Community colleges and trade schools are invaluable to society. These two-year public postsecondary institutions not only provide education to almost half of undergraduates at 45% (Community College Research Center, 2021) but also provide the United States with a strong and capable workforce. In terms of outlook, the demand for this workforce is only getting higher.
In direct relation to this, associate degree and postsecondary nondegree award programs are also in high demand. Thanks to the unprecedented access to information made possible by the internet, these degrees can be earned purely or partly online. But, of course, there are schools and programs that are just preferable to others.
So, if you want a shortlist of the best online community colleges and trade schools, then this article will help you with it and more. We will also discuss other important factors for choosing, including available jobs, continuing education, and costs.
Community colleges and trade schools are the backbones of the American economy. As pointed out by Thomas Bailey (2008), the director of the Institute on Education and Economy at Teachers College, community colleges provide education to almost half of all undergraduates.
Moreover, according to Community College Research Center (2021)—a research institution that Bailey had founded in 2006—nearly 45% of all undergraduates were enrolled at community colleges in the academic year 2017-2018. The institution also estimated that in 2019, nearly 5.45 million students are enrolled in public two-year postsecondary institutions in the country. Even though this is the lowest figure since 2002 and a 34.8% drop from the peak of 7.28 million in 2010, this is still close to more than 500,000 than those enrolled in private four-year postsecondary institutions.
Also, public two-year enrollments totally eclipsed those in private two-year postsecondary institutions, with figures only amounting to around 200,940 combined (National Center for Education Statistics, 2020)
Community College v.s. Trade School: What is the difference?
Both of these institutions are public two-year postsecondary institutions. They usually confer both associate’s degree diplomas and non-degree postsecondary awards. The main difference between the two, however, is their particular education focus (Lincoln Tech, 2021). One is more academic and the other is vocational.
Community colleges offer a more theory-based approach and course content. Acting as preparatory programs for further education, they typically offer foundational and introductory courses in various academic disciplines. This approach primes students for further education after they earned their associate degrees.
Because of a theory-heavy approach, students enrolled in community colleges will have more time participating in lectures and writing papers than having hands-on training. This also opens up the possibility of an academic research track for them.
Trade schools, on the other hand, provide students with hands-on career-focused education. In this regard, they are perfect for those who want to take up a specialized trade and find work immediately after graduation.
Consequently, the learning environment is much more physically active compared to that of community colleges. Trade schools balance lecture hours out with laboratory or shop training. This approach is better suited to students who wish to be immediately employed after graduation.
Tuition and Length of Training
Typically, trade schools require a larger up-front investment than community colleges because of their specialized nature (Lincoln Tech, 2021). And as trade schools quickly provide the country and economy with quality and highly skilled workforce, many opportunities like scholarships and financial aid are more available.
Moreover, it also takes less time to complete specialty programs in trade schools than associate degree programs in community colleges. The time, however, depends upon each program and the credits required. Most associate degree programs can be completed in two years. Many trade school programs, on the other hand, can be completed in less than that time, like 56 weeks.
The Top Online Community Colleges in the United States
For people who want to pursue an associate degree but do not have the time to take in-person classes, an online route would be the best course. However, not all online community college degree programs are of the same quality. This is especially the case when it comes to the likelihood of students earning a degree.
