Community College vs Technical College: A Breakdown

Is community college a better option than technical college? A complete analysis of both institutes’ strengths and weaknesses.

Introduction

Trade School, Technical College, CTEs, Vocational schools, Community College… a lot of students find it difficult to tell the difference between these and consequently, it affects their decision when picking the right college they will attend to achieve their goals.

Don’t worry, our comprehensive guide not only explains the difference between them, but it will also help you choose the right college for yourself.

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What is the difference between technical college, trade school, and community college?

Many students looking to pursue technical education get confused between technical college, trade school, and community college. It is important to understand the difference because it will help you choose the right education path for your career. Keep reading to find which is the right one for you.

Trade School

So, what exactly is a trade school? A trade school offers specialized training programs that prepare students for careers in the skilled trades sector. 

They are super focused on developing students’ technical abilities in skilled and mechanical trades. Mechanical trades and skilled trades are specifically related to the design, use, and/or understanding of tools, and/or machinery. 

Jobs in the skilled crafts field include blacksmiths, carpenters, mechanics, electricians, etc. Trade schools provide students with the technical hands-on knowledge and experience they need to master the skill required for a job. 

Most programs at trade schools take less than a year. However, depending on the subject, some programs may even take up to a year or two to complete. 

The cost of trade school depends on the program and school itself and varies from state to state. Generally, trade schools tend to cost more than community colleges. On a more positive note, many trade school programs have a high return-on-investment (ROI). 

According to an article on the ROI for trade schools, the trade schools with the highest return on investment include nursing, aeronautics, and technical institutes. Early salaries can be as high as $87,200 for healthcare professionals or $46,000 for technical engineers.


Technical School

Technical school and trade school are alike in many ways. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics categorizes both institutions under Career and Technical Education (CTE). Similarly, both are sometimes referred to as Vocational Schools

Much like a trade school, a technical degree is a certification earned after completing a course that teaches specific subjects based on occupational skills (a set of knowledge and skills that employees need for a specific job or occupation). Technical schools may offer more classroom time than trade schools overall.

Students can apply to technical school while still in high school or before starting their bachelor's degree. The curriculum is designed to prepare students to start working professionally as soon as they graduate. It is also a great option for people looking to switch their career/education path. 

Like trade school, the cost of technical school depends on the program and school itself and varies from state to state. Technical schools also tend to cost more than community colleges, in general. 


Community College

A community college, sometimes known as a junior college is a higher education institution that traditionally offers associate’s degrees and diplomas. This means that the main difference between CTEs and community colleges is that the latter provides a broader education. 

Over the years, many community colleges have also started offering bachelor’s degrees and certifications (the programs/degrees offered vary from college to college).

Community colleges are designed to cater to a variety of students. They focus on helping students acquire practical job skills, but unlike technical/trade school programs, typically include theoretical study and may include general education coursework. 

Courses in associate's degree programs are often divided into two categories: general education and major-specific. 

General education focuses on the acquisition of information and skills that are required for a variety of fields. These courses range from subjects such as reading comprehension, grammar, composition, basic mathematics, and science. 

On the other hand, major-specific courses are specialized according to the major you've selected.  ​

A key difference between a trade or technical school vs. a community college is that you can get a 2 year Associate’s degree at a community college which can be upgraded to a Bachelor’s degree by transferring to a 4-year university program.

The time it takes to finish community college depends solely on the program you’re enrolled in. Students have the option of taking classes during the day or in the evenings, full-time or part-time.

Some even opt to take two courses at once from different colleges

Community colleges are always state-subsidized which means that they are usually the most cost-effective education you can get. 

According to a report by Education Data Org, the average cost of community college is $7,460 total or $1,865 per semester. However, the specific costs depend on:

  1. The program you’re enrolled in
  2. The community college you’re attending 
  3. The state your community college is located in

Related: Do Community Colleges Have Majors and Minors?


Breaking the stigma of technical schools

In the United States, technical education and technical careers, in general, have become increasingly stigmatized and undervalued. Unfortunately, certain people believe that unless you study at a traditional four-year college/university and then do a “white collar” job, you are less “intelligent”. 

“Society has stigmatized vocational education, so most American parents see college as the only path to status and a good career for their children,” says Felix Rauner, a professor at the University of Bremen, in an interview for NPR

“The undervaluing of career and technical education, which has led to the underfunding and low enrollment of these courses and programs, goes beyond the employment and economic issues often referenced in research. By characterizing one form of education as inferior and deeming it less useful, we ultimately undervalue the person as well. When white-collar jobs are valued more than blue-collar jobs, we ultimately create greater social divisions.” wrote Jeremy Monk, a writer for Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness

However, the stigma surrounding technical education couldn’t be less accurate. Technical school trains students for a variety of jobs that need a high degree of knowledge and hands-on experience. A lot of knowledge and intelligence is required for technical jobs such as legal research, medical assistance, web development, or assistant surgeons.

Technical jobs also pay relatively well. Below are some of the jobs that you can do with a degree from a technical college, along with their average yearly salaries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Dental hygienist ($74,070)
  • Network Systems Administrator ($81,100)
  • Sonographer ($73,200)
  • Construction management ($91,370)
  • Line installer and repairer for power companies ($64,190)
  • Registered nurse ($70,000)
  • Web developer ($67,990)
  • Respiratory therapist ($59,710)
  • Electrician ($54,110)
  • Aircraft mechanic ($61,260)

Pros and cons of community college

There are many things to consider when applying to schools for higher education. Community college is a great option for a variety of students from different backgrounds. However, it is important that you weigh the pros and cons before making a final decision. 

