in: Career, Career & Wealth, Featured

• Last updated: September 24, 2021

Is College for Everyone? 11 Alternatives to the Traditional 4-Year College

Vintage man walking through gate with carrying bag and suit case.

So far in this series on whether or not college is truly for everyone, we’ve covered both the history of higher ed, and the pros and cons of attending a 4-year university. Today, we’re going to look at alternatives to the traditional 4-year degree.

One-quarter of college grads are in jobs that don’t require a degree. And of the 30 jobs projected to grow the fastest in the next decade, only 7 require a standard 4-year degree.

Although it may not seem like it based on what you hear in the media and from the general public, there are a number of very legitimate opportunities other than the traditional 4-year college for graduated high schoolers to take a look at.

Ultimately, you have to think about your life goals. Mary Docken, a prominent voice in education advocacy, says, “Students need to think about what their interests are, how they like to learn, what motivates them, what financial realities they face, what type of work they see themselves doing – (sitting behind a desk with a computer in front of them, building things, working with people, etc.).”

For some professions – like many of those in STEM fields – college is absolutely the right choice. But for many, it ends up being a waste of time and money. For some, college even limits your career options, as you get strapped into thinking you have to go into a certain major (most often business) in order to be successful. That’s just not the reality, however.

Below, we’ve highlighted 10 very legitimate options to consider after high school. Some of them can lead to lifetime careers, and some of them are seen more as transition periods to decide life’s next steps — whether that’s ultimately to go on to college or to take another path. Either way, they should be considered right along with 4-year colleges for every high schooler out there struggling to try to figure out what to do next.

1. Start a business.

There are over 22 million individuals who are self-employed in the U.S., with no employees other than themselves. That’s about 14% of the entire American workforce. With drive, initiative, and a quality product, it may be more attainable than you think to make it on your own. In fact, some of the most successful men of the 20th and 21st centuries were entrepreneurs without a college degree:

  • Richard Branson
  • Michael Dell
  • Walt Disney
  • Henry Ford
  • Bill Gates
  • Steve Jobs
  • Milton Hershey
  • Frank Lloyd Wright

All of these men took the initiative and started businesses they were passionate about, and were sure would change the world.

The barriers to starting a business have never been lower. With a computer and an internet connection, there are a slew of business opportunities that can be launched with even just $100 from the comfort of your own home (half of those 22 million individuals work from home). Whether selling goods online, or simply using the web as your portfolio, it’s quite simply never been easier to become an entrepreneur. To open a clothier, for a quick example, you no longer need an expensive storefront that has rent costs, utilities, numerous sales employees, etc. With a little bit of drive (okay, a lot of drive) and a quality product, you could be the next Antonio Centeno, making and selling quality clothing online from the backwoods of Wisconsin.

Or consider the ease of starting a business selling any kind of handmade good with an Etsy shop. You could even become an antiques trader and seller with nothing but an eBay account. With just an internet connection and copious amounts of hustle, the possibilities are truly only limited by your own creativity.

One of the great things about starting a business these days is how much information and free education is available. Your local bookstore will have shelves and shelves of business books, and a quick Google search can get you started down the road of entrepreneurship in no time. The Art of Manliness was built from the ground-up by Brett and Kate with mostly their own gumption. Using Google, they installed WordPress, designed the website, created an online store, sold advertising, and have now been running a successful business for six years. (Although they would also say that their college and graduate degrees greatly aided in the writing and critical thinking skills so necessary to running a successful blog.)

While it’s certainly true that more small businesses fail than succeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find an entrepreneur who didn’t learn invaluable lessons even amidst their failures. Do you have zeal for something you created as well as good people skills? (Those are two qualities that entrepreneurs say catalyzed their success.) If so, perhaps taking the steps to start your own business is a better idea than spending four years in college.

