TVET institutions vs. college: Learn the key differences

SOURCE: Getty Images / AFP

By U2B Staff 

Read all stories

If you are currently looking into higher education, there is a good chance you may be overwhelmed by the options available. From online programmes, to TVET (technical and vocational education and training) institutions, to physical campus experiences, today’s students are spoit for choice. 

Many graduates attend a traditional four-year college or university, but that option might not serve everyone, especially those who enjoy working with their hands, like welders, electricians, and hairstylists. These individuals might benefit more from a TVET institution, also known as a trade school than they would from a conventional college.

The National Center for Education Statistics projects enrollment at postsecondary institutions, including trade schools, to increase to 17.2 million students by 2028. 

Choosing to attend either college or trade school depends on personal circumstances, career goals, financial goals, and time commitments. Both learning opportunities present their own benefits and drawbacks.


College allows you to explore a wide range of options, and the experience comes with several extracurriculars such as social clubs, athletics, volunteering, etc. However, on the other hand, trade school offers skill-based learning with solid job opportunities, but with significantly less debt as it costs much less.

Both options offer quality education, but which is best for you? Here are some of the key differences between trade schools and colleges:

Subject matter

Trade schools, also referred to as TVET, vocational, technical, or career schools, offer knowledge related to one occupation or topic, like cosmetology, construction, or baking. 

Colleges and universities offer a broad curriculum, so students take some courses indirectly related to their major.


Admission to a top-tier college is competitive. For example, Brown University received over 30,000 applications in 2019 and only admitted 8.6% (2,580 candidates). Getting into a good college requires high SAT scores, volunteer service projects, and an expansive portfolio of extra-curricular activities. Even then, it might not be enough for Ivy Leagues. 

In comparison, the admissions process for trade schools is relatively uncomplicated. There is no need for SAT or ACT scores. Instead, a high school diploma is sufficient.


Both trade schools and traditional colleges can earn accreditation, sometimes even from the same accrediting bodies. For example, Ozarks Technical Community College, a trade school in Springfield, Missouri, earns regional accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission, as does Missouri State University, a traditional four-year college in the same city. Other trade schools earn national accreditation. The Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges serves as a top national accreditation agency for technical schools.

A traditional college offers the opportunity to proceed with higher qualifications after a bachelor’s degree such as a master’s and Ph.D. 

While trade school accreditation does not offer the same pathway, they are sufficient to excel in a profession that recognises the certification. Some trade schools even offer apprenticeships to students, ensuring they gain experience before entering the field.



Trade school typically takes learners two years to complete, while a bachelor’s degree averages four years. Completion time for each varies based on student schedules and credit requirements. For example, learners who must work full time during their studies typically take longer to complete their degrees.


Trade school costs less than a bachelor’s degree. A four-year college degree can come up to US$127,000 on average, while trade school programmes cost around US$33,000.

College is expensive, and not just the tuition fees. According to Forbes, student loan debt in the U.S. skyrocketed to US$1.56 trillion in 2020, with the class of 2019 averaging US$28,950 in student loans. 

For those in need, financial aid, scholarships, loans, and grants are made available for those pursuing either route. 

Earning potential 

On average, college graduates earn around US$50,000 a year in their first job out of college, which is significantly more compared to the salaries of non-college graduates.

However, prospective students should consider vocational salary. For example, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters need to attend trade school to join the practice. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), these professionals earned a median annual salary of US$55,160 in 2019.

Trade schools can also offer a broad range of impressively high-paying jobs, much like colleges. The BLS reported the median pay for construction managers in 2019 was US$95,260 per year. Meanwhile, radiation therapists earned US$85,560 per year, and dental hygienists cashed in US$76,220 annually.