College vs The Trades: An Educational Cost Comparison

Today is a very big day here at DIY 2 FI! I have for you the most highly-researched article I have ever written! Lots of great info! I spent at least 20 minutes searching the internet just for you!

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Just one…more…google search…

I’ve made a case for learning a trade in the past, and today I’m going to go into the real numbers. Now, as there are so many variables involved here, I’m going to use my past experience and interests to create an alternative universe in which, instead of pursuing an electrical career in my mid-twenties, I start down that road right after high school.

I’m also going to create another alternative universe in which I go to my local university to pursue an undergraduate degree in graphic design. I got into my background a bit in this article on Choose FI in which I talk about my Associate’s Degree in graphic design. That’s why I chose that field in particular.

Let’s Get Down to Business

In Alternate Universe Number One, I have just graduated high school and I have decided I would like to become an electrician. Of course, as I related in my interview on the House Of FI podcast recently, there are many ways to do this, and I chose probably the most expensive one.

Although this is an alternate universe, I’m going to use real numbers for the expenses and incomes I incurred during my electrical education process. Since the schooling was one year versus the typical four spent in college, I will be using a four-year block of time here.

The Trade Route

I attended an “after-market” trade school (one of those schools you see advertising on TV to teach you how to be an electrician, HVAC technician, nursing assistant, etc) for one year, and the cost of the program was $25,000. This included a copy of the monolithic Electrical Code Book, but I had to spend another $500 on a hand tool set.

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Because everybody knows you have to have one of these…uh…clamp thingies

One of the nice things about this program was that the afternoons were free, which meant I could get in some work after school. I figured on an average of 3.5 working hours per day after school. Sure, I could have done more, but that was what I had available to me in the regular working day.

For the first six months of the program, as I wrote about here, I was still at the sign shop making $13 per hour. At 3.5 hours per day for six months I made $5915 (3.5 x 13 = $45.5 per day x 5 days per week = $227.50 x 26 weeks = $5915).

Once I got a position with a local electrical contractor, my pay went down to $7.50 per hour for the first two weeks. (7.5 x 3.5 = $26.25 per day x 10 days = $262.50) Such is the price of apprenticeship.

I then got a raise to $9 per hour, which is roughly where I stayed for the rest of that year. $9 per hour x 3.5 hours = $31.50 per day x 5 days = $157.50 per week x 24 weeks = $3780.

To sum it up, during the year I was in my electrical schooling I made $9957.50 before taxes. I don’t remember what my taxes were that year, but I’m guessing not much.

I stayed on with the contractor once I had finished my schooling, and he was good enough to bump up my pay a little bit each year.

The first year I worked there full time I stayed at $9 per hour, for a total of $18,720 ($9 x 2080 hours).

The second year I went up to $10 per hour, for a total of $20,800.

The third year (we have now elapsed a four-year time span) I went all the way up to $12 per hour, for a total of $24,960.

Over the course of that four-year period, I made $74,437.50 before taxes. Not too shabby for a kid fresh out of high school (remember, alternate universe here, even though it is steeped in reality)!

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Rollin’ in the dough!

Now for expenses: I figured my average rent payments during that time to be around $500 per month, for a total of $24,000 over four years. I think it’s safe to say I spent roughly $50 per week on food, or $2400 over four years. I also drove very cheap cars and rode in a company van all day, so transportation costs were probably around the $10,000 mark. I kind of pulled that number out of thin air, but I’m thinking it’s not too far off.

My employer covered my health insurance, so no cost there. I know, pretty flippin’ sweet.

Now For College

For Alternate Universe Number Two, I am fresh out of high school with lofty aspirations of becoming a graphic designer. While I’m not the best at optimizing everything just yet, at least I have the knowledge and resources to know that the local state university probably has the best deal for me. So off I go!

I found a website here that tells me what I can expect to spend at my first year of college. I save a good deal of money by being an in-state resident, but the numbers still get pretty big. Let’s take a look:

For one year, my tuition and fees will be $15,888. Add room and board to that for $13,202, because I want the “college experience”. Also, in Alternate Universe Number One I’m not living under Mom and Dad’s thumb, so why would I here?!

The aforementioned website also advises figuring between $500-$1000 for books and associated class necessities, plus another $700-$1400 for “personal and transportation” needs. In the interest of getting a decent number I have decided to go with the median of each category, or $750 for books and $1050 for personal and transportation.

So, all told, we are looking at expenses of $30,890 per year. Over the course of the four-year program that will end up being a pants-wetting bill of $123,560.

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Every parent ever in a college admissions line

I want to acknowledge the fact that I’m not taking into account scholarships or financial aid, because I know some of you are getting a little hot under the collar right now at their omission. Those things vary so much person to person that it’s impossible for me to work those in, but just for the heck of it let’s say you manage to get coverage for 33% of your college experience. Our new and improved total is $81,549.60. A little better, but still pretty painful.

Obviously, because I’m a smart guy (some might argue that, but they aren’t the ones writing this article!) I get myself some part-time work to help cover expenses. I don’t have the time to work a full 40 hours per week, but I can squeeze in a solid 20. What do you think, college grads and students? Does 20 hours per week sound fair? If not, skew the numbers how they fit to you and leave a comment down below.