2. Attend community college.

While community college doesn’t carry the prestige of the 4-year university, there are numerous benefits to this alternate path:

  • Saves boatloads of money – the average credit hour at a community college costs $60, while the average credit hour at a 4-year college costs around $300. While community college costs are rising right along with 4-year colleges, it’s not nearly at the same pace. There are even schools like Tulsa Community College that will cover 100% of the tuition costs for all high school seniors with at least a 2.0 GPA who enroll the fall after they graduate. Check to see what kinds of programs and incentives are available in your area.
  • Makes the transition to college easier – if you attend community college, you’re more than likely either living at home, or else living very close to home. Instead of feeling like you’ve been kicked off a cliff into the deep waters of college, you can wade in at a pace that is right for you, and slowly take on responsibilities of your own.
  • Gives you time to define and refine your interests – at 4-year colleges, the majority of your first two years are going to be general ed classes, even if they’re related to your major. You can do the same thing at a community college, for a fraction of the cost. This gives you time to explore your interests, without the stress of knowing you may be racking up massive debt on courses that don’t end up counting towards your degree or major.

Those are some practical benefits of community college when compared to 4-year colleges. The other major benefit – perhaps the one the matters more than anything else – is that in just two years you can earn your associate’s degree, and enter in on a path towards success that you never imagined.

In the next decade, only 7 of the 30 fastest growing jobs require a traditional bachelor’s degree. Most others require mid-level education – defined as more than a high school degree, but less than a 4-year degree. And believe it or not, these aren’t necessarily low-paying jobs. This list of 40 high-paying careers that don’t require a bachelor’s degree is quite diverse. A few particular careers mentioned in that list that require an associate’s degree:

  • Engineering technician (avg salary $60k)
  • Aerospace operations (avg salary $61k)
  • Web developer (avg salary $62k)
  • MRI technologist (avg salary $65k)
  • Nuclear technician (avg salary $69k)
  • Air traffic controller (avg salary $122k)

3. Get into a trade.

Men welding with safety glasses.

Trade schools offer specific vocational training for a wide variety of skilled careers. Sometimes this means getting an associate’s degree at a community college, but many times it’s simply a year or so at a technical school. These careers are often associated with “blue collar” jobs, and unfortunately often carry some negative stereotypes in today’s culture.

The reality is that there are literally millions of people who work in skilled labor jobs, and they’re paid well, especially compared to college graduates. The average starting salary for a college graduate is $45,000, while the average salary of someone who went through trade school is $42,000. Not much of a difference, and the trade school graduate is entering the workforce at least two years sooner.

In addition, you’re almost guaranteed a job coming out of school. There are numerous stories of large energy and construction projects that had to be canceled not due to money shortages, but due to labor shortages. Companies simply can’t find the skills to complete the work needed.

Yet another benefit of skilled labor is that your skills are not as exportable as people who sit at a computer in a cubicle all day. Even work that was formerly done by lawyers and doctors is being outsourced. You can’t outsource electrical or plumbing or welding jobs. These careers are truly what makes our nation run on a daily basis.

Mike Rowe, former host of Dirty Jobs, is doing his best to dispel the stereotypes surrounding blue collar work and is trying revive interest in the skilled trades:

“There were over 3 million jobs in 2008 that were sitting there, and nobody was really talking about them because they weren’t aspirational. So long-story-shot, I figured lack of appreciation for skilled labor ultimately manifested itself in a kind of disconnect that led us to push kids in one direction, ignore another direction, and that ultimately created a whole lot of jobs that nobody was too enthused about.”

He’s started a foundation that provides resources, scholarships, and even a job board for those interested in pursuing skilled trades. It’s really an incredibly handy website, and nearly made me want to pursue a trade myself! He also has a new book out, in which all proceeds go towards his foundation – my copy is on its way and I can’t wait to read it.

So, what are some specific career options? Take a look at the partial list below, and learn more details about these trades over at Rowe’s website.

  • Construction
  • Welding
  • Landscaping
  • Electrical
  • Painting
  • Forestry
  • Photography
  • Woodworking
  • Masonry
  • Locksmithing
  • Metal Work

We’re going to embark on a more detailed series of posts regarding the trades in just a few months. Stay tuned!

4. Be an artist.

If art is your passion – be it music, painting, sculpting, etc. – you should strongly consider not attending a 4-year college. While established artists average around $60k a year in earnings, it takes a little longer to get to that point. After getting a degree, you’ll be strapped with debt, and will you have really advanced your craft beyond what you would have anyway?

