Best Alternatives to a 4-Year College

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Jeff White, CEPF

By Jeff White, CEPF

December 21, 2022

For many high school graduates, college is the way to go. The right college degree can set you up for a rewarding career making more money than you would otherwise, and providing a fantastic experience overall. However, there are many reasons why it may not make sense for you to go to college right now, or at all. Thankfully, there are plenty of alternatives to college that you consider.

If the main reason you’re considering an alternative is the considerable costs associated with college, then you should know there are options to help you pay for school. The best option is to open a 529 plan and use tax-advantaged money to grow the fund that allows you to pay for college expenses.

Best Alternatives to Going to College

While a university education college can be a great path for many, it isn’t for everyone. Depending on your future career goals, personal interests, learning style, and even your financial situation, you may be better suited to one of the below alternatives, whether trade school, an apprenticeship or just jumping straight into work.

1. Trade School

Trade schools are vocational-based educational institutions that train you in a practical trade or profession. Examples of these vocations include hairdressing, welding, vehicle maintenance, culinary arts, animal care, firefighting, and law enforcement.

Trade schools are typically much more affordable than universities, with courses costing between $3,000 and $16,000 to complete. Additionally, most vocational courses last between six months and two years, so you’ll get your qualification a lot faster compared to a four-year college.

Perhaps more importantly, they offer a different, more hands-on type of education that may be more suited to your learning style. Not everyone thrives sitting in lectures and writing long papers. Of course, you’ll still need to do assignments, practicals, and complete assessments, but if you’re able to find the right course, you’ll be focused on topics you’re interested in with a fast track to your dream career.

2. Apprenticeship

Apprenticeships are another type of job-specific training that will give you a fast track to a certain career, usually in a trade. As part of an apprenticeship, you’ll work under an experienced professional and receive on-the-job training in a specific area. What’s more, you’ll get paid while you’re in training: typically, apprentices work full-time hours, start out at around $15 an hour, and get paid more as they become more skilled.

Most apprenticeships are offered in specialized, even dangerous fields, which demand close supervision and specific training, such as electrical, plumbing, carpentry, masonry, construction, and manufacturing. Sometimes also known as job-based learning, apprenticeships can run anywhere between one and six years, and at the end of it, you’ll have earned a nationally-recognized industry certification.

3. Joining the Military

Joining the military not only allows you to serve your country, but it’s also a great way to gain experience, learn a range of skills, and meet tons of people. The experience you get in the military can help you build a career in a range of fields, and you’ll get access to training programs in fields like aviation, engineering, and human resources.

Military service can also be very valuable if you do deserve to go to school later on. Current and past servicemen and women are eligible for a range of scholarships and benefits that help them to pay for college, and you may even be able to transfer your service into college credits to let you graduate earlier.

4. Taking a Gap Year

It’s a bit of a shame that in today’s driven, high-pressured world, gap years seem to be less accepted. It used to be pretty common to take a year off after your senior high school year to travel, work, or both. Taking a year between high school and whatever comes next is a great way to take stock, explore your interests, and work out what you really want to do before spending money on an expensive college degree that might not be right for you.

You don’t need to spend the year backpacking around Europe or working as an au pair. You could use the time to do volunteer work locally or abroad, work in the family business, or explore virtually anything that you think you might be interested in doing in the future. After your gap year, you may decide to go to college or do something else entirely, but you can feel confident that you’re making the right decision.

5. Get a Job

You may be hearing from your peers, parents, or even guidance counselors that you need to go to college in order to get a job. However, this simply isn’t true. Sure, for many professions, such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and engineers to name just a few, a relevant university qualification is essential. But there are many other jobs that you can land straight with just a high school diploma.

It’s arguably easier than ever before to get a job straight out of school and work your way up. In some cases, you may need to go back to study as you climb the career ladder, especially if you want to break into senior management. In others, such as an entrepreneur, professional chef, or scuba diver, you can build a successful and well-paid career without ever going to school.

One of the big advantages of entering the workforce straight away is that you’ll immediately start earning money and can begin saving for your future – whether this includes investing in a 529 plan so you can go to college down the track, or something else entirely.

6. Enroll in Community College

Community college can be an affordable alternative to a four-year university. These institutions offer many of the same courses as traditional universities, as well as vocational education which is similar to trade schools. Furthermore, their courses are usually shorter, more affordable, and more accessible than a four-year university.

The average cost for community college is between $10,000 and $20,000 a year, if you attend a school in your local district. On the downside, your community college qualification may not be as well-regarded as a bachelor’s degree from a prestigious university. However, you can usually transfer community college credits to a four-year school, so they can be a good stepping stone if you don’t get into the college of your choice.