Using an internal scoring formula, OnlineU (2021) ranked eligible community colleges with at least one online associate degree. The ranking uses factors like online enrollment percentage, the number of online associate degrees made available, and retention rate. If a retention rate is not available, then the graduation rate is used. Retention and graduation rates are weighed more heavily as they highlight degree success. Based on these factors, here are the top-rated online community colleges:
Top 5 Online Community Colleges in 2021
Source: OnlineU, 2021
|School||Location||Annual Tuition||Accreditation||Graduation Rate||Notable Programs
|1. Foothill College||Lost Altos Hills (CA)||$3,555||WASC ACCJC||56%||Associate of Arts in Accounting
Associate of Arts in Political Science
Associate of Arts in Economics
|2. Sussex County Community College||Newton (NJ)||$5,200||MSCHE||33%||Associate in Arts in English
Associate in Arts in Liberal Arts - Anthropology
Associate in Arts in Liberal Arts - Psychology
|3. Bismark State College||Bismarck (ND)||$5,499||HLC||44%||Associate in Applied Science in Human Services
Associate in Applied Science in Petroleum Production Technology
|4. Georgia State University-Perimeter College||Decatur (GA)||$4,050||SACS COC||13%||Associate of Arts in English
Associate of Science in Psychology
Associate of Arts in Film and Media Studies
|5. North Dakota State College of Science||Wahpeton (ND)||$4,484||HLC||51%||Associate of Science in Liberal Arts - General Liberal Arts (Transfer)
Associate of Applied Science in Information and Communications Technology - Web Developer
Associate in Applied Science in Pharmacy Technician
The Top Online Trade Schools in the United States
As discussed, trade schools have a deeper focus on the vocational and technical expertise that can be immediately used after graduation. Hence, the learning environment in traditional settings has been designed to emphasize hands-on training. Thus, the quality of online trade school education is a valid concern among many prospective students. But, there are those that made their offline programs highly “portable” for online delivery.
The list below is some of the schools that provide quality online vocational education for career success. They are ranked by PremiumSchool.org (2021) according to factors, such as retention rates, quality of faculty, acceptance rates, proper accreditation, and student support.
It is good to note, however, that the list is in no particular order. They all are in the premier class of online trade schools.
Top Online Trade Schools in 2021
Source: Premium Schools, 2021
|Penn Foster College||Scottsdale (AZ)||DEAC||Graphic Design
|Madison Area Technical College||Madison (WI)||HLC||Addition Studies
Civil Engineering Technology
|Colorado Technical University||Colorado Springs (CO)||ACBSP||Business Administration
Health Administration Services
|Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology||Flushing (NY)||MSCHE||Airport Management
|Ashworth College||Norcross (GA)||DEAC||Advanced Medical Coding
Why opt to attend an online community college or trade school?
There are many reasons why people choose online programs for their postsecondary education. The top reasons in 2020 are affordability (51%), the reputation of the school/program (36%), and having the school award academic credit for work/life experience (29%). Other factors include proximity (22%), the quality of faculty (21%), and employers had a relationship with the school (11%).
While the decision and the factors used to consider ultimately depend on the individual, the reasons given are notable for being quite practical.
Is an online community college program as good as a regular community college program?
A diploma is a diploma. It does not matter whether you earned your degree through an on-campus program or online. Your diploma will not indicate which route of education you took to earn it. The institution that conferred you the degree believes that both learning delivery approaches produce graduates more or less with the same skills and knowledge.
On-campus and online programs offered by the same institution do not really differ in terms of the quality of instruction and the amount of work it takes to complete the degree. They use the same set of faculty members, requirements, and standards. So, you and employers can trust that there is no significant difference between the two when it comes to quality.
Also, Cossaboon’s 2020 dissertation, Online versus Traditional Instruction in Community College, provided empirical evidence “that an online learning environment is equal to traditional learning environment and that there is no relationship of gender and setting difference, as measured by final grades.” However, the researcher cautioned that there could be other factors that affect performance. These include out-of-school workload and socioeconomic factors that institutions may not have the power to control.
Ultimately, however, the quality of education varies from school to school and from program to program. So, it is best to see which schools are the most reputable in your chosen discipline or field. Generally, however, the majority of graduate and undergraduate students report that online education is better or about the same as traditional education according to recent online education statistics.
Is an online community college program cheaper?
When you take everything into account, yes, an online community college program is cheaper than its on-campus counterpart. Supposing that their tuition costs the same, on-campus students will have more to spend on. These may include transportation and board. For working professionals, the time spent on on-campus classes could also be an opportunity loss.
However, there are also hidden costs for online students. These include a high-speed internet connection, PC, other electronic devices, and quiet study space.
Is an online community college degree worth it?
For people who want an affordable and flexible postsecondary education, going online is a good choice. Online programs, again, do not differ greatly from their on-campus counterparts in terms of quality. They, however, are great for flexibility.