Getting an associate’s degree as a backup plan is a good idea, but then just put everything you have into your craft through deliberate practice, and consider moving to an art-friendly city like Seattle, Austin, TX, or one of these other top cities for artists, where you can find peers and mentors that can help critique and improve your work.

In building your following and clientele, really what you’re doing is starting a business. And you have to treat it like a business. Don’t fall into that “starving artist” stereotype of the lazy, couch-surfing bum who can only work when inspiration strikes. Even if art is your calling, you’ll have to work your butt off, just like with any other profession.

5. Take online classes.

Online college-level courses have boomed in the last couple years, with Coursera and EdX leading the way. While YouTube and a variety of websites freely offer lectures for the public to consume, Coursera and EdX offer certificates of completion, and with a small fee, those certificates can be university-verified.

While you won’t get college credit for taking these courses, they are absolutely college-level (trust me, they’re difficult), and will teach you some very valuable and practical skills that can be applied to a number of professions. A selection of class titles includes New Models of Business in Society, Competitive Strategy, Physics 1, Beginning Game Programming, and many more. If you don’t have a degree on your resume, being able to show a handful of certificates for specific skills is much better than nothing at all.

One institution making waves in the education world is the University of the People (UoPeople). Founded in 2009, it offers tuition-free education to anyone and everyone. Students can receive an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree in business administration or computer science. It’s hard to believe, but UoPeople is no gimmick and there’s really no catch for students – you get a real degree. Curriculum is put together by volunteers, and the school was recently accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council. Bill Gates has given money, as have many large corporate entities. It has applied for accreditation from the Department of Education, and it’s believed that they’ll meet the requirements.

One drawback is that in attending this university, you really have no skin in the game. While there are over 1,500 students, only about half are active. I’ve noticed this phenomena myself when taking courses on Coursera or EdX; when it’s free, it’s harder to stay motivated to continue when life gets busy or if you simply become disinterested.

Another drawback is the lingering negative perception in general of online-only schools. Employers are sometimes wary about online degrees – even if those concerns aren’t necessarily warranted. It’s a matter of public perception that will hopefully change over time, but as of yet, online degrees still don’t carry the same prestige as a “real” university.

Having said that, UofPeople is a unique opportunity, and is gaining some public steam.

It’s only a matter of time before these online learning institutions gain even more credibility and become mainstream options for graduated high schoolers.

6. Take a job. Any job.

Vintage men sorting papers at table.

One option that every 18-year-old should consider is to simply get a job and work for a year or two before deciding on their college path. Even if you start at minimum wage, things like showing up early and staying late, having integrity in the workplace, and treating customers and coworkers with respect will move you up the chain. Believe it or not, those seemingly simple characteristics are in high demand.

By working full-time at a fast food joint, or as a barista, or doing landscaping, you’ll learn invaluable life lessons. You’ll learn about customer service, about bucking up and working even when you don’t want to, about budgeting your income, about balancing life and work. Those are things that many men don’t learn until they’re out of college.

Beyond slinging burgers at the local diner, there are well-paying and life-long careers that don’t require any formal education beyond high school (keep in mind these positions still need to be worked up to, they just don’t require formal post-secondary education):

  • Construction Supervisor (avg salary $60k)
  • Claims Adjuster & Investigator (avg salary $60k)
  • Mass Transportation Operator/Inspector (avg salary $63k)
  • Gaming/Casino Manager (avg salary $65k)
  • Power Plant Operator (avg salary $66k)
  • Detective/Criminal Investigator (avg salary $74k)
  • Elevator Installer/Repairer (avg salary $77k)

If after a couple of years of working you decide to go to college, you’ll be two years more mature, and you’ll have money in the bank to help you pay tuition. While wages are lower and unemployment is higher for those with only a high school degree, a little bit of elbow grease can go a long way. My own mom, for example, didn’t attend any form of college, but worked for a few years in various fast food and retail jobs before getting her real estate license and becoming an executive for multiple real estate companies and earning a wage much higher than the average person. Gumption and grit can in some cases take you further than a college degree. Speaking of real estate . . .