Let’s say I manage to land a part-time gig paying me $13 per hour for the sake of argument. That’ll get me a solid $260 per week, or $9360 for the nine or so months of the school year. I’ll go full time during the summer because I can, which bums up my yearly total by $6240. I can rake in $15,600 every year! Not bad!

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I has part-time paycheck!

In four years, if I keep up my schedule, I’ll have made $62,400. Who says college kids are broke? Oh wait, I forgot about the $81,549.60. Well, I only come out of the experience -$19,149.60. As far as what I’ve heard about college debts, that’s not terrible. Obviously the numbers don’t work out exactly that way as I haven’t taken into account taxes, interest, or other expenses that may crop up. But those are my numbers and I’m sticking to ‘em!

OK, But What About Pay?

According to Indeed, the average salary of a graphic designer in my state is $42,378, which is roughly the same as the national average. Assuming I come out of college and land a job right away, I can start making that salary at age 22.

Let’s go back to Alternate Universe Number One, wherein I end up finishing up my third-and-a-third year of my four-year apprenticeship at age 22. Remember, I did one year of schooling, which gave me all of my required classroom hours plus about a third of a year of my required field hours.

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In Alternate Universe Number One, at age 22 I am about nine months away from becoming a licensed electrician, and I am up $12,537.50. That is $74,437.50 – $24,000 (rent) – $2400 (food) – $10,000 (transportation) – $500 (tools) – $25,000 (cost of the program). That is $31,687.10 higher than Alternate Universe Number Two me!

That being said, at the moment I ma making, as an apprentice, only $27,040, or $15,338 less than my Universe Two counterpart.

But my, how things change in nine months!

The day after I got my license, my pay went up to $19.50 per hour. All of a sudden I’m catching up, with an annual salary of $40,560. And since I started out in the positive, I’m still ahead of myself! I win! Yay! And I lose. Boo!

That’s About It

So there you have it, folks. I’m certainly not tell you that you wasted your time going to college, and I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t get a degree and become an electrician instead! That is a choice only you can make.

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Get it?

My point in this exhaustive exercise was simply to put the numbers out there, and maybe try to erase a little of the stigma that has been surrounding the trades for so many years.

I also want to point out that there are many different ways to travel both of the paths I outlined here, so don’t take my word as gospel. In fact, never take my word, or anyone else’s for that matter, as gospel.

Now get out there and make the biggest and most lasting decision of your lives, you eighteen-year-olds! You definitely know exactly what you want to do for work for the next 20-50 years, right? Of course you do!

2 thoughts on “College vs The Trades: An Educational Cost Comparison

  1. Thanks for the comparison! Tuition is pretty high on both sides- the only difference is that the electrician coursework is 1 year, vs 2-4 for college. Husband was a licensed electrician, has a BS in Electrical engineering (all but obsolete now), and HVAC certs. Guess what he’s doing now?! HVAC! And previously was doing large industrial air compressors for a living .Not a single one required the engineering degree- but it certainly helped when he’s arguing with designers about machine flaws. He put himself through engineering school working full time as an HVAC technician at the same time as going to school full time- so there’s that idea, too. Me, on the other hand…have had the extremely comfy position of being a desk engineer. I used to be out on the floor as an industrial engineer, but now have a work at home computer job (so cushy!)- but I got scholarships for undergrad and grad school (full tuition for grad school, and mostly full tuition for undergrad), and got a high paying (and cushy office job with free AC and cold water on demand. Even have toilets that flushed on their own-sweet). I am by no means nearly as hard working as my husband in the physical realm. Let me tell you- full tuition scholarships are the way to go. that being said, I also want to learn a trade, at least just for myself- current desires are massage therapy, and installing windows (weird combination, right?).
    Everyone’s journey is different, and you don’t always end up doing for a living what you went to school for. There is every sense in at least going to a community college first (and getting a useful associates degree while you are at it) before transferring to a 4 year college to save money. Plus now you have 2 degrees.
    Lastly- in Japan they have 2 tracks after highschool: vocational school (welding, electrician, machining, etc.) or traditional college. Both are seen as valid educational and career tracks. They even have vocational high schools- what an idea for the US.

    Like

    1. Wow, so many good points there! First of all, I love that your husband worked his way through college doing HVAC, that is so cool! That’s a great way to make good money while getting a degree which, in the case of electrical engineering, probably has the potential to make some really good money not too long after graduation!
      Second, it is so true that having those credentials behind him would make him sound more credible to designers, whether or not that credibility is founded. People really do respect degrees more than experience.
      Now getting around to the real star of the story: you! Major kudos for getting a great job with your degree, and that’s fantastic that you got those scholarships! I didn’t get too into them because I really know nothing about them, so I love hearing from people like you who have done a different route and have a positive story to tell on the other end.
      Now as for your weird combination of interests 🙂
      I think the two of those can easily go hand in hand, quite literally! You need good grip strength for both of those, and their huge differences simply mean variety in the workday. And who doesn’t want more variety?
      Very interesting to hear that about Japan, and that is exactly the way it should be here as well. Both are just as valid, but some people will tend to be more inclined toward one or the other. Or maybe even a little of both!
      Thank you so much for your input! Such a great comment!

      Like

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