And, just like your on-campus counterparts, you would get similar academic and career advancement opportunities. Moreover, there are other advantages to choosing an online community college. Aside from affordability, the open admission policy makes it easier to enroll regardless of the prior academic records of students (Kolesnikova, 2009). This is perfect for those who, either by external causes or choice, did not perform well in their secondary education.
Is it cheaper to attend an online community college or trade school?
Generally, attending an online community college or trade school is cheaper than its on-campus counterparts. Considering that public two-year degree programs are already way cheaper than their private counterparts, an online program will even cost less. Furthermore, it will also cost less in the long run.
As mentioned, traditional on-campus expenses like board and transportation are already waived. There may be some initial basic technological investments that come with online education. However, things like a PC, other devices, and a good internet connection are already basic needs even in a traditional setting.
The average cost—tuition and fees—of community college in the academic year 2020-2021 reached $3,446 (Hanson, 2021). This is only a 2.55% increase in four years. Also, it is 374.64% cheaper than attending private two-year institutions ($16,356). Moreover, the figure is just an average. There are top 30 online community colleges with annual tuitions of less than $2,500.
Depending on your budget and field of interest, there are many top online community colleges that offer affordable education. However, note that although there are many online degree courses available, there might also be courses that require in-person attendance. This is especially true for vocational classes that need hands-on training and skill evaluation. So, these online degree programs might cost more than others.
Hence, it is best to review whether your target online program has on-campus requirements.
Popular Degrees from Online Community College or Trade School
Community college courses, as mentioned, are more theory-based than those offered by vocational schools. And, they are largely in preparation for further postsecondary studies. Given this, community colleges can offer a wide range of programs from various branches of academia. Here are some of the popular online associate degrees offered by community colleges:
- A.A. in Business Administration
- A.S. in Mathematics
- A.A. in Anthropology
- A.S. in Biological Sciences
- A.A. in History
- A.A. in Graphic & Interactive Design
- A.A. in Economics
It is good to remember that associate degrees in community colleges have general credit requirements for basic courses. These may include those for mathematics and science or even others that have lesser to do with their particular concentration. This, again, is because associate degree programs are also geared towards a baccalaureate education.
Vocational programs, on the other hand, will have fewer general education requirements. They offer specialized vocational courses that produce students that are more employment-ready. Popular online trade school programs include:
- A.S. in Dental Hygiene
- A.S. in Diagnostic Medical Sonography
- A.S. in Aviation Maintenance Technology
- A.S. in Plumbing Technology
- A.S. in Petroleum Technology
- A.A. in Paralegal Studies
- A.S. in Air Traffic Control
What are the requirements of online community colleges and trade schools?
Community colleges and trade schools, in general, have more relaxed admission requirements. This is in terms of testing scores and GPA. There are even online community colleges with open enrollment. So, how do you get into these programs? Let us take a look at the typical requirements.
Community colleges and trade schools offer students an affordable and accessible option to build foundational knowledge and skills to start their careers. So, the basic admission requirement is a high school diploma or GED or something equivalent. Compared to other tertiary institutions, the requirements are more relaxed. However, typically, they have the same general requirements as other institutions for application.
- Recommendation letters (number depends on the institution)
- Statement of purpose
- TOEFL and IELTS exams for international students
- Application fees
Things to Look for in Online Community College and Trade School Programs
You would want to get the best out of online community college and trade school programs. And, to do this, there are general factors to consider before enrolling. These include availability, accreditation, and support services. These factors act as signals of whether a program is worth investing the money and time in.
Accreditation and Reputation
Firstly, you’d want to check whether a program is accredited. There will be little use for non-accredited courses. So, it is best to check for accreditation by visiting the school’s website and cross-referencing the information using regional accreditation bodies. Plus, it is also best to check the reputation of your target program and the school. The better the reputation, the more likely you are going to be considered for a job.
Availability and Teaching Methods
Also, local availability is very crucial because there are programs involving courses requiring hands-on training. Knowing this beforehand will allow you to plan your on-campus visits. A hybrid approach is more common in trade school courses as an in-person demonstration of skills is needed to earn a degree.
