Trade Schools or College Degrees for IT Jobs? Which Is Better?

It seems like every day we hear someone blurt a small complaint regarding their history with college. An inkling of doubt in their decisions as a child fresh out of grade school. Most believe, while looking at an ever-growing mountain of debt, that they made the wrong decision by spending their time and money on the program. Some believe they would have been better off diving directly into their specific field, relying on trade schools or apprenticeships for the actual education needed.

It’s hard to argue with them, especially in the current education market. And, if our opinion wasn’t enough, the United States government tends to agree. Since President Biden’s campaign prior to 2020, he has promised work to reduce the painful and financially back-breaking student loans held by millions of citizens. In fact, as of 2022, 43.5 million Americans have federal student loans. Approximately 13% of all Americans had federal student loan debt in 2021.

And before you mention a quip about just ‘not going to college’, it’s important to remember the pressure that is put on us since birth. If you were raised before the 2010s, you were likely ingrained with the idea that your only path to a well-paying job was familial ties or college degrees. This idea, so bold and inked in the American lexicon, has sunk millions of citizens.

In 2013, Gallup found that 70% of U.S. adults considered a college education to be “very important.” That number dropped to 51% in 2019.

Point is: people are beginning to believe college to be a waste and trade schools to be more useful. Are they correct? Are trade schools better for IT jobs?

Let’s discuss.

What Is a Trade School?

Trade schools, also known as vocational schools or technical schools, are institutions that offer specialized training programs for a particular trade or vocation. Trade schools typically offer certificate or diploma programs that can be completed in a relatively short period of time, ranging from a few months to 2 years. These programs are focused on providing practical, hands-on training in a specific trade, such as welding, plumbing, electrical work, or IT.

Basically, trade schools are higher-learning programs for specific vocations. They are often seen as less prestigious than college degrees due to a difference in time and book learning. Despite that, trade schools still require an ample amount of work and learning in the specific field. The difference is there aren’t academic requirements outside of actual job-related information.

During college, you may be forced to take math or science classes despite getting a degree in English. This does not happen in trade school. You learn the job you want through hands-on work.

Trade schools often only require a high school diploma or GED instead of an acceptable GPA and extra credit for college.

Overall Pros of Trade Schools

  • Hands-on Training: Trade schools provide practical, hands-on training that is focused on the skills needed for specific IT jobs. This type of training allows students to gain real-world experience and be job-ready in a short period of time.
  • Cost: Trade schools are often less expensive than colleges, and the programs can be completed in a shorter amount of time, allowing students to start their careers sooner and with less debt.
  • Job Placement: Trade schools often have partnerships with local employers, which can provide students with job placement assistance after graduation.

Overall Cons of Trade Schools

  • Limited Career Opportunities: Trade school programs are often focused on a specific trade or vocation, which can limit career opportunities for graduates. In the IT field, trade school graduates may be limited to entry-level positions, such as help desk or technical support.
  • Lack of General Education: Trade school programs typically do not include general education courses, which can limit the overall knowledge and skills of graduates. This can also limit career advancement opportunities.

What Is College?

Colleges, on the other hand, are institutions that offer a wide range of academic programs and degrees, including associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Colleges typically offer a more general education that covers a broad range of subjects, such as mathematics, science, humanities, and social sciences. In addition to core academic courses, colleges also offer specialized programs in various fields, including IT.

Basically, college is higher education. It follows the same format as grade school, in which you are required to take a wide array of classes and subjects to finish. While you will stay with a main focus, you will be required to learn other information on other topics. On average, college requires 2 years for an associate’s degree and 4 for a bachelor’s.

If you were born and raised in the States, you have most likely heard of college as a prestigious and respectable accomplishment. And, by all means, it is. But, newer generations are noticing the fallacies of its nature (we’ll get to that, promise).

Overall Pros of College

  • Comprehensive Education: College programs provide a comprehensive education that covers a broad range of subjects, including IT. This type of education can provide graduates with a well-rounded set of skills that can be applied to various IT jobs.
  • Career Advancement: College degrees can provide graduates with more career advancement opportunities, such as management or leadership positions.
  • Higher Pay: College graduates often earn higher salaries than trade school graduates.

