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8 Alternatives to a 4-Year Degree

Life after high school or at a time of transition is like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, and sometimes seeing that you have choices is all that matters. Here’s a list of ideas that will jump-start your brainstorming if traditional college is not for you.

(Photo Credit: Revol Web/Flickr)

1. Attend community college.

Once eschewed as a last resort, community college has transformed itself into the new “it girl” of education and probably the hottest ticket to a job, maybe even hotter and more promising than the four-year degree. It’s a standout option because the programs offered are a direct response to industries currently in need of a skilled workforce. Translation: you may actually get a job. For example, students can attend and leave with an associate’s degree or certification as a veterinary tech, dental hygienist, web designer, or winemaker -- as is the case at a community college in Oregon’s wine country.

2. Start a business.

Remember the lemonade stand you founded and managed the summer you were in fifth grade? You could do it again, but this time add some cupcakes, create a web page, and get a truck to use as your pop-up store location. Starting a business might be easier than you think. In fact, Chris Guillebeau, a writer, entrepreneur, and traveler claims you can do it with only $100 and has written a New York Times bestselling book on the subject.

3. Join the military.

Deciding to join the armed forces is a viable option that comes with unique benefits and challenges. Some of the benefits include highly skilled training and financing for college, both of which will provide a stepping stone post-military service. The challenges to consider are the physical and emotional risks as well as some financial concerns. This is an option that can’t be an impulsive choice. Once you sign up, there’s no turning back, so anyone who is thinking of pursuing military service needs to read, understand, and discuss