10 Alternatives to a Traditional Four-Year College

 July 1, 2022
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Earning a college degree is a popular path for high school graduates to take, but it’s not the only choice. Many alternatives to college are available, and these can also lead to well-paying occupations.

Here are 10 college alternatives to explore — practical options that could offer a shorter and cheaper way to launch a successful career, as well as factors to think about as you decide whether college is right for you.

1. Attend community college
2. Go to trade school
3. Do an apprenticeship
4. Sign up for online college
5. Enroll in a coding bootcamp
6. Start a business
7. Get a realtor license
8. Pursue a travel career
9. Find a job-training program or academy
10. Join the military

Plus:

1. Attend community college

The community college versus university debate isn’t a new one. Overall, community college does tend to be more affordable than a four-year program: According to the College Board, the average 2021-22 tuition for in-district students at a two-year college was $3,800, compared to $10,740 for in-state students at a four-year college.

Community college generally offers two paths:

  • Transfer preparation: An ideal choice if your long-term goal is a bachelor’s degree or higher. You take core classes that fulfill your degree requirements, saving time and money along the way. Just do your research before starting — some universities have stipulations on what they’ll accept as transfer credits. In addition, transferring may affect your financial aid options.
  • Career training: If you’re eager to enter the workforce as soon as possible, you can pursue an associate degree that may allow you to apply for jobs upon graduation. Popular degree options include criminal justice, hospitality management, nursing and web development.
Community college
Time: One to two years
Credentials: Associate degree, certificate or transfer credits
Sample salary: The 2021 median salary for an associates degree in radiation therapy was $80,000-plus.

2. Go to trade school

Institutions of trade or vocational studies — now formally known as “career and technical education” (CTE) — offer another way into a lucrative career, with your education focused squarely on your future job.

Here are some benefits of going to a trade school:

  • Hands-on learning: Most, if not all, of your CTE coursework consists of practical learning with the goal of adequately preparing students for a specific profession. For example, chefs-in-training will spend their days cooking up a storm at culinary school.
  • Job-placement programs: Many CTE programs have contacts with employers and can help graduates land entry-level jobs in their specific fields. They can also assist in finding internships and part-time employment opportunities.
  • Variety of options: Programs range from school to school, but some popular choices include HVAC technology, cosmetology, welding, dental, auto mechanics, medical assisting, culinary arts and aircraft maintenance.
  • Shorter time frame: Courses usually take between six months to two years to complete. Remember, you get to focus primarily on your specialty and aren’t required to take general education requirements, making it a time-efficient choice.
  • Less expensive: The average CTE certificate can cost $33,000, which is much less than the average cost of four years at a university.

Just make sure to thoroughly research your options before enrolling, since some trade schools (often for-profit institutions) impose high tuition fees, while others might not offer much help in finding work after you graduate.

Furthermore, only accredited CTE institutions are eligible for federal student loans. If you’re considering a CTE program at an accredited institution, the first thing to do is file a FAFSA and research grants and scholarships.

And if you’re looking at taking out student loans for trade school, be sure to look at flexible repayment plans and research your options.

The Department of Education’s College Scorecard also allows you to analyze typical costs, as well as median salaries of graduates to help you narrow down your choices. Similarly, you can check out our list of trade schools to explore more options.

Trade schools
Time: Six months to two years
Credentials: Associate degree or certificate
Sample salary: The 2021 median salary for a dental hygienist was between $60,000 to $79,999.

3. Do an apprenticeship

Apprenticeships offer students a hands-on way to learn a specific trade or skill, all while earning a salary. You don’t often need a degree or certification to get started — instead, you’l gain the necessary skills while working under the guidance of a seasoned professional.

Recent federal government programs have sought to ramp up the availability of apprentice opportunities, with over 150 apprenticeship programs now on offer in a range of fields, including health care, transportation, financial services and skilled trades occupations.

To learn more about how to become an apprentice and to explore opportunities in your area, check out apprenticeship.gov.

Apprenticeship
Time: One to six years
Credentials: Nationally recognized certification in your field
Sample salary: The 2021 median salary for an elevator and escalator installer/repairer after their apprenticeship was $97,860>

4. Sign up for online college

Another option to consider is an accredited online college. You’ll often have the flexibility to set your own schedule, which is ideal if you’re juggling other commitments like a full-time job or caring for family members.

There are a range of online college programs and alternative colleges to consider, such as part-time, full-time or hybrid — which requires some in-person attendance. You may be able to finish the course requirements faster than at a traditional college, which can help you move on to your career quicker.

Most online colleges offer a lower tuition than a four-year university. Have a look at our list of online-only college programs that cost less than $5,000 per year. It’s important to research a potential school to ensure it’s within your budget, has proper accreditation and adequately prepares students for a successful career.

Online college
Time: Usually similar to the in-person component (such as four years for a bachelor’s degree) but can be sped up by taking classes all year long
Credentials: College credits, certificate or a degree (associate, bachelor’s or master’s)
Sample salary: The 2021 median salary for a social worker who earned an online bachelor degree was $50,390.

5. Enroll in a coding bootcamp

If you’ve got a knack for computers and technology, a coding bootcamp might be right up your alley. It’s an intensive training course that typically focuses on one of the following specialities:

  • Software engineering
  • Web and app development
  • Data science
  • User experience/user interface design
  • Cybersecurity analytics

Some universities offer coding bootcamps — however, the majority of the programs are run by private, for-profit companies or unaccredited colleges. At the same time, coding bootcamps are usually ineligible for federal financial aid.

Fortunately, there are other loan options for coding bootcamps, such as private student loans. Some companies even offer income-share agreements, which allow you to postpone tuition and to pay a percentage of your income after graduation.