Overall Cons of College

  • Cost: College programs are often more expensive than trade schools, and the programs can take longer to complete, resulting in more debt for students.
  • Lack of Hands-on Training: College programs may not provide as much hands-on, practical training as trade schools. This can result in a longer learning curve and may require graduates to undergo additional on-the-job training.
  • Job Market Saturation: The job market for IT professionals with college degrees can be highly competitive, with many applicants vying for the same positions.

Price Difference Is Key

Before we begin delving into which option makes more sense for an IT-related career, we must pinpoint the 2 significant differences between the schooling methods.

First, let’s state the obvious: college is expensive.

No… College is brutally expensive.

According to EducationData, in-state public school students pay an average of $10,440 per year for tuition. After room and board, that average leads to $21,950 per year. And, if that number seems lighter than you expected, you must remember that the number is for in-state students and public colleges, the 2 cheaper options for college education. Once you factor in private colleges and out-of-state tuition (a more common situation), you get to astronomical levels. Out-of-state tuition for public schools averages $26,820 per year, and with room and board totals, that equals $38,330 per year.

Then, you have the lovely prices of public schools.

Though private schools often offer more frivolous packages and scholarships, the average is still nauseating. Private schools lead to an average of $36,880 per year for tuition alone and $49,879 per year when including room and board. This means an average bachelor’s degree at a private school is $49,879 times 4.

The outrageous price tends to be the biggest deterring factor when it comes to bright-eyed professionals. If you can land the same gigs without it, why pay so much for it?

Trade Schools Are Significantly Less Expensive

The price of trade schools depends entirely on the trade and school, sure, but the significant drop in average price is staggering.

According to U.S. News, trade school students pay an average of $33,000 for their entire education. Not tuition on a yearly basis. The entire education.

As noted, more extensive programs can cost a bit more. For example, trade schools involving high-level IT work like engineering or avionics can cost a little over $30,000.

Why pay 4-times the amount if it ends in the same IT job?
That’s the dilemma.

Time Difference Is Key, Too

It’s also important to note the drastic difference in the time it takes to complete the 2 different educational cycles.

As noted, the average time for a college degree changes depending on the degree type, but still requires at least 2 entire school years. If you are aiming for a bachelor’s, the most common of the 3, then you are going to need a few years (4) of full-scheduled schooling.

On the other hand, trade schools average 2 years of completion time. And, while you can technically get a college degree in 2 years, an associate’s does not hold as much weight as a bachelor’s or trade school completion. Therefore, the real difference is 2 for trade schools and 4 for colleges.

Once again, we raise the question: why waste 2 years of non-paid work for the same IT job? With the trade school, you can get into the industry and begin building your resume 2 entire years earlier than those going the college route.

Also, Internships

Another quick thing to note: internships at larger companies often require that the intern is currently enrolled in a college program. Therefore, if your only way into a company you love is through an internship, you won’t be able to secure it with a trade school enrollment.

This, of course, is a very specific example, but it’s still one to note. Some industries rely heavily on internships and unpaid experience (an issue we broke down here). If you plan on getting into journalism, for example, you may need a lot of intern experience under your belt.

Luckily, these career paths often don’t overlay. For example, you don’t go to a trade school for journalism.

Just something of note.

Pay Difference Between the Two

As we mentioned in the last section, paying more or spending more time to get the same paying job seems like an extreme misstep. Is it true, though? Do trade school graduates and college degree holders make the same exact money?

Unfortunately, there is a bit of a difference between the average salary of college graduates and trade school graduates, favoring those with college degrees. For example, while a construction manager does pay a significant wage ($125,740), an IT delivery manager for a tech company (which is likely to require a college degree), pays a bit more ($149,794).

It’s also important to note that this depends entirely on the specific market and location. For example, California and New York may pay significantly more for either of these roles than, say, Wisconsin.

But, the question is if tech jobs pay more. And, the answer is no. An entry-level IT worker will make the same regardless of their respective educational background. The only difference between the 2 schooling routes is how easily you land that job.

While the job and pay will end up being the same, companies may be quicker to hire someone with a college education. According to a 2022 study by the Cengage Group, 47% of IT employers say skills training credentials are most important when considering a candidate for an entry-level job. Only 26% say college degrees are impactful. Yet, the majority (81%) of IT job postings require degrees to apply.

But… Trade Schools Lead to More Skills Training

Let’s look at the above statistic.

Recruiters think that skills and experience are more important than degrees. But, ironically, college degrees are often required for tech jobs. Now, that’s painful for those eager to enter the field immediately.

