Alternatives to College

Yes, there are alternatives to college. Don't feel you have to go to college. There are so many other options. Or, if you go to college, there are alternatives to attending a 4-year college.

Last updated on July 17, 2024 by College Financial Aid Advice.

Alternatives to College

Alternatives to college
Construction Trades – Are you interested in a high paying job that can’t be outsourced, and doesn’t require you to go into debt? Consider the construction trades, like electrician, plumber, HVAC, etc. As more people go to college, there is a shortage of people entering the trades. How much do they pay? Check out the pay for these construction trades at Contrary to popular opinion, most trades don’t require “trade school”. Learn how to enter a trade as an apprentice, then become a journeyman after 4 - 5 years at

Military – Some students want to serve their country be enrolling in one of the branches of the US military. Depending on test scores, this may open up a variety of job-training opportunities, new experiences, travel opportunities, leadership and paid college. However, if you choose this path, you will be obligated to follow through on this commitment for typically 4 years, and even if you don’t re-enlist, you will have obligations for service in the future if your country needs you (e.g. Individual Ready Reserve or IRR).

AmeriCorps – If you are 17 years of age of older, you can join AmeriCorps, and give back to your country in a non-military way. In addition to receiving a basic living allowance, you can receive money for college or trade school, defer interest on federally insured student loans, and build skills. For more information see where several readers shared their positive experiences with AmeriCorps.

Workforce – Join the workforce instead of college. While this might be a low-paying entry job, you might also find a great job for you - work in a family business, get a government job, become a real estate agent, or just gain some time to explore different career paths.

Start a Business - Are you independent and driven? Perhaps you can start your own business and work for yourself. Aerate lawns, design websites for others, build your own YouTube channel - the possibilities are endless. Do your skills and talent align with an unmet need?

Alternatives to 4-Year College


University of California, Berkeley

There is so much emphasis on getting a college education these days, and most people think of attending a 4-year college right after high school. That path is not best for everyone, so you should know there are many alternatives to a 4-year college education.

Community College First – Many students choose to attend a local community college first. This allows more time to choose a major, and then transfer to the best 4-year college to finish their bachelor degree. Not only does this save money, but classes are smaller than most 4-year colleges and universities, and there is more direct interaction with the professor. Many community colleges have agreements with state universities for guaranteed admission as a junior. One of the best kept secrets is many graduates of 4-year state colleges and universities started out at a community college. If you aren’t sure what major you want, this is a great option, as if you start directly at a 4-year college, they might not even offer the major that you later decide you really want.

College Credit in High School  - Some students get college credit while still in high school. There are many variations of this approach. You might graduate early by skipping a semester or year of high school, or get a G.E.D., allowing you to leave high school sooner and enroll at a community college instead. This is a great option if you don’t really like high school, but want to go to college

Dual enrollment - Another way is to take college classes while still enrolled in high school, under a dual enrollment program. You receive both college credit and high school credit for the classes. Check with your high school counselor or local community colleges to see if they offer this option.

AP classes in high school – Many top students choose to take AP classes while still in high school. You get high school credit and if you can get an A in the class, it elevates your GPA for college admission. But if you get a B or a C, it might work against you. One important note: your preferred college or university might not accept the AP class for college credit. Yes, they have that choice. Some might accept the AP history class but not the AP calculus class, depending on the intended major. So, sometimes taking AP courses can backfire.

Gap year – Some students want a break between high school and college, and take a “gap year”. This can be good for a variety of reasons. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, some students got accepted into top schools but didn’t want to pay all of that money for remote learning, so they took a gap year to wait until they could get in for in-person learning. A gap year should be a productive year, where you volunteer, work, and explore possibilities for your future. Read more about how one student turned a gap year into getting admitted to her dream school.

Advice for Alternatives to College

We have received a lot of feedback from students and their experiences, and here a a few that have good points to consider before going to college.

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Give a Year, Change the World (and save money too!) National service is the best way to pay for college. AmeriCorps programs like City Year or Playworks, allow young adults, fresh out of high school in many cases to serve a year and receive a Segal’s Education Award amounting to $7,395. Many universities will even match your Segal’s Education Award…

The Job that Makes a Difference - AmeriCorps

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Save on College Tuition in High School

There are countless ways in which students can save money for college. One of the most efficient ways to do so is by taking AP or IB classes. These classes are free to the student since they are taken at their regular high school. Taking these classes and passing the exams will give the student college credit. The average tuition per credit hour can be anywhere from…

Making the Most of High School AP and Dual Credit Classes to Save Money

Scholarships. Financial aid. Essay contests. These are all credible ways to help defray the cost of a college education, but there is another way that may be even more efficient and effective if you're a hard worker and don't mind a little academic challenge. Take AP and dual enrollment courses while in high school. This is money in the bank …

Use What You Got

When I graduated from high school, the last thing I wanted to do was attend a two year community college. Everybody knows all the cool people go to four year colleges after high school—and let me tell you, I was the cool kid! However, after seeing how…

Know your career before having to pay back a un-needed loan

Read a student's perspective written by Elizabeth from Ohio

In life people change their minds about what kind of career they want to have when they grow up. There are so many different reasons why people go to college rather its because they want to, their feeling pressured by their family, or they feel its what they need to do to be able to provide a better life for themselves and their family.

