skip to main content

Paying for Two-Year Colleges and Trade Schools

While there are some similarities between paying for a four-year college and a shorter degree or certificate program, there are also some important differences. Two-year colleges and trade schools focus on career-specific training in fields such as nursing, accounting, criminal justice and electronics. With a little research and an understanding of how two-year colleges and trade schools operate, you'll improve your chances of finding a quality education at a fair price.

Jump to Section

The Costs of a Two-Year College

A two-year college might seem attractive right from the beginning because the time to earn a degree is shorter and it is less expensive. However, you still have to worry about covering your living expenses during that time. When determining whether or not you can afford a school, add up the cost of tuition and fees, housing, books and supplies, travel and miscellaneous purchases.

Expenses at two-year colleges depend on what you are studying, but you can still use ballpark estimates to help you figure out what you can afford. For example, tuition and fees at public two-year colleges are $3,439 per year on average. Expenses for everything else will be similar to what you would find at a four-year institution: $1,216 per year for books and supplies and $3,304 per year for personal expenses.

The Costs of Trade School

A trade school (also called a vocational school or vo-tech school) is somewhat different from a two-year college or community college because it focuses on learning a skill rather than studying a major. In some cases, the tuition and fees at a trade school may be higher than the price of a two-year college program. In other cases, the trade school might be a better deal. You'll need to do your homework to find out what kind of program fits your budget.

Before You Sign on the Dotted Line

Whether you choose a two-year college or a trade school, read your enrollment contract carefully and understand all of the costs. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a guaranteed job or a guaranteed salary after you graduate, and any claims to the contrary are a reason for skepticism.

Take extra time to investigate the individual programs that interest you. First, look up whether or not the school is accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Accreditation is not only a sign of legitimacy; it also means that students who attend the school are eligible for federal financial aid.

Search for accredited postsecondary institutions and programs (U.S. Department of Education)

Second, ask about how many students find employment in their chosen trade, and request contact information for other graduates to learn more about how their education helped them.

Financial Aid

Financial aid is available for those who attend an accredited two-year college or trade school, as long as you fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The FAFSA is a form that provides the federal government with all of your financial information and helps the government determine what kind of financial aid you qualify for.

After you submit your FAFSA, you will receive a financial aid offer from the two-year school or trade school of your choice. It is your responsibility to determine if this offer will cover your education without leaving you in long-term debt. Financial aid comes in various forms:

A loan is money you're expected to pay back later. There are both federal and private loans available to students. Federal loans don't require a credit check, and the government regulates the associated fees and interest rates, which usually means they're lower. There is a limit to how much money a single student may receive.

Private loans can be taken in any amount, but they are credit-based and can be denied based on credit score. Either one can be a good choice depending on your circumstances.

Common types of college loans:

Direct PLUS Loan

A grant is money you're not expected to pay back. For this reason, grants are a very sought-after form of financial aid.

Common types of college grants:

Pell Grant

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG Grant)

Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant (TEACH Grant)

Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant

Balancing Your Job and Your Education

Two-year colleges and trade schools often offer flexible schedules, which means you may wish to work either part time or full time while taking classes. Having a job can help you decrease debt, and your real-world experience may benefit you in the classroom. Staying organized can help you succeed in your classes and graduate on time.

Related Resources


Paying for College

Understand all of your options for covering the various costs, from books to tuition.

Learn More

Applying for Financial Aid

Use these tips to ensure your application is correct.

Learn More