Different programs from different schools may require various physical resources. In fact, if you choose to take a mostly or purely online route to earn degrees, you will need to invest or allocate your own resources. These include a fast reliable internet connection, a PC, and other devices or software that could help you with your studies.
It is also important to see what support services your target school offers. You should not only check for common services like library and journal access. It is also best to see whether your school and faculty members have real-world connections with other research and/or business entities. This is an indicator that your target program is attuned to research and/or industry. Moreover, being in a program and school engaged in real-world networks, it is more likely for graduates to get a job right after graduation.
Of course, one should also research whether a community college has good online education resources. As Hart and colleagues (2021) have pointed out in their study, COVID-19 and Community College Instructional Responses, there is still a “wide variability in pre-COVID distance education resources.” They added even “community colleges rapidly shifted to online instruction” there are still those that lag. In fact, they found that even after improvements were done in the wake of the pandemic, “roughly a third of students would still face barriers accessing remote classes.”
To check on this, you can ask the target school and also look for current online students and alumni and ask them questions. You will be surprised how they can be helpful and honest about their experience.
Is an online community college or trade school program right for you?
A purely online or hybrid education is not right for everybody. People may respond differently to different learning environments and teaching methods. But, as we can see now, online education is gaining traction and is becoming more mainstream. But, there are important aspects to consider before enrolling in an online community college or trade school program. Firstly, you need to consider your long-term education and career direction.
If you wish to go to school to get a job immediately after graduation, then a vocational trade school program would be a good fit. As discussed, trade school courses and programs are more hands-on. They do not only provide students with some theoretical understanding of pertinent subject matters. They also train students in developing real-world skills that can translate immediately well to the job market.
Moreover, as trade schools offer hands-on courses, many programs will not have a purely online offering. So, trade school students are likely to spend more on-campus time. And, there might not be any option to do online classes for your target program. Thus, you need to check on the program requirements and make the necessary inquiries with your prospective school.
On the other hand, if you wish to pursue an academic and theory-heavy track, an online community college education may be the best choice. This is also especially for students who want to continue with their education with a higher-degree four-year program. Because most online community college courses are theory-based, almost zero to zero on-campus presence will be required. Hence, an academic track offers more flexibility to students.
Ultimately, the choice is yours. And, maybe, the best thing to do is just pursue your interests—be it purely academic or vocational. Just remember that there are quality online colleges that can get you there.
- AACC. (2021, March). Fast facts. AACC.
- Academic Influence. (2021, March). 50 best community colleges of 2021. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from Academic Influence.
- Academic Influence. (2021). Concentrated Influence™. Retreived July 8, 2021, from Academic Influence.
- Bailey, T. (2008). Beyond traditional college: The role of community colleges, career and technical postsecondary education in preparing a globally competitive work force. Columbia University in the City of New York.
- Community College Research Center. (2021). Community college FAQs. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from Community College Research Center.
- Cossaboon, S. H. (2020). Online versus Traditional Instruction in a Community College (Doctoral dissertation, Grand Canyon University). ProQuest.
- Hart, C. (2021). COVID-19 and Community College Instructional Responses. Online Learning, 25(1), 41-69. ERIC.
- Kolesnikova, N. A. (2009, October 1). The changing role of community colleges. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
- Learning House. (2020, June). Online College Students 2020. Wiley.
- Lincoln Tech. (2021, April). Community college vs. trade school. Lincoln Tech News Blog.
- National Center for Education Statistics. (2020). Total undergraduate fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by attendance status, sex of student, and control and level of institution: Selected years, 1970 through 2029. NCES.
- National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Trend generator. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from NCES.
- Nietzel, M. T. (2021, March 6). Academic influence ranks the best community colleges, nationally and by state. Forbes.
- OnlineU. (2021). Best online community colleges methodology. OnlineU.
- Premium Schools. (2021, March 24). The 10 best online accredited trade schools in 2021. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from Premium Schools.
- Premium Schools. (2021, April 12). Methodology: What we do & how we do it. Premium Schools.