11 Alternatives to College You Should Consider

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Alternatives to College

Are you tired of hearing that college is the only way to be successful after high school?  If yes, then read on because this article discusses all of the truly excellent alternatives to college.

We live in a day and age where post-secondary education is essential, and there’s truth to this.  But the notion that should change is that college is the preferred path to getting this education.  In fact, with student loan debt at all-time highs, with insufficient high paying jobs to repay those loans effectively, we are at a tipping point. 

People need to start choosing more cost-effective ways of obtaining a post-secondary education.  Make no mistake; these alternatives exist and frequently get people into the workforce more quickly. 

Lower costs and a quicker path to payback makes a lot more sense than what we are currently seeing with some traditional four-year degrees.

That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate fields that require a four-year bachelors degree, if not more.  But we need to start distinguishing between what jobs require that type of education, and those that can be done with a lower educational burden.  Especially given the fact that much of the essential knowledge someone gets after college is learned on the job.

Let’s take a look at some of the opportunities for people who decide that traditional college isn’t for them.

1. Educational Alternatives

Online Courses/Degrees

One of the great benefits of our new online world is the ability to learn from anywhere.  Because of this, several innovative companies have started in the last few years focusing on online courses.

You can learn about a range of different subject through companies like Udemy and Coursera.  These companies act as an online hub for all types of courses taught by professionals, in some cases from major universities.  In the case of Coursera, you can even earn a full degree in some instances.

Technology Bootcamps

If you are considering a career in technology you should seriously consider a BootCamp. These intensive schools provide training in a number of different high-demand technology fields. Things like coding, cybersecurity, data science, and project management, just to name a few.

The benefit of these programs is they typically take a few weeks to complete, and leave you with the skills for an entry-level job. They aren’t always cheap, with many costing between $10-$20k, but that’s considerably less than most universities.

Trade School

Trade School Alternatives to College
The Balance Careers

Many of the trades are making an absolute killing these days while the economy is strong. Why? Because many tradespeople left the business back in the great recession, and there isn’t an ample enough supply to keep up with demand. Tack that on to the fact that so much pressure is put on kids for traditional college. There aren’t nearly as many kids going into the trades these days on a percentage basis.

It’s economics 101 (and you can learn econ without a college degree) that shows us why tradesman can charge a pretty penny for their services.  The dwindling supply has made trades work one of the best alternatives to college.

Culinary School

Have you watched any television in the last twenty years?  If you have, then you know becoming a chef is a lot sexier a profession than it may have been in the past.  Starting with Emeril, there has been a constant stream of celebrity chefs and cooking shows that have popularized the industry.

This is an excellent alternative to college where you can now build a career from the ground up.  Yes, you typically need to be willing to work late night hours, and it can be a grind in the early years.  Some people thrive in that environment, and if that’s you, then consider applying to culinary school.  Having a degree will help kickstart your career and can take anywhere from two to four years, so there is some commitment required on the training front.

Community College

We know, this isn’t entirely an alternative to college, but it is a less intensive and lower cost option.  That’s the key here, finding ways to get started without dropping $200k on a four-year degree.

Community college is an excellent option for many people, and they offer a ton of different degrees and education opportunities.

The nice thing about a community college is it can start you down the path, and give you multiple options.  What we mean here, is that you may opt to stay for a two-year associate degree, but maybe during the process of getting this degree, you decide you would like a bachelors degree.  Often these credits are transferable to traditional four-year universities.

It’s also not uncommon these days to see community colleges offering bachelors degrees of their own.  Again, giving you more options with committing to the significant tuition payments from the start.


2. Entrepreneurial Alternatives

Start a Business

Becoming an entrepreneur can be hard, and complicated further with no experience in a field.  But that said, people with the right motivation can find success in starting their own business.

This is especially true if you have a passion for something, and can find a way to monetize it.  If that’s the case for you, a business of your own may be the best way to a fulfilling career.

If that’s what you decide, then you’ll need to arm yourself with the best business tools you can for success.  The good news is we live in a world where online access to these tools is in abundance given the internet.

Buy a Franchise

This option is only available to those who have some access to financing.  Granted, the level of financing varies greatly based on the franchise you purchase.

These are great businesses for someone without much experience, since the franchise offers training, marketing, and other support functions.  Many people make a great living off one successful franchise.  But many have also gone on to master the art of the franchise and build small empires in the process.

If you like the thought of being an entrepreneur but aren’t ready to take the leap on your own, a franchise is a good option.

3. Work Alternatives

Get a Job

Plain and simple, get a job.  One of the best things you can do is get out there, and start learning while you’re at work.  Talk to a lot of college graduates, and they’ll tell that’s where they discovered the most valuable lessons anyway.

There are so many good paying jobs out there that don’t require a college degree.  Many of these jobs also give people the ability to rise through the ranks based solely on performance rather than education level.

There are plenty of high-level managers and executives who got where they are because of old fashioned hard work.


One of the most productive things you can do that doesn’t require a degree is getting into real estate.  Getting a license to sell real estate is a relatively easy way to get into the game.

After getting your license, you can then sell real estate through any number of different brokers on the market.  You’ll earn a percentage of each sale you complete, which can be quite significant depending on the value of the home.

