What is Trade School? Is It Free?

Abigail Eun
Abigail Eun

Abigail Eun is a freelance writer and personal finance expert. Through diligent research and continuous learning, she has honed her knowledge in budgeting, saving, investing, and debt management. Abigail is passionate about helping people get their finances in order. She believes that everyone should have access to the information they need to make sound financial decisions. Her goal is to provide clear and concise information that is easy to understand.

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Emma Östlund
Emma Östlund

Emma Östlund works as a business operations analyst at Sparrow. Emma studied Psychology, Computer Science, and Markets & Management at Duke University. With a well-rounded background in business and analytics, Emma strives to deliver data-driven conclusions and insights.

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Camden Ford
Camden Ford

Camden leads Sparrow’s business operations – everything from product management to business analytics. After graduating Cum Laude from Duke University where he studied Civil Engineering, Camden worked as a Consultant for A.T. Kearney where he worked in their Strategic Operations practice. With a strong background in analytics, Camden strives to deliver data-driven conclusions and insights.

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December 22, 2023

Many people don’t talk about the different pathways that you can take after high school graduation, except the traditional four-year college route. Going to trade school is a viable option to consider if attending college is not for you. You may be wondering, ‘what is trade school’ and ‘is trade school free?

Trade school has a shorter time commitment, is less expensive, and teaches you specialized skills for direct entry into the career field of your choice after graduation.

Because going to trade school is a lesser-known option, many students have no idea what trade school is, how they can apply, and what they can do with it.

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What is Trade School?

Trade school, also known as career, technical, or vocational school, is a specialized institution that provides students the skills, hands-on training, and education necessary to work in a specific “trade” or occupation right after graduation.

These occupations are typically hands-on careers, like cosmetology, plumbing, welding, carpentry, and automobile repair.

For most trade schools, a high school diploma or GED is necessary to attend.

Trade School vs. College


Trade School


Time Commitment

Anywhere from eight months to two years

Four years

Type of Education

Specialized education; will only take courses necessary to their specified field

Generalized education; must take General Education courses like math, science, and English along with any major requirements



Bachelor’s degree

Average Cost of Tuition Per Year

Anywhere from $3,600 to $14,500

$38,185 for private schools, $22,698 for public, out-of-state schools, and $10,338 for public, in-state schools for the 2021-22 school year

Post-Graduation Salary

Depends on specialization and location

High-paying jobs after college generally make more in salary than high-paying trade jobs

Job Security

Very strong; skilled labor workers are in high demand and have slimmer chances of being replaced by job automation

Depends on the situation; job security can fluctuate based on economic crises, demand for work, etc.

Career Flexibility

Rarely flexible; you are specializing in one trade

Very flexible; students learn flexible skills that are applicable outside of their major

Pros and Cons of Trade School

Consider the pros and cons of attending trade school carefully before making your decision.

  • prosTime: Trade school only takes a maximum of two years, which is half the time you spend at a traditional four-year college. Once you’ve graduated, you can find employment almost immediately. If you’re looking for a relatively short time commitment and quick employment, trade school might be the best option for you.
  • prosMoney: On average, trade school is less expensive than a four-year college. Because trade schools are anywhere between eight months and two years, you’ll be paying for a shorter period of time as opposed to if you went to a four-year institution. Plus, if you’re eligible for financial aid or employer-paid tuition reimbursement, you might even attend for little-to-no cost.
  • prosSpecialized Education: You don’t need to take any general education courses, like math, English, or science, at trade school. All your education will be centered around the field that you are specializing in, and you’ll receive focused, hands-on training.
  • prosCareer Assistance: Most trade schools help their graduating students secure jobs within their specialized industries. Generally, trade schools offer skilled trades-focused career fairs, early employment assistance, and a wide network of employers.
  • consVarying Reputability and Quality: When you’re researching prospective trade schools, be sure to dive deep into the student assistance programs, completion rates, and job placement statistics of the school. Trade schools vary in reputability and quality, and you don’t want to attend a trade school that won’t provide you with the necessary skills and assistance to earn your trade certificate and be employed after graduation.
  • consAccreditation: Not all trade schools are properly accredited, meaning that these schools do not qualify for federal financial aid. If you do not attend an accredited trade school, you will most likely have to pay out of pocket or turn to private lenders.
  • consLimited Career Selection/Flexibility: Because you’ll be learning the technical skills necessary for one specific industry, it will be difficult to secure jobs outside of your specialized field. For example, if you attend a trade school for HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning), it will be near impossible to obtain a job in plumbing or cosmetology without going back to school.

