6 alternatives to college to consider

When thinking about what to do after high school, many people assume that there’s some requirement to go to college for a four-year degree. But going to college right after high school—or seeking higher education at all—may not be the right choice for everyone.

Thankfully, there are other options that don’t require a four-year degree.

Key takeaways

  • There are many educational paths and career options after high school that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.
  • Options like volunteering and alternative schooling can come at little or no cost.
  • Apprenticeships and vocational schools offer ways to build skills while also earning a paycheck.
  • Attending a coding boot camp is another option that doesn’t require a four-year degree.

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What are some college alternatives?

If you’re worried about how you might get by without going to college, you should know that there are many paths you can explore after high school that can lead to a long and successful career. The options below are some of the most popular alternatives to college. 

And though the time commitment and cost of tuition are generally lower than for a four-year program, these options could still take a significant commitment—in both time and money. 

1. Community college

If you’re on the fence about whether to attend a four-year program, community colleges are one alternative that allows you to see if a longer degree program may be a good fit for you.

Community colleges—also called junior colleges—are run at a local level throughout the U.S. These colleges offer two-year associate degree programs as well as other training opportunities. Community colleges tend to cost less than state colleges or universities and often provide credits that can be used toward a bachelor’s degree later on.

2. Massive open online courses (MOOCs)

MOOCs are another option that might provide college-level learning without the financial and time investments of a traditional four-year program.

MOOCs offer free or low-cost options to experience college-style classes without going to a campus. These programs are often run either directly by universities or by professors and can offer a taste of the college experience at a fraction of the cost. 

Some research from the National Library of Medicine even suggests there’s a benefit to taking MOOCs for people who later attend a four-year degree program.

3. Volunteering

Volunteering is another option for people looking for opportunities after high school. Many organizations across the country are in need of volunteers. Some may even offer travel opportunities to help communities across the globe, allowing volunteers to see the world at little or no cost to them.

Beyond just helping other people, volunteering can help you build skills and relationships that you can use in the job market when you’re ready. According to research by the Corporation for National and Community Service, people who volunteer are 27% more likely to land a job than those with a similar background who didn’t do volunteer work. 

4. Apprenticeship

Apprenticeship is another alternative for building skills and networking without a traditional four-year degree. With an apprenticeship, you learn while you work. This means that you can get paid to build skills that could also lead to a lifelong career.

Person working on a machine presses buttons while exploring alternatives to college.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship reports that people who do apprenticeships:

  • Stay employed after their apprenticeship at a rate of about 93%
  • Earn an average annual salary of $77,000 after completing their apprenticeship
  • Are able to get industry-specific credentials that can be used across the country
  • Gain experience that can be translated into college credit

5. Vocational training

Similar to apprenticeship, vocational training lets people take classes directly related to a profession. High school students can begin vocational training before or after they graduate.

The U.S. Job Corps is the nation’s largest vocational training program. It helps people complete their high school education, provides training for specific careers and even assists with housing, childcare and job hunting. 

6. Coding boot camps

For people interested in breaking into the tech industry without a traditional four-year degree, coding boot camps may be an opportunity to learn targeted skills. These intensive programs can range from several weeks to several months long. Many also tout mentorship and industry networking, which can help with landing a job.

Research supported by the National Science Foundation suggests that some people may get the most benefit from these boot camps if they already have a background in computer science. So do your research and see what you’re getting yourself into before making a commitment.

Alternatives to college in a nutshell

Whether you’re worried you might not like college after you start or you’re just not sure you want to make the financial commitment, the above alternatives are some of the most popular choices.

If you think college may still be the right choice for you, read these tips on how to look for savings while in college or how to apply for student loans.

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