By design, trade schools offer quicker and more applicable experience in the field. Meaning, it would seem like 47% of recruiters would prefer an experience-ridden resume of a trade schooler than the hypothetical information the college graduate has learned. Most of the time, graduates have no experience in the field yet, just applicable knowledge. So, the trade schooler should have the upper hand.

Once again, this becomes a matter of the idea and prestige around college. Simply put, recruiters and hiring managers just think it means more as a worker and individual to have high-level education. Which, ironically, keeps them from getting more job-ready candidates.

So, Which Is Better for IT Jobs?

This leads us to a sticky situation that depends on 3 main factors: the specific market, the willingness to push, and the finances.

Ultimately, the decision is entirely up to your gut feeling. We aren’t here to dictate your education. It’s important to look up more information about your specific industry and desired role. See if a majority of the gigs in your area require college degrees. See if they pay better elsewhere or don’t require degrees in different states. That will be the first step in making your decision.

Secondly, trade schools may be your better option if you are eager to enter the field, but it may require a bit more work to find a job willing to take you. This can still work out, especially if you have connections and expert skills, but can take more time. You will find yourself scouring through more job postings than those with degrees. But, those companies that prefer candidates with actual experience will look at you (if not over the college graduate without experience). So, you win there.

Thirdly, it’s all about finances. Sure, the trade school route may take a little longer to land a job, but it’s significantly cheaper. If you aren’t willing to (or simply cannot) spend the money or loans, don’t. You can still find a job in the field without it.

Though we always recommend higher education to land better jobs, we understand college isn’t feasible for everyone.

After all, it’s IT. You only absolutely need a college education for things like medicine and teaching. You just may have to work a bit harder.

Certifications May Be the Best

In a study by CompTIA, 49% of the 2.3 million IT job postings looked over were found not to demand a 4-year degree. But, the majority of significant candidates have a certification in their specific field.

If an IT employer is willing to overlook college education, they will certainly require certification for the specific role, especially roles that are not entry-level. Furthermore, it helps boost your resume, even if you have no further education.

Therefore, it’s crucial to look up certifications for your desired job and see if you can complete some of them. Not only will they bolster your resume, but they can also cause companies to overlook your lack of college education. They are hands-on proof that you can do the job, just like trade school certification.

Trade Schools Lead to Certifications Quickly

Luckily, a lot of trade schools will lead directly to certifications.

For example, a trade school involving electronics will likely lead to an Associate Certified Electronics Technician (CETa) certification. A trade school class on web development will often lead to a certification in a specific coding language (or languages).

The trade school works to push you directly into the working world, and most of the time, this includes garnering the correct certifications with the help of the teachers.


So. Which is the better option for IT jobs? Do you go to an expensive school or stick to a trade school?

If you are looking for a quick, practical education that will prepare you for a specific IT job, trade school may be the better option for you. However, if you are looking for a more comprehensive education that will provide you with a wider range of career options and opportunities for advancement, college may be the better choice.

It’s also important to consider the cost of education and your financial situation. Trade schools are often less expensive than colleges, but they may not offer as much financial aid or scholarship opportunities. On the other hand, colleges may offer more financial aid and scholarship opportunities, but they also come with a higher price tag.

Another factor to consider is the job market for IT professionals in your area. Some areas may have a higher demand for trade school graduates, while others may prefer college graduates. It’s important to research the job market in your area and determine which type of education will best prepare you for the jobs available.

Ultimately, the decision to pursue a trade school or college education for IT jobs should be based on your individual needs and career goals.

Both options have their advantages and disadvantages, and it’s up to you to decide which one will best serve your needs.

To put it simply: you will not be blackballed from the IT industry because you don’t have a college degree. You can get a job with a trade school certification. That fear of never getting a job should never deter you from choosing a trade school. It simply isn’t the case. Furthermore, companies are beginning to realize that younger workers are forgoing college. The hiring landscape will catch up to the ideal.

Reach Out to a Staffing Agency!

Still don’t know? We understand. It can be a challenging and life-altering decision.

As a staffing agency that once focused on IT staffing, we are here to help. We will meet with you and give you advice specific to your industry and market. Reach out to us! Our consultation is entirely free. We are here to help.

We can also help you land your dream job after you get your degree or certification.

Read more here!