PROS 

Affordability 

Students attend community college for a variety of reasons, the most obvious of which is the financial benefit. Full-time attendance at most community colleges costs less than two thousand dollars every semester. 

If students wish to eventually transfer, community college allows them to save up for the finances required at a four-year college/university. Community college is usually the more affordable option when compared to technical institutions, where the cost of each degree varies.

Flexible schedule

Community colleges were built to support communities. They are unique in the way that they provide the opportunity to those who would otherwise be unable to have access to higher education. Around 60% of students studying at community colleges are part-time students. 

This allows non-traditional students such as young parents, full-time or part-time employees, and students with difficult circumstances to receive an education like everyone else. Community colleges also give students the option of taking classes during the day or in the evenings.

Variety of options

You can only focus on one specific career field at technical school, but you can explore numerous alternatives with your associate's degree and certificates at community college. Click here to see the variety of courses offered at community colleges. 


CONS

Community colleges offer broad-based education which might not be for everyone

Community colleges strive to provide you with as much useful information as possible when you get an associate's degree, which includes general education courses.

General education includes educational programs that are designed to prepare students for entry into vocational education, but they do not prepare for employment in a particular occupation or trade or class of occupations or trades, nor lead directly to a labor market-relevant qualification. Technical schools, on the other hand, are concentrated on a single subject of study.

More Workload

Classes at a community college are held multiple days per week since the time spent in class is shorter as compared to the intensive training in credential programs. Most of the work is done through individual study, which means that the majority of your grade at a community college is determined by how well you perform on tests. 


Pros and cons of technical school

Many students wonder, what exactly is a technical college? Unlike community colleges, CTEs (trade schools or technical schools) are super focused on getting you ready for a specific job. They do not bother to teach you anything that is not relevant. Here is a list of the pros and cons to consider before applying to technical college. 

PROS

Higher earning potential

According to research conducted by the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), young employees with licenses and certificates, such as those earned through a technical college, earn 43 percent more than those with an associate degree, and 27 percent more than those with a bachelor's degree. Moreover, graduates with technical or applied science associate degrees earn $2,000 to $11,000 more than graduates with a bachelor's degree.

Quicker path to your career

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), just 41% of first-time college students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years, and only 59% earn a bachelor’s in six years. Unlike these options, technical college allows you to earn a degree in two years, in some cases, you can also finish in a year. 

Job security

Most technical colleges have exemplary job placement programs, and given the current need for technical labor workers, getting a job is relatively easier. According to a Forbes report, the United States is in the middle of a “skilled labor shortage”, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects better than average employment in the building trades at least through 2026. However, they predict that there might just end up being a shortage of workers to get the job done. 

Related: Can I Use Community College To Help Me Change Careers?


CONS

Tough schedule

Technical college curriculums are designed in a way where there is constant vigorous studying without any month-long breaks. This gives students the opportunity to enter the job market quickly. However, it can be quite demanding and might be difficult for non-traditional students with tough work schedules and priorities. 

Few financial aid opportunities 

Technical schools tend to offer few financial aid opportunities. However, it is still a lot cheaper than most traditional four-year institutions. You can still apply for federal aid through the FAFSA Application

Fewer options

Typically, the curriculum is standardized and focuses on a single career. There aren't several courses and subjects offered to help you broaden your understanding of the industry.


Can I get a technical or community college degree online?

There are some technical and community college degrees that can be earned through an online degree program. This of course excludes any area or specialty that requires a lot of hands-on training. For example, you can’t learn to be a welder online; you have to get the experience physically. 

In some cases, you may be required to undergo a physical exam to demonstrate that you have the necessary abilities to get your degree. Most community colleges' online programs are designed so that students can complete the program in cohorts.

Having an option to study online allows many students who are unable to attend a classroom setting for various reasons to educate themselves. It especially gives students, who are already employed, a chance to learn the latest techniques and practices, all while being able to study from the comfort of their home/office.

If you do plan on applying to study online, click here to find some of the best courses under $50. 


Recommended technical schools

“The past decade has seen a resurgence in interest in CTEs. Scholarship in the area of education and the labor market has increased markedly. In the past four years alone, media mentions of “career and technical education” have quadrupled. 

In 2015 alone, 39 states instituted 125 new laws, policies or regulations relating to CTE, many of which increased state funding for such programs.” writes Brian A. Jacob, Professor of Education Policy; Professor of Economics, and Professor of Education at University of Michigan, for Brookings.  

If you’re interested in applying to technical schools, here is a list of our recommendations in no specific order. 


Recommended community colleges

Community colleges are a great option for students coming from various backgrounds. If you’re interested in applying to community colleges, here are some of our recommendations. For more community college options and details, click here

Conclusion

Ultimately, there is no right or wrong choice. Whether you choose technical college or community college, both prepare you for a meaningful career. 

Dr. Sandra Krebsbach, executive director of the American Technical Education Association, says that “technical education has never been more important than it is now” She believes “there are essential services that will need to continue that come directly out of technical education because technical education is the training of people for the workforce.”


Frequently Asked Questions

Are technical colleges better?

Technical colleges are better if you’re looking to develop technical abilities in skilled and mechanical trades

Are technical degrees worth it?

Yes, they are. Technical schools are best when you’re looking to get a quick job by specializing in a specific field. You can end up earning a good salary almost as soon as graduating from technical school. 

Is technical school cheaper than college?

Technical school is a lot cheaper than most traditional four-year institutions. However, it is generally more expensive than community college. 

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