Online College or trade school: what’s right for you?

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

College vs trade school: what’s what

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




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


Varies, but generally less than 1 year


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:

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


Growth Rate

2018 Median Pay

Education required

Solar Photovoltaic Installer



High school diploma

Wind Turbine Service Technician



Certificate or postsecondary nondegree award

Home Health Aide



High school diploma

Personal care aide



High school diploma

Occupational therapy assistant



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


Number of new jobs 

Typical jobs

Food & service


Food preparation, cooks, wait staff, managers

Individual and family services


Counselors, educators, HR specialists



Carpenter, construction laborer, manager, electrician

Home health care services


Health aide, administrator, social worker

Services to buildings and dwellings


Cleaning and maintenance workers, HVAC technicians

Warehousing and storage


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



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:

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

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.