Many a person has gone well beyond just selling real estate to make a fortune in this business.  If you have a keen eye for this business, the opportunities are limitless.  From flipping homes to purchasing multi-family rental units, there’s big money in this business.


Getting an apprenticeship is another excellent alternative to college especially if you have a deep interest in a particular trade or profession.  

In the case of an apprenticeship, you will usually get the bulk of your training through on the job work with experienced professionals.  This on the job work is then supplemented with some classroom and study oriented work which allows you to earn a license.

Apprenticeships last for several years, and can typically be found in any skilled trade.

4.  Miscellaneous Alternatives


Your parents may not be impressed with this alternative to college, but sometimes we have to have some fun.  In the United States, there’s a significant push to get done with school and enter the workforce as soon as possible.  But go to some other countries, such a Germany, and you will find a different culture.  One where it is the norm to take some time off and travel the world before starting work.

There’s a lot of wisdom to this approach because seeing the world at a young age can be very enlightening.  There are lots of lessons to be learned by observing other cultures, and what’s the harm if you have some fun in the process.

Volunteering/Charity Work

Volunteering is a great feel-good alternative to college.   Time will tell if it’s something you can do for the long haul since most people crave a little more money.

But if you’re a person that excels more based on passion and mission, then this is something you should consider.  It allows you to help people daily, and we need people in these jobs.


Joining the military has long been one of the most popular alternatives to college.  It offers kids the ability to gain a sense of purpose and do something meaningful.  

If it’s not a path you’ve considered, give it some thought.  There’s a wide variety of skills you can gain in many different positions offered by the military.  Not only that, but the GI Bill enacted in 1944 has provided the opportunity for service members, veterans, and their dependents to take advantage of various educational assistance programs.  This includes tuition assistance for college and trade schools.

If you’re looking at alternatives because of financial restrictions, joining the military can be beneficial on multiple fronts.

Pros of Selecting an Alternative

Earn Money Sooner

Probably the most beneficial reason for getting taking an alternative route to college is the ability to earn money sooner.

The important thing to talk about here is you need to save some of that money to get the maximum benefit. If you do this religiously, there’s a real chance you can save more money in the long run than someone with a college degree who may have a higher salary.

Avoid Debt

Not only can you save sooner, but you can avoid the cost and potential debt that comes with traditional college. College students are saddled with extreme debt these days which makes it hard to save at a high rate after graduation.

If you don’t have this debt and are a diligent saver, you may have a significant head start on a college graduate forced to deal with these payments.

Gain Independence

It takes time to be comfortable living on your own and to be financially independent.  But the sooner you learn how, the better.  It goes hand-in-hand with things like being a better saver.

Granted, you can go in the wrong direction if you’re a young person with money to spend for the first time.  So try to keep a good balance between having fun, being responsible, and putting some money in the bank.

If you can do all of these things, you’re chances of coming out ahead improve dramatically.

Real Life Experience

Another of the key benefits when going with an alternative to college is the potential to learn from real life experience.

You won’t find many college graduates who will tell you they walked right into a job and were ready to go.  Most everyone learns the bulk of what they do through real-life experience.  If you get into the workforce faster, there’s a chance you have a head-start on your college going, competitors.

Cons of Selecting an Alternative

Some Jobs Require a Degree

Yep, let’s face the reality that you can’t even get in the door without a degree at some companies. Many of you who don’t want college, wouldn’t want to work at one of these companies anyway.

These jobs often are in the professional services arena, such as accounting, finance, or consulting. For some of these positions, a license is required that mandates the degree, so there’s not much you can do. If you’re determined to be in one of these industries, suck it up and get your college applications ready.

May Limit Upward Mobility

While you may have no problem getting a job at some companies, upward mobility may be limited. This isn’t (and shouldn’t) be true at all companies, but the reality is in some companies a degree is required. In fact, for some positions these days it almost seems like a master degree is a pre-requisite.

Many times you will find this type of culture in the larger corporate environments. But small to medium size companies often have more opportunity.

No doubt, you can make it happen, just be realistic about how difficult it will be at certain companies without a college degree.

Average Salary

If you're just playing the averages, there's no question the average salary grows with more education. According to SmartAsset the average salary for someone with a high school education is $35,256.  The average salary for someone with a bachelor's degree is $59,124.

That's a decent jump in pay, but remember it doesn't take into account the debt accrued to pay for college, or the opportunity cost of not earning money immediately. Once you start to add these factors, it becomes a close competition you assume a reasonable rate of savings in either situation.

The Bottom Line

If you're not a school person, then don't worry you might be better off.  Rather than heading off to college and racking up significant debt, you have many other opportunities waiting for you.

We are entering a period when the financial cost of college is starting to outweigh the benefit in many cases.  Heading to trade school, getting an apprenticeship, or taking online classes are all great ways to continue learning without going to a traditional college.

If you're done with school altogether, there are plenty of opportunities waiting for anyone willing to put in some sweat equity.  Start a business, or get into real estate and you might be making more money than the average college grad in no time.

Whatever your final decision, if you put the time an effort, you can be successful at any venture your pursuit.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines, or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.


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