In my case I went back to school un-sure of the career I wanted to pursue and ended up getting a student loan that I now have to pay back and I’m not even working in the field that I graduated school for.

Now I finally know the career I want to be involved in and do not have the money to go and fulfill my dreams because of the rush and unsatisfied money I have spent already on a career that I know I do not want to be apart of.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned and I hope to teach others who are thinking about going to college is to make sure you do your research on your program of interest to make sure the job outlook is high in demand and make sure its a career you really want to do for the rest of your life. Don’t make the same mistake I made by going into a career program that I had no clue what the responsibilities were and aspects of the job from not doing my research. Now stuck with a loan on education that went to waste, I don’t want anyone to make the same mistake that I made.

Try Something New - Dream School - Gap Year

(Kirsten from Oregon)

After I was told that I hadn’t made the cut for my dream school, I was so disappointed. I felt stagnated going back to my job as a waitress, and to the same old life. As a straight A student with a wide variety of activities and experiences, I wondered what more I could do. After a long conversation with the admissions counselor, I got the impression that I just didn't have enough passion to stand out from the rest of the potential applicants, all of whom were as highly qualified as I was. How could I gain that passion and self-assurance that I needed?

Then I got an email from the director of a Mexican home and school for children with special needs where I had volunteered in the past. She invited me to teach for the entire school year. Since I had an unexpected gap year, I decided to go for it.

Coming with no teacher’s training, I was unprepared for the eight English classes that I was given, ranging from third grade to high school. I did not have a curriculum to go by, so I had to think of a lot of my own ideas. As an introvert, overcoming my fear of speaking in front of a group was difficult, but little by little, I felt more confident in my abilities.

The next year, when I interviewed for school, I was much better prepared. I had some new life experiences to point to that would help me stand out, and I had grown exponentially in self-confidence and passion. On interview day, I felt like I could stand out from the crowd just as well as, if not better than, the other applicants. Much to my delight, I was accepted! People who are reapplying will be expected to have grown, and I attribute my personal success to the new, unique situation of which I had taken part.

Which College Is Right for Your Child?

Or is it something different?

Read a parent's perspective of alternatives to 4-year college.

(Robert, California)

We live in California where we are fortunate to have some very good college choices. My wife and I both attended different University of California campuses and we both received an excellent education. Together we raised 4 children, and we assumed they would follow in our footsteps and attend a University of California, or one of the California State Universities. Over time we realized that each of our children were different, and required a different solution.

Our oldest, our only daughter, had her heart set on attending a private east coast school, and she had the grades and test scores to make it possible. We did the usual college tour, including some excellent west coast schools of our choice, including our alma maters of course, and some east coast schools. She received offers from several schools including an excellent financial aid package from Harvard, which she accepted. She is currently attending graduate school at UCLA.

Our second child, a son, attended a local community college for a semester before he dropped out. He decided to go into a trade, and is currently a journeyman electrician. He is thinking of getting his general contractor license and running his own construction company someday.

Our third child, also a son, showed no interest in college, in spite of our strong encouragement to get a good education. He chose to enter the Air Force after completing high school, and hopes to make a career in the military. Through the Air Force he has received free training and education.

Our youngest child, another son, was a solid student, but he didn’t have the grades for a good financial aid package from the University of California. He decided to attend a local community college for 3 years, before he transferred to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he completed his engineering degree.

Part of growing up is learning to be financially responsible, which is also part of our story. All of our children learned the value of hard work, through summer jobs and on-campus jobs (work study program). They also knew they would have to take on some college loans, which meant choosing a career that would pay well enough to pay back the loans. We also helped them be financially responsible by establishing credit with student VISA cards and small, secured loans. While they each chose a different path, they are all on solid ground.

My advice for other parents is to always love and support your children in their dreams, and don’t assume that only one college is right for them, or even college at all. We are proud of all of our children, and each is successful is his or her own unique way.

Thank you for the chance to share our college experience from a parent’s perspective.

Thank you Robert for sharing your personal story, Which College Is Right for Your Child? So many parents want to force one "right" choice upon their child. It is refreshing to hear how each of your kids chose a different path and made you proud.

More Information Alternatives to College

Read more information about alternatives to college, and ways to save money at 2-year college, 4-year public college or private university.

College Financing

Money Tips for College Students

College Admissions Help

Scholarship Money for College

College Loans for Students

Student Jobs

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