diploma would earn. These salaries can also be close to the U.S. median annual income. 

The Advantages of Online Degree Programs

The number of students who take online courses continues to grow.

About 30% of higher-education students are enrolled in at least one online course3. The world has gone increasingly digital, after all, so why shouldn't higher education?

Online degree programs are often more affordable than four-year degree programs and offer more flexibility, even though you can get a bachelor's degree from both types of institutions. Online courses often charge around $200-$400 per credit hour. Add to that not having to pay room and board, and the flexibility to arrange classes around a work schedule or family commitments (which is key for older or nontraditional students), and you can see why online degree programs are an attractive option.

Many online degree programs offer bachelor's, master's and even doctoral programs in fields of study like business, criminal justice, education and the sciences, which could help put you on the path to a new career.

Choosing the Right Program for You

Listen: Traditional four-year college programs aren't for everyone. There are many other educational choices you can make to help build your future career — trade schools, community colleges and online degree programs are just some of them. These programs give you the option of either receiving specialized training in your chosen field right away, taking general courses and saving money before you pursue a four-year degree, or attending classes from anywhere in a way that can help you better balance work, education and family.

The Bottom Line

Which one you choose will depend on your priorities — and what you can afford. But cost alone, while an important consideration, shouldn't be the only deciding factor. You'll also need to have some idea of your long-term goals. Understanding how a trade school, community college or online degree fits into your larger plans can help put you in the best position to get the most value from these programs and more successfully pursue your future career.


1 Premium Schools. “Trade School vs. College: What’s the Difference?” Premium Schools, 2022, https://www.premiumschools.org/trade-school-vs-college/.

2 College Board. Trends in College Pricing & Student Aid 2022. College Board, 2022, https://research.collegeboard.org/media/pdf/trends-in-college-pricing-student-aid-2022.pdf.

3 "Online Education Statistics." Research.com, n.d., https://research.com/education/online-education-statistics.

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