How to Get Financial Aid for Trade Schools

Get help paying for a vocational certificate or degree

Trade school instructor working with apprentice at a construction site

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Trade schools are an increasingly popular alternative to a four-year college degree. The number of conferred certificates and associate’s degrees increased from 1.13 million in 2000-2001 to 1.96 million in 2017-2018, according to the available data from the U.S. Department of Education. This growth has outpaced the increase in awarded bachelor's degrees.

Many of these new enrollees may have to find financial aid that can help cover their tuition and fees for trade schools. Here’s a look at the cost of trade school, and where you can find student aid to cover it.

What Are Trade Schools?

A trade school is an educational program beyond high school that provides training for a specific career or job. Also referred to as vocational, technical, or career schools, these schools’ instruction typically leads to an occupation-specific certification, licensing process, or apprenticeship. 

From carpentry and computer coding boot camps to cosmetology schools and community colleges, a variety of trade schools provide training in a wide range of fields. Most trade school programs last two years or fewer, offering a chance to boost employability with less time and money invested than with a four-year degree. 

Workers who earned an occupational degree, for example, are found to be more likely to be employed full-time than those who didn’t. And those with an associate’s degree earn 17% more than those with only a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

While many trade schools can help students get ahead, be wary of offers that sound too good to be true. Do your own research on the career field you’re hoping to enter, the demand and pay for this type of work, and the trade school’s reputation so you can make an informed decision.

The Costs of Trade Schools

The tuition and fees charged by trade schools vary widely, and not all are affordable. It’s wise to compare tuition and fees to avoid overpaying for occupational training.

If you’re pursuing a trade certification or occupational associate’s degree, look to public colleges for the best deals. Public two-year schools, such as community colleges, had the lowest average annual tuition and fees at $3,600 in 2018. Public colleges with programs shorter than two years have the second-lowest costs, averaging $7,437 per year.

Things get pricier at private trade schools, however. Private nonprofit colleges charged more than twice as much as public colleges, with average annual tuition at $14,572 for two-year colleges. This was edged out by private for-profit colleges, which had average costs of $14,749 for two-year programs and $17,106 for shorter programs.

How to Get Financial Aid for Trade Schools

With trade school costs as high as $17,000 per year, many students will rely on financial aid to cover them. Financial aid for trade schools, however, isn’t always as clear-cut as it is for more traditional four-year colleges and universities and their degrees. 

To help you out, here’s where to search out student loans and financial aid for trade schools.

Federal Student Aid

First up, see if you can get federal financial aid for trade schools. This includes Pell Grants, which provide free funds for students with a financial need. Students can also access student loans and other types of federal student aid.

Many accredited trade schools are eligible for federal student aid:

  • Programs that last longer than 15 weeks are typically eligible for all forms of federal student aid, including grants and student loans.
  • Programs that are shorter than 15 weeks are only eligible for the Direct Loan program. This means the only form of federal student aid that enrollees can access is student loans.

Not all trade schools participate in or are eligible for federal student aid programs. Check with your trade school to get more information on whether its students can access federal student aid.

If your trade school is eligible for federal student aid, complete and file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Be sure to provide the correct FAFSA code for your school. From there, your information on the FAFSA is used to determine what types of financial aid you qualify for. 

Last, consider schools participating in a pilot federal program called Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP). Launched in 2015, EQUIP partnered eight colleges with non-traditional education programs such as coding boot camps, employer training organizations, or online courses. With this partnership in place, enrollees of these programs are able to gain access to federal student aid.

Scholarships for Trade Schools

Next, seek out scholarships to get free money for your program costs. The best place to start your search is with your trade school. See if it offers a school-sponsored scholarship or can point you to other private scholarships for which you could be eligible. 

Check for student aid from your state of residence, as well. North Dakota, for example, offers a North Dakota Career and Technical Education Scholarship that provides up to $6,000 in total funding to eligible students. 

Professional associations in your career field can be another source of scholarships for trade schools. The American Association of Cosmetology Schools sponsors scholarships for cosmetology students, while the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation funds several scholarships for students of the culinary arts.

Last, see if your employer offers common educational benefits such as tuition reimbursement or assistance. And search online for even more trade school scholarships with student aid search tools like or FastWeb.

Private Student Loans

What if you can’t cover all your costs with federal student aid or scholarships? This is where private student loans or even personal loans can come in. 

Some lenders offer private student loans specifically for qualifying trade school programs. Sallie Mae offers the Career Training Smart Option Student Loan.

A personal loan could also be an option for a less-traditional training program. Personal loans may have a few drawbacks compared with private student loans. They may have higher annual percentage rates (APRs) and no in-school deferment, for example. On the plus side, there are few restrictions on how you can use personal loan funds. So, you can usually use the money to pay for trade school tuition.

If you want to continue your education and elevate your career, a trade school may be a smart and accessible way to do so. If finding financial aid for trade schools is crucial to offset the costs for you, it’s worth devoting some time to this task.

Article Sources

  1. National Center for Education Statistics. "Postsecondary Certificates and Degrees Conferred."

  2. Midwest Technical Institute. "What Is a Trade School?"

  3. National Center for Education Statistics. "Career and Technical Education (CTE) Statistics."

  4. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Unemployment Rates and Earnings by Educational Attainment."

  5. National Center for Education Statistics. "Postsecondary Institutions and Cost of Attendance in 2017-18; Degrees and Other Awards Conferred, 2016-17; and 12-Month Enrollment, 2016-17," Page 5.

  6. Federal Student Aid, Information for Financial Aid Professionals (IFAP). "Volume 2: School Eligibility and Operations," Pages 2-17, 2-20-2-21, 2-27, and 2-29.

  7. U.S. Department of Education. "FACT SHEET: Department of Education Launches the Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) Experiment to Provide Low-Income Students with Access to New Models of Education and Training."

  8. U.S. Department of Education. "Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP)."

  9. North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. "Diploma and Scholarship Information."

  10. Society for Human Resource Management. "Education Benefits Present a Learning Opportunity."