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College vs. Trade School vs. Community College: What’s the Difference?

Aug 17, 2021 ·

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Whether you’re getting ready to graduate from high school or are looking to go back to school to get ahead in your career, you’ve probably discovered there are many different paths you can take when it comes to pursuing a postsecondary education.

Going to school is an investment in your future, so when making your decision it’s important to explore all of your options. The school and type of program you choose will play a big role in helping you pursue the career of your choosing, so taking the time to research different opportunities can be worthwhile.

Postsecondary programs are usually offered at three different types of institutions: colleges, trade schools and community colleges. Each type of school differs when it comes to the programs that are offered, the length of time required to complete them, and the diploma, degree or certificate you can graduate with.

So how do you make the decision between college, trade school and community college? Keep reading to learn about the pros and cons of each path and how to choose the one that best suits you and your goals.

Trade School vs. College

As you start planning for your education, one of the first things you’ll need to decide is whether you want to take the trade school or college route.

While both college and trade school are designed to prepare you for a career, there are key differences between the two. Here are some of the most important to consider:


One of the biggest differences between college and trade school is the amount of time required to be in school. Typically, college requires four years to earn a bachelor’s degree, and more if you’re looking to earn your master’s or doctorate.

On the other hand, most trade school programs require two years or less to complete. At a school like Universal Technical Institute (UTI), for example, you can complete your training in less than one year.7


Because trade school requires less time to complete, it has the potential to be more affordable than traditional college in the long run. Plus, many trade schools like UTI offer scholarships and grants just like colleges do, which can help lower your training costs even more.10


Another key difference between college and trade school is the environment you’ll learn in. In college, you’ll most likely spend your days sitting in large lecture halls, where a professor will give instruction.

At a trade school, you may also learn concepts in a classroom setting, but a good portion of your time will be spent applying concepts in a hands-on environment. For example, students at UTI can train in labs equipped with some of the same tools and technology used by technicians in the field.

Learning Style

Due to their different environments, colleges and trade schools are best suited for different learning styles. As you can imagine, trade school is a great option for hands-on learners, while college may be best suited for auditory or visual learners. If you’re not sure what your learning style is, check out this self-assessment.

Diploma, Degree or Certificate

Colleges and trade schools also differ in what they offer graduates, whether it be a diploma, degree or certificate.

It’s often believed that colleges offer degrees and trade schools offer diplomas or certificates. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this varies based on the specific school — meaning not all colleges offer degrees and not all trade schools offer diplomas or certificates.

If your desired career path requires a certain degree or certification, you’ll want to choose a school that offers it.

Curious what degrees, diplomas and certificates you can earn at UTI? Check out this guide.

Career Paths

Trade school is designed to equip you with the skills needed for a particular career path. For example, there are trade school programs for those who want to become technicians, welders, construction workers, dental hygienists and even hairdressers.

The goal of trade school programs is to provide you with the hands-on skills you need to start working in your desired role soon after you graduate.1

Colleges tend to offer more broad degree programs that serve as a foundation for a career path. For example, if you major in communications, you may later choose to work your way up in the world of journalism or even human resources. In addition to your education, you’ll likely need to gain work experience in the field you want to specialize in.

Trade school is often best for those who have a specific idea of what they want to do in their career and are looking to enter the workforce within one to two years, while college may be best suited for someone who wants to get a broader education and explore different avenues.

Trade School vs. Community College

Now that we’ve broken down the differences between trade school and college, you might be wondering, “What’s the difference between trade school and community college?”

Community colleges have some similarities with trade schools; however there are also key differences to note. Here’s a quick breakdown:

Community College

  • Most programs are designed to be completed in two years, sometimes less.
  • Requires the completion of general education courses (such as math, science and English).
  • Tend to be more theory-based; students learn in classroom and lecture hall settings.
  • Students can earn an associate degree, diploma or certificate, depending on the school and program.

Trade School

  • Programs often can be completed in about one year.
  • Curriculum includes courses specific to the student’s career path.
  • Incorporates more hands-on application (such as in a lab or shop environment).
  • Students can earn an associate degree, diploma or certificate, depending on the school and program.

Another thing to consider when choosing between community college and trade school is the reputation and industry connections the school has.

For example, UTI offers programs created in conjunction with leading brands. This means brands like BMW, Ford, Kawasaki and Peterbilt work with UTI to create programs that teach the very skills they look for when hiring technicians.

UTI offers a variety of Manufacturer-Specific Advanced Training programs, some of which are paid for by employers and can lead to job offers after graduation.15 If you’re looking to become a technician, welder or machinist, these industry relationships can give you a leg up as you start your career. This is one reason you might choose trade school over a community college.

Read: The Difference Between College, Trade School and Universal Technical Institute

Technical College vs. Community College

If you’re considering the trade school or community college route, you’ll probably also hear the terms “technical college” and “vocational school” being used. This can make things confusing, but don’t worry — trade school, technical school (or college) and vocational school are often used interchangeably, so it refers to the same thing.

Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Vocational school: An umbrella term used to describe technical and trade schools.
  • Trade school: A secondary school that teaches the skilled trades with a focus on hands-on learning and careers.
  • Technical school: Prepares students for technical job fields; may incorporate more classroom-style learning than a trade school.

So, the breakdown between technical college and community college is essentially the same as trade school and community college. They may differ in the time it takes to complete a program, the type of coursework, the amount of hands-on learning and the career paths they prepare you for.

Making Your Decision

Now that we’ve covered the differences between college, trade school and community college, it’s time to consider which path is right for you. To help make your decision, here are a few questions you can ask yourself:

  1. How long do I want to be in school?
  2. Do I want to take general education courses, or just courses for my specific career path?
  3. What am I willing to spend on my education?
  4. Do I qualify for financial aid, grants and scholarships?
  5. In what type of environment do I learn best?
  6. Do I know what career I want to pursue, or do I want to explore multiple paths?
  7. What degree, diploma or certificate will I need for my career?

When all is said and done, choosing the type of school you want to attend for your postsecondary education is all dependent on you and your goals for the future.

Remember, there’s no such thing as too much research, so take the time to explore all the options that may be available to you. This way, you can feel confident in your decision and excited about your future!

Tour One of UTI’s Campuses

One of the best ways to decide if trade school is right for you is to take a campus tour! UTI’s locations nationwide are open and giving tours, so now’s a great time to come see one of our campuses for yourself.

On your tour, you’ll be able to check out our classrooms and labs, meet our staff and have your questions answered. Visit our campus tours page to schedule your visit today!

If you have questions about UTI and want to connect with an Admissions Representative, request information.

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1) UTI is an educational institution and cannot guarantee employment or salary.

2) For program outcome information and other disclosures, visit

7) Some programs may require longer than one year to complete.

10) Financial aid, scholarships and grants are available to those who qualify. Awards vary due to specific conditions, criteria and state.

15) Manufacturer-paid advanced training programs are conducted by UTI on behalf of manufacturers who determine acceptance criteria and conditions. These programs are not part of UTI’s accreditation. Programs available at select locations.

Universal Technical Institute of Illinois, Inc. is approved by the Division of Private Business and Vocational Schools of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.


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