7. Sell real estate.

Becoming a real estate agent is one of the best options out there for young men not interested in 4 years of college, but who are interested in high income potential. For generally under $1,000, you can take a couple months of real estate courses, take a state licensing test, and start selling homes.

Real estate agents, on average, make $42k a year, which is on par for those with a degree. But your income potential is much higher than that. You get as much out of the career as you put into it – so if you work hard and hit the pavement, you’ll make plenty of money to keep you and your family happy. It’s also an appealing career choice because realtors are often home-based, and set their own hours, to a certain extent.

The downside of real estate is that you’ll likely end up working on many nights and weekends. People who work jobs with normal hours can only look at homes when they’re not working, and you’ll often be on the phone and filing contracts late into the evening to make sure your client gets their dream home.

While the housing downturn a few years back may turn off some folks to this career, the market is already starting to rebound, and the job growth is projected at 11% in the next decade, which is in-line with the job market as a whole.

Check out the National Association of Realtors for more info on becoming an agent.

8. Volunteer.

Vintage men digging on hillside.

Volunteering for a year or two is a great way to not only give back and do some service, but to build your own character at the same time. Many people have dreams of living abroad or doing service for a year, only to realize after college that bills show up, spouses materialize, and soon after, babies start coming. There’s simply no better time than that year or two after high school to capitalize on your desire to have a little adventure and do some good in the world.

The Peace Corps is an option for international service, but the majority of assignments go to those with college degrees. If you haven’t attended college, they generally look for commensurate experience in the field you’ll be working in. Having said that, there are options for those with only a high school degree, so look into it.

AmeriCorps is a much better option for high school grads, although you are “limited” to service here in the U.S. Particularly, the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) program is a good fit for men aged 18-24, who want to serve for about one year. It’s a residential program, and you work in teams of 8-12, so you almost get a college feel, except you’re doing community projects instead of attending classes.

The AmeriCorps VISTA program is another good option. The set-up is a little bit different; you work for a year as basically an employee of a non-profit organization. You’re given a small stipend for housing and living costs, and that’s about it. I personally know several people who have done this program, and every single one has had a great experience.

A few other options for volunteer work after high school:

  • Conservation Corps – goes back to the days of the Great Depression and FDR’s New Deal. Much like AmeriCorps, you receive a small stipend for living expenses. The Conservation Corps tends to focus more on outdoorsy-type work.
  • Global Routes – an organization that sends young people to foreign countries for 12 weeks or so to perform service. The drawback of this program is that it’s a shorter-term commitment, and costs $4,000-$6,000 in “tuition.”
  • Catholic Volunteer Network – provides a wide range of volunteer opportunities, and has a great searchable database where you can specify that you’d be looking for opportunities that don’t require a college degree. You don’t have to be Catholic (or religious at all, for that matter) to take advantage of this network.

9. Join the military.

A man giving indications to join army recruitment.

While many folks think of the ROTC program when they think of young folks in the military, that’s not the only option (although it is certainly a good one). There are around 100,000 18- and 19-year-olds who join the military right after high school. Beyond being a form of service, the practical benefits of being in the military are another reason to consider joining:

  • A salary that is on par with what a new college grad makes ($30-$45k).
  • Free health care for you and your family.
  • Little-to-no living costs, meaning you can save money faster.
  • Tuition is paid for while in service, should you decide to earn a degree at some point. (You have a variety of online learning options, and many military bases have satellite classrooms of prominent colleges so you never even have to leave post.) You can also take advantage of the GI Bill once your active service is complete, and get at least portions of your education paid for, depending on your time on active duty.
  • Travel the world – while certainly not the point of military service, this is a benefit that shouldn’t be ignored.
  • 30 days of vacation per year. The average for folks with 20+ years of service in the American civilian workforce is only 17 vacation days.
  • Retirement, with benefits, after 20 years of service. For an 18-year-old, that means you can retire at 38. While you likely won’t live off those benefits for the rest of your life, you’ll have much less to worry about financially.

