What are your chances of acceptance?

Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

Does Every Student Need College? Five Alternatives to College

Although college is considered by some to be the traditional path after high school, it is far from your only option. In fact, in some cases college isn’t the right fit or the best choice following high school. If you’re considering options to pursue after your high graduation that don’t include college, you won’t want to miss our breakdown of five great alternatives. 


Does Everyone Need to Go to College?


While college might seem like the obvious choice, not every high school grad needs to go to college, and there are many instances in which college isn’t the best choice. 


For one thing, college is extremely expensive for lots of families. If you aren’t sure you want to go or you don’t think it’s necessary for your chosen career path, you can save a lot of money by not enrolling in college. 


Other students are simply not academically prepared for college and choose to take a break or leave academics behind entirely. After all, there are lots of good careers that don’t require a college diploma. In fact, vocations and trades are often better pursued through technical or vocational schools. These routes can still result in great earning potential with at a smaller price and less significant time commitment than college. 


Finally, some students just don’t thrive in the traditional educational environment. For some, high school may have been a challenge, but college would represent a long and difficult path that comes with a hefty price tag. 


The good news is that if college isn’t the right fit for you, there are still plenty of other options available. 


Five Alternatives to College



1. Join an Apprenticeship Program



This route is especially prevalent in careers like manufacturing, welding, or plumbing. 


When your career path relies on hands-on skills, the best way to learn is often by shadowing a professional and absorbing all you can. This is possible through apprentice programs and these careers are projected to have solid job security. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of construction and extraction occupations is projected to grow 11 percent from 2016 to 2026, creating approximately 747,600 new jobs. Among the highest earning options are plumbers, electricians, building inspectors, and boilermakers. 



2. Train to Take Over a Small Business


For many students who follow this route, it’s a family affair, but you don’t need to inherit a business to make this a reality. If you have been involved in a company or other small business as a summer job or simply know the owners closely, you may be able to start at an entry level position and work your way up steadily to management. Sometimes, if an owner is aging, he or she may be looking for young talent to carry the baton once he or she retires. 


While this option isn’t as sure a thing as an apprenticeship, it can be a good route for a graduate who wants to pursue a more white collar career without a college education.



3. Take Free Online Classes


Just because you don’t enroll in college, that doesn’t mean you can’t pursue higher learning. There are many options for free online classes if you want to grow your knowledge without the commitment of college. Consider online programs like the Lambda School or another “bootcamp” that offers an accelerated pathway to a solid job, typically in a field like programming. At the Lambda School, you take computer programming and coding classes online for nine months and pay nothing until you land a job that pays at least $50K annually. Then, Lambda takes a % of your salary to repay your debt. 


Mass Open Online Courses (MOOCs)  like “Udacity” and those offered through Harvard, MIT, and Microsoft can open up more varied paths, though your ultimate career choices may be limited if your job application is competing against those who do have a college career. Still, taking free online classes in areas like computer science or engineering might be enough to gain the knowledge necessary for a job in IT.


4. Attend Trade School 


Trade school is a solid alternative to college and a good compromise between college and an apprenticeship. Trade schools tend to be less expensive than a four-year degree and often lead to well-paying jobs because they foster many practical skills. This could include anything from fixing cars, to manufacturing and welding. Additionally, unlike in an apprenticeship, the skills learned in trade school are not tied to a specific company’s procedures and approach, so they are more broadly transferable to more jobs.


Despite their discounted ticket price, trade schools are still sometimes expensive and many have even proven to be scams. In general, you should never take out loans for trade school or join a trade school at a for-profit college. Even if the school is completely legitimate, your earning potential is capped by your job prospects and it could take you a long time to pay off any student debt. 



5. Join the Military


For students who are in good physical condition and are willing to enlist, the military can offer a lot of benefits. These include a stable paycheck and free food and housing early in one’s career. After retirement, you can expect a substantial pension and VA loans that promote the ability to buy a house without a down payment. 


Other benefits include health insurance for the enlisted person and their family, 30 days of paid leave per year and discounted vacation resorts worldwide, and substantial education benefits if you do choose to attend college later via the GI Bill, college reimbursement plans, and others.


Of course, joining the military isn’t a decision to be taken lightly and there are some significant challenges you should consider before enlisting. First, the physical requirements are difficult and you’ll need to commit to keeping yourself in top physical shape. In addition, the command structure forces you to follow orders without question and includes laws governing your personal life, including things like deciding when you can get married, whether you can ride a motorcycle, and how you practice personal grooming.  Finally, one cannot quit the military, so enlisting is something you need to take very, very seriously. You must either serve out your contract or face jail time. 


In addition, it should go without saying that there are significant concerns related to serving in the military. You could be stationed far away from friends and family for extended times, and you could even face combat in a war zone. You need to carefully weigh the pros and cons as they relate to you personally before enlisting in the military. 


What if Traditional College Is Just Not Right For Me Right Now?


If college doesn’t seem like a good fit for any reason at the moment, there’s no reason to rush into it. It’s still possible to go back to school later in life, and many colleges are now developing supports specifically for non-traditional learners who are returning to college. You might consider taking a gap year while you decide on your next step, or attending a community college.


You can learn more about these options and the potential benefits or disadvantages in our posts Should You Take a Gap Year? and Should I Go to Community College?


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.