Is Trade School the Right Choice for Me?

Here are some questions you should ask yourself when deciding whether or not trade school is the right choice for you:

  1. Do I know what I would specialize in? Do I want to specialize in it? Why?
  2. Do I want to start working right after graduation?
  3. Can I see myself dedicating time and effort to this career, or will I get sick of it quickly?
  4. Is there a demand for this job in the market?
  5. Will this career allow me to be financially stable?

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How to Pay for Trade School

While the cost of trade school is relatively cheaper than a four-year college, you’ll want to be informed of the options you have for financing your education. While trade school can cost just a few thousand dollars, pricier trade schools can cost up to $17,000 per year.

Public trade schools are usually cheaper than private trade schools, so be sure to compare tuition and additional fees between schools to avoid paying more than you need to.

>> MORE: What are the 4 types of financial aid for students

Scholarships & Grants

Scholarships and grants are both forms of gift aid, meaning they do not need to be repaid. They are great ways to defray the cost of tuition, and there are many options available for trade school students.

For example, the DEWALT Trades Scholarship offers 20 scholarships of $10,000 for incoming trade students who intend to pursue full-time study. The Porch Skilled Trade & Technology Scholarships award $2,000 to eligible students.

You can find more scholarships and grants for trade school students by using scholarship search engines.

Federal Student Loans

The federal government offers student loans for students pursuing postsecondary education. To find out which loans you qualify for, you will have to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The FAFSA opens on October 1st and closes on June 30th every year. Be sure to take note of these dates, and submit your FAFSA as soon as possible to qualify for as much aid as you can get.

You should prioritize federal student loans over private student loans, as federal student loans generally have lower interest rates, flexible repayment options, and borrower protection plans.

>> MORE: Most common errors to avoid when filling out the FAFSA application

Private Student Loans

If scholarships, grants, and federal financial aid don’t cover the cost of tuition for you, consider getting a private student loan.

Private student loans are offered by private organizations that set their own interest rates, repayment options, and borrower protection terms.

Because private student loans operate individually and are not all partnered with the same trade schools, it can be challenging to find what private loans you qualify for with different trade schools.

Sparrow can help. If you submit a free form with us, you can see what private student loan options you have with the trade school of your choice. Here are a few of our top picks for student loans for trade school:

>> MORE: Best private student loans of 2023

Sallie Mae’s Smart Option Student Loan for Career Training

Sallie Mae is one of Sparrow’s lending partners that offers competitive interest rates, multiple repayment options, and no origination fee or prepayment penalty. Sallie Mae is one of the largest private student loan companies that lend to undergraduate, graduate, MBA, law, medical, dental, and career training program students.

>> MORE: Sallie Mae student loans review

College Ave Career Loans

College Ave is an online student lender that aims to simplify, clarify, and personalize the student loan borrowing experience. College Ave is known for its competitive interest rates, strong customer experience, and for allowing its customers to choose their own loan terms.

Ascent Career and Bootcamp Loans

Ascent is a private student loan lender that does not require cosigners or have any application fees. They offer both outcomes-based and credit-based loans, making Ascent an extremely attractive lender for first-time borrowers and students with no credit history.

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Closing Thoughts From the Nest

With the skilled labor shortage, going to trade school is a great option if you’re looking for an affordable education and to be employed quickly.

Be sure to thoroughly research trade school programs before making a selection; many trade schools differ in reputability, curriculum, student support services, accreditation, and cost. Remember that if a trade school is not accredited, you will be unable to receive federal financial aid.

Sparrow’s goal is to give you the tools and confidence you need to improve your finances. Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. While we make an effort to include the best deals available to the general public, we make no warranty that such information represents all available products.

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