Key takeaways

  1. Vocational school and apprenticeships are two alternatives to college that provide the skills needed to succeed without incurring large tuition costs or long-term debt
  2. Certificate programs and coding boot camps offer micro-learning opportunities that can be completed in a few months or even weeks 
  3. Taking a gap year between high school and college can serve as an opportunity to explore different interests, volunteer, travel, or gain internships

Attending college out of high school isn’t the right fit for everyone. With the rising cost of tuition, not to mention the time commitment, plenty of alternatives are available to those who wish to seek avenues outside of a traditional four-year college.

Here are 5 alternatives that can provide the skills you need to succeed while avoiding a hefty price tag or long-term debt.

Finding a college alternative that fits your goals

Explore your path
  • No matter which route you decide to embark upon, ensuring that it resonates with your aspirations and interests is essential. Take the time to consider various options beyond just traditional college pathways. This comprehensive exploration will empower you to make a well-informed choice that truly suits your needs.
Conduct thorough research
  • Once you've identified a handful of potential paths, dedicate yourself to conducting thorough research. This step guarantees you're selecting the most appropriate journey for your objectives. Engage with professionals who are actively engaged in the field, dive deep into relevant resources, and don't hesitate to seek insights from individuals experienced in each type of program.
Make an empowered decision
  • Ultimately, the pursuit of education is deeply personal. Conducting diligent research empowers you to make informed decisions about your educational journey. Your chosen path should reflect your aspirations and be tailored to your individual goals.

5 alternatives to a traditional four-year college

1. Vocational school: Learn a trade

Vocational schools (career colleges, technical, or trade schools) provide students with the skills and training they need to enter a specific field. 

From plumbing to carpentry, there are plenty of options for learning a valuable trade without going to college. 

Trade schools are generally cheaper than a traditional four-year institution: the average net cost is about $17,000 a year in the US. In addition, they have shorter program durations and offer more specialized courses.

2. Apprenticeship: Earn while you learn

If you don’t have the time or money to attend a vocational school, on-the-job training could be a great way to learn new skills. 

An apprenticeship is a great way to learn valuable skills while getting paid. You’ll work alongside experienced professionals, allowing you to observe and learn from them. 

Depending on your chosen field, apprenticeships typically last between one and four years. The most popular industries for apprenticeships include construction, engineering, and energy. However, there are a wide variety of available apprenticeships in many trades.

3. Certificate programs: Micro-learn

Most community colleges and trade schools offer certificate-based programs that can be completed in a few months or even weeks.

While Pell Grants may not be available for programs shorter than 15 weeks, students can explore private or institution-based scholarships or financial aid for high-demand industries like health care, construction, IT, and manufacturing.

Adult learners should consider "stackable credentials" – completing multiple short-term certificate or associate degree programs that build on each other. This can assist students in transitioning to and progressing in their careers, all while striving for a more advanced credential or degree.

There are tons of certificate programs to choose from these days, with tuition rates ranging from less than $1,000 to $6,000 per course.

4. Gap year: Take a break

Taking a gap year between high school and college is an opportunity to explore different interests, travel, volunteer, or take on internships. This gives you time to think about what direction you want to go in before committing to something you may not be ready for.

How you decide to spend your gap year is entirely up to you. Still, most people tend to choose immersive experiences in one or multiple foreign countries to develop language skills, learn new cultures, and explore different career possibilities.

No matter what you choose, it is important to make sure your experience is meaningful and serves your future interests.  

Resources are available to help you plan and navigate your gap year journey through nonprofits like Gap Year Association (GYA) and Outward Bound.

5. Coding boot camp

A coding boot camp offers a convenient and focused approach for students seeking to cultivate a particular skill set in a short period of time.

This program is great for aspiring computer programmers or front-end developers. Best of all, you don't need to attend a fancy university to get your training. Check for coding boot camps at your local community college. If available, they may be able to help you land a job faster than the traditional four-year route.

According to Course Report, more than 600 coding boot camps exist globally (online and in-person). The quality of programs varies, so make sure to conduct thorough research.

According to Course Report, coding boot camps typically span from six to 28 weeks, with the average duration being 14 weeks. The website states a starting salary of $69,000 for boot camp graduates. However, annual costs average around $14,000, and these programs are usually not eligible for federal financial aid, creating a price barrier for some students.

Final word

Deciding to pursue an alternative to college isn’t easy, but it can be incredibly rewarding when you’ve taken the time to explore all of your options. Once you have identified a few potential paths, research each one in-depth to ensure they align with your goals and interests.

After that, take the plunge and commit to your decision. Whether it’s an apprenticeship, a technical school, or something else entirely, follow through with your choice and make the most of it. With hard work, dedication, and perseverance, you can achieve great things no matter which path you choose.