There are a few requirements for joining military service:

  • Must be 18 to join, without parental consent. You can be 17 when enrolling if you have parental consent.
  • Must be a US resident (includes territories like Guam and Puerto Rico).
  • A high school degree is not required, but is strongly desired. GEDs are sometimes acceptable as well.
  • Pass the ASVAB Test – tests your comprehension in various categories like science, language, technical skills, mechanical skills, etc. It helps in assigning career roles within the military. The different branches have different passing scores for this test.
  • Pass a physical. Each branch has different requirements for height, weight, and body fat. You are also tested for various physical ailments that could handicap your service.

The learn more about joining the military, I’d recommend visiting two incredibly helpful websites: and

10. Become an apprentice/fellow.

Peter Thiel – founder of PayPal, entrepreneur, and investor – has taken an interest in this discussion of the necessity of college. In 2011, he launched the Thiel Fellowship. Each year, he chooses 20 young men and women under the age of 20 to give $100,000 to in order to skip college and realize their visions and ideas. He says, “Rather than studying, you’re doing.” During the two-year program the fellows are mentored by some of the world’s top scientists, researchers, and business leaders. There are no specific definitions of a successful two years in the program, but most graduates of it have invented something or started a company.

Similar programs are popping up all over the country as people begin to realize the benefits of the age-old idea of apprenticeships:

  • Praxis – provides full-time, paid apprenticeships.
  • Echoing Green – provides funding for young leaders who are passionate about social change.
  • TechStars – provides funding and guidance for entrepreneurs of any age in the technology industry.

11. Attend a work college.

This option is close to being just another 4-year college, but with one crucial difference. You are actually required to work 10-15 hours a week to help pay your tuition. Because of that, at these work colleges, you pay significantly less in tuition, and in a few cases, you pay no tuition.

In all other regards, it’s a normal college experience, but you aren’t strapped with the debt that cripples so many students and their families. You also get the valuable experience that comes with working a job while also engrossed in your studies. These institutions admit you’ll probably work harder than at other schools, and have a harder time learning how to balance your responsibilities, but you’ll come through the other side stronger than most of your peers.

There are only seven federally recognized work college in the country, so your options are a bit more limited, but they are definitely worth considering. Learn more at

“Is College for Everyone?” Series Conclusion

We’ve brought you full circle with this series on the necessity and worth of a 4-year college degree. We started with a look at the history of higher ed in America, and how that past has informed the current situation. We then discussed the pros and cons of a traditional 4-year college and concluded that when you get down to it, there’s no easy yes or no answer as to whether or not one outweighs the other. And finally, today we’ve presented a variety of options for the graduated high schooler who wishes to do something different with his life.

Ultimately, our goal with this series is not to convince you of one side of the argument or the other. There are serious pros and cons no matter what you do, and there are opportunity costs for every choice we’ll ever make in life. College just happens to be one of the biggest decisions you’ll grapple with, so the opportunity cost could well be high.

It’s with that in mind that we ask students to thoughtfully engage with the question of whether or not to attend a 4-year college. As an 18-year-old, that’s admittedly a tough task. You have peer pressure, parental pressure, societal pressure – it’s almost more than anyone can really sort through and examine clearly. And yet, the college decision will have implications that impact the entirety of your life. Don’t assume that a 4-year school is the best option just because that’s what everyone else says.

And that sentiment goes for parents as well. You’ve seen the data in these posts. A college education simply isn’t what it used to be. For many students, it will definitely be the right choice. For some, however, it will not. Parents need to consider the fact that a bachelor’s degree may not be what’s right for the course of their child’s life. Help your students engage this topic, and help them understand the weight of debt – something that’s so hard for young minds to truly grasp.

Whether you’re the parent or the high school senior, the one takeaway we hope you have gotten from this series is that education doesn’t have to be a continual conveyer belt that you first step on in pre-k and don’t step off until you’ve gotten a college sheepskin in hand. It’s okay to jump off and explore other paths. We wish all the young men heading out on their own this year the best of luck as they decide which way to go.

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