College isn't for everyone. Trade school is another, often more affordable, option. But which is right for you? Find out.

If you’re nearing the end of high school or have recently moved out into the working world, you may be interested in prospects to build your long-term income with an exciting new career path. Before you dive in, however, it’s a good idea to look at the costs and income prospects of different careers and the required education to get there.

The data makes a solid argument for the pursuit of higher education. Here’s a look at what you can expect to pay for trade school or college, and the income you can expect when you graduate.

The college vs. trade school debate

Experts, gurus, radio hosts, and news commentators all have strong opinions about whether or not young adults should go to college. Proponents point to the numbers that show people with more education earn more. Opponents argue that college is a waste of time and money for many people who would be best suited to going straight into the workforce.

In reality, your options are not so black and white. You can choose between trade schools, community colleges, public colleges and universities, and private schools. Those can be reasonably affordable all the way up to astronomical in price. And the value you get in return varies as well.

To decide which makes the most sense for you, it’s important to think about what career paths you would enjoy, what lifestyle and income level you prefer, and how hard you’re willing to work to get there.

Income tends to increase with education

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, every level of education leads to a higher income and lower unemployment rate with the exception of doctoral degrees. That means someone with a high school diploma will earn more than someone without. Someone with a bachelor’s degree will earn more than someone with an associate’s degree.

Below are the average weekly earnings and unemployment rate for Americans by level of education.

Educational attainmentAverage usual weekly earnings (as of 2020)Unemployment rate (as of 2020)
Doctoral degree$1,8852.5%
Professional degree$1,8933.1%
Master's degree$1,5454.1%
Bachelor's degree$1,3055.5%
Associate degree

Some college, no degree$8778.3%
High school diploma, no college$7819%
Less than a high school diploma$61911.7%

Data via the Bureau of Labor Statistics

As you can clearly see, more education means a higher income and more job stability with few exceptions. In the next two sections, I will look at some more specific career paths and income levels for trade school and college graduates.

What careers can you have after trade school and how much can you earn?

A trade school is an educational institution that helps people prepare for specific jobs and career paths. Instead of the general education you get in college, most of what you learn in trade school is highly focused so you can finish the program as quickly as possible.

Sometimes called vocational education, trade school programs can lead to jobs in building, medical, manufacturing, and other sectors of the economy that often carry a respectable salary.

Here are some examples:

OccupationAverage income
Database Administrator$85,778
Radiation Therapist$85,500
Elevator Install and Repair$84,990
Dental Hygienist$74,000
Occupational Therapy Assistant$67,500
Insulation Installation and Maintenance$44,180
Hazardous Materials Removal$43,900

Data Sources: BLS, ZipRecruiter

Note that these are average incomes, not the starting income you would earn right away in many cases.

What careers can you have after college and how much can you earn?

With a college degree, you can move into a wide range of careers in the sciences, engineering, business, and much more. Some jobs merely require a college degree in general, while others may require more specific degrees.

Here is an estimate of starting salary by college degree:

College major (Bachelor’s Degree)2021 salary
Computer Science$72,173
Math & Sciences$63,316
Social Sciences$59,919
Agriculture & Natural Resources$54,857

Source: NACE 2021 Salary Survey

Note that these are starting salaries. Incomes often go up over time and there is no limit on what anyone can earn.

Within each of those areas, there are many possible jobs and career paths. For example, within engineering, you could be a mechanical, aerospace, electrical, computer, chemical, biological, architectural, civil, or environmental engineer.

According to Glassdoor, the most popular job titles for college grads include:

  • Sales associate.
  • Research assistant.
  • Reaching assistant.
  • Administrative assistant.
  • Account manager.
  • Social media manager.
  • Software engineer.

The cost of trade school vs. college

While college is likely to lead to a higher salary, it isn’t a walk in the park. And it isn’t free. In fact, going to college can be very expensive.

A high school diploma is free if you go to a public school. From there, you have to pay for most education opportunities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, here are the costs you can expect when going to college:

DegreeTotal average cost
Associate’s degree$21,196
Bachelor’s degree - public$106,372
Bachelor’s degree - private$165,872

These numbers compare to an average of $33,000 per year for a trade or vocational school program. That means you can likely get an associate’s degree at a community college for less than the cost of trade school, but an average bachelor’s degree costs about three times more.

That makes college unaffordable for many households. However, there are resources available to help pay for college or vocational programs if you’re determined to make it work.

Paying for an education

If you are on the way to any accredited college, university, or vocational school, you have multiple resources available to make it work. Those include scholarships, grants, student loans, and work-study programs that can cover tuition, fees, and more.

It’s a good idea to take full advantage of scholarships, grants, and federal student loans before looking to private student lenders, but here are a few popular options to help you cover the cost of trade school or college.

  • Credible is a student loan comparison website that allows you to shop around for private student loans or student loan refinancing with one application. After completing a very short form, you can get offers from more than half a dozen lenders.
  • Earnest is a student lender that offers private student loans, student loan refinancing, and personal loans. If you are on the way to school, Earnest can share your rates in about two minutes. You can also score a nine-month grace period, no origination or late payment fees, and the option to skip a payment once per year.
Credible Credit Disclosure - To check the rates and terms you qualify for, Credible or our partner lender(s) conduct a soft credit pull that will not affect your credit score. However, when you apply for credit, your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies will be requested, which is considered a hard credit pull and will affect your credit.


Invest in yourself – and do it proudly. Education is an investment in your future.

Most of the time, we have a gut feeling about what is better in terms of trade school or college. And if you’re not sure, keep talking to the people who you respect and who know you well.  Those conversations will hopefully bring clarity as to what will end up being the better decision for you.

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About the author

Eric Rosenberg picture
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Eric Rosenberg is a finance, travel, and technology writer in Ventura, California. He is a former bank manager and corporate finance and accounting professional who left his day job in 2016 to take his online side hustle full-time. He has in-depth experience writing about banking, credit cards, investing, business, and other financial topics. When away from the keyboard, Eric enjoys exploring the world and spending time with his wife and kids. You can connect with him at Personal Profitability or He's also busy talking money on Twitter and YouTube.