Still, something else to keep in mind is that many bootcamp programs are exempt from state regulations, which means you’ll need to do research to find a credible program. Refer to the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting, which reports information regarding graduation and job statistics from private coding schools.

You can also consider some of the bootcamps on our own list.

Coding bootcamp
Time: The average course is 14 weeks, but can run between 6 to 28 weeks
Credentials: Certificate
Sample salary: Graduates have reported an average starting salary of $69,000.

6. Start a business

Although having a background in marketing or a business degree can help make your entrepreneurial dreams come true, it’s by no means required. To get started, think about your current hobbies or skills and how you can transform them into a money-making venture.

Some ideas to consider include:

  • Photography
  • Selling products on Etsy
  • Affiliate marketing on YouTube, Instagram or through a blog
  • Designing an app

Looking for more ideas? Here are 25 easy ways to make money on your phone as well as passive income ideas.

Entrepreneurship
Time: Right away depending on the business idea
Credentials: None, although a business degree could come in handy
Sample salary: The average salary for a craft artist is $49,960.

7. Get a realtor license

Diving into the real estate market can be a lucrative career move. Getting your real estate license usually requires enrolling in a training program, which can be completed in less than six months.

The beauty of this career path is that you can scale up and down as needed. Sell a bunch of houses now, and sock the earnings away for college if you decide to go in that direction.

Real estate agent
Time: Generally four to six months
Credentials: A real estate license
Sample salary: The 2021 median salary for a real estate agent was $48,770.

8. Pursue a travel career

Looking for a way to travel the world and earn money at the same time? A travel career might be just the answer.

Here are two popular options to consider:

  • Digital nomad: Basically, you land a solid remote job that’s okay with you working from anywhere. Alternatively, you start your own business and take it on the road. You can also monetize your travels, such as by writing a travel blog.
  • Teaching English: If you love working with students, you can try teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL). Sometimes, you’ll be required to have a college degree, though you can pay off your student loans by teaching abroad. However, there are also available programs that hire teachers without a degree.
Travel career
Average time: As long as you want
Credentials: None, unless you’re studying abroad
Sample salary: Salaries for TEFL teachers may range from $1,150 to $5,000 a month.

9. Find a job-training program or academy

Not all entry-level jobs are dead ends. In fact, many well-paying careers can start with free training, provided by your employer.

A variety of jobs with local and state government offer comprehensive training if you qualify for the position. Firefighting and law enforcement are examples, with training available for candidates at a fire or police academy.

In some cases, you might receive further education after you’ve been on the job for a while. For example, your company might offer (or pay for) educational and career advancement opportunities.

Overall, this is a great way to launch a career, or to take your career to the next level, without incurring extra debt.

Job-training program
Average time: Varies based on the employer and your role
Credentials: If the employer pays or reimburses you for educational expenses, you could earn a degree or receive a valuable certification
Sample salary: Varies widely based on the employer and your role

10. Join the military

Enlisting in the military can be an exciting way to travel the world and gain a wide variety of skills, all while serving your country. The military allows you to tap into an array of training programs, such as engineering, human resources and more.

Still considering a college degree for the future? You may be able to transfer credits from your military experience to certain colleges and universities through participation in ACE (American Council on Education). Furthermore, you might be eligible for military-based financial assistance, such as military scholarships and military student loan forgiveness.

Military
Average time: Depending on the branch and job specialty, you’ll do two to six years of active duty, followed by a period of inactive duty.
Credentials: College credit and job experience
Sample salary: The average base salary while in the military is $65,000.

Why you should consider alternatives to college

Not everyone is destined to go to college. Your goals might be set on a career that requires training outside of a traditional university setting, or perhaps you don’t know what you want to do with your life and the idea of plowing through college feels somewhat futile.

Here are some common reasons students consider alternatives to going to college:

  • Time: A bachelor’s degree can take full-time students four years to complete. In comparison, a coding bootcamp could earn you a certificate in less than a year.
  • Cost: The price of college education continues to rise, with the past decade seeing a 26% increase in tuition at U.S. public universities. In 2020, 55% of students who earned a bachelor’s degree took out student loans, racking up an average of $28,400 in federal and private loan debt by graduation that year. By comparison, a full-time programming bootcamp costs around $11,900.
  • Personal interests: College isn’t necessary to be successful. For example, you can earn a decent living as a real estate agent, entrepreneur or hair stylist without needing to attend a four-year college. In fact, 49% of college graduates wish they had studied something else — which can be a little nudge to follow your deepest passions.

How to know if an alternative path is better for you

Ultimately, you’ll have to evaluate your interests, budget and long-term goals when deciding if traditional college is right for you. If you’re not sure about a future career path, it could be worth postponing college to avoid investing in a degree you might not use.

Here are some key questions to ask yourself:

  • Does your career choice spark joy and excitement?
  • Will it meet your financial needs?
  • What can you do now to make your career more successful?
  • Are you motivated to follow this path to completion?
  • Does it definitely require a four-year degree?

It’s okay to take a gap year and to gain more clarity on your dream job. Also, remember to listen to your own voice — it’s easy to get swayed by teachers and parents, who often believe a four-year college is the only road to success.

If you decide to move forward with a four-year degree plan, here are 10 questions to ask yourself when choosing a college. A college degree is a big undertaking, which takes plenty of time and money. You want to make sure it’s the right decision before moving ahead.

How to pay for your education, in or out of college

Whether you’re pursuing a four-year college degree or embarking on an alternative adventure, it’s wise to be financially savvy about it.

Focus on saving money in all areas of your life, such as budgeting and utilizing coupons — every little bit counts.

If you’re attending college, make sure to exhaust your federal loan options as well as applying for scholarships before considering private student loans. Post-college, consider approaching companies who help their employees pay off student debt.

Above all else, follow your passion. You won’t want to sink money into a degree you may never use.