7. Complete Online Courses

Depending on the career you want to pursue, you may find that online courses and self-paced learning are good options. You’ll find a range of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in everything from creative writing and social media marketing to coding and videography. These courses are usually short, with durations typically ranging from a few hours to a few months. They’re also highly flexible, and can be free, or may involve fees and charges.

These types of courses can also be a good way to land an entry-level job when you have no other qualifications and little experience. Taking a few online courses will not only demonstrate that you’re motivated and interested in the field, but it can give you enough basic knowledge to get your foot in the door. You can always gain more formal qualifications from a four-year university later if needed to progress in your career.

Also, keep in mind that you may choose one of these options straight out of school, and then decide to go to college later on. Taking a different path now doesn’t mean you’ll never become a college graduate. In fact, taking a gap year or getting a job can be a great way to save up for future college studies.

Cost of Going to College

If you’re looking for alternatives to college, it may well be because you’re worried about cost. But how much does it really cost to go to college?

Freshmen enrolling in college in 2023 will pay between $110,000 and $240,000 for a four-year undergraduate degree, depending on the school. Public universities are generally much more affordable than private ones, especially for in-state students.

These figures include not only tuition, but also a range of other costs associated with attending a four-year college, such as mandatory fees, room and board, transportation, as well as books, supplies, and equipment.

On the other hand, you can slash the costs you’ll need to pay for college, and may even be able to go to college for free through:

How to Pay for College

Although college is expensive, this doesn’t mean you definitely won’t be able to meet these costs. There is a range of ways to pay for college, from using savings or taking out loans, to working your way through college.

Student loans are used by many students to fund their college education. Federal student loans come with more favorable interest rates and better consumer protections than private loans but can still accumulate a huge amount in interest over the long term. However, you do it, borrowing a large amount of money for college can mean you pay much more overall once interest is accumulated, and saddle you with crippling debt for years to come.

Scholarships and grants are funds that you won’t need to pay back, though you’ll have to meet either needs or merits-based criteria in order to qualify. Equally, using savings can be an excellent way to pay for college, but not everyone has a large amount of savings, nor are they lucky enough to have wealthy relatives that can chip in.

Investment savings accounts like 529 plans can make it relatively easy to build up enough savings to pay for a college education, at least in part. These are tax-advantaged accounts that are specifically designed to cover educational costs. Take a look at our guide to the best 529 plans to learn more.

Income Potential Without College

Money isn’t everything, but there’s no denying it’s an important consideration. When considering your potential future career, you need to consider how much money you’re likely to earn and whether this will meet your needs and fund your desired lifestyle.

Let’s take a look at the median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers with different levels of education, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Less than a high school diploma
High school graduates
Some college or associate degree
Bachelor’s degree or higher

As you can see, having a degree from a four-year college can almost double your earning potential compared to a high school diploma. This can add up quite a bit over the course of a 20- or 30-year career.

The Bottom Line

There are plenty of alternatives to college for those who don’t want to attend university right now, or at all. You could pursue different kinds of training through a trade school, community college, or apprenticeship. Alternatively, you could consider joining the workforce, signing up for the military, or taking a gap year, maybe with the view to going to college later on.

However, if you want to pursue a career that requires a degree from a four-year university, or want to enjoy the higher earning potential it brings, you’ll need to find a way to pay for college. You’ll find plenty of ideas in this guide to paying for college.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What can I do with my life if I don’t go to college?

There are plenty of paths you can follow in life without going to college. For example, you could learn a trade and work as an electrician, plumber, or hairdresser. You could also go to community college, join the military, get an entry-level job and work your way up, or even become an entrepreneur.

If you’re not sure what you want to do after high school, why not take a gap year or get a job for a year or two while you decide what you want to do? This will also give you time to prepare financially for college if you decide to go in the end.

Can you succeed without college?

Yes, there are plenty of successful people who never went to college. You can get a job with a high school diploma and work your way up, or complete alternative education such as trade school, apprenticeships, or community college.

However, there are certain jobs that require a four-year college or higher qualification. So, if you want to be a lawyer, doctor, or many other professions, you’ll need to find a way to go to college.

What do you do when your child doesn’t want to go to college?

You should probably avoid forcing your child to go to college if they don’t want to. Pushing them into a college degree that they’re not interested in will most likely end up being a waste of time and money for everyone involved.

If they’re not keen on college, you could encourage your high schooler to consider alternatives like community college, trade school, or apprenticeships, or taking a gap year to work out what they want to do. If your child never goes to college, you can use their college savings in a range of ways.

Can I go to college if I don’t go to college straight out of high school?

Yes, once you have your high school diploma, you can decide to go to college at virtually any time in the future. In fact, taking a few years to work, join the military, or simply take a gap year, can be a great way to work out what you want to do and prepare financially for college.

A good place to start:

See the best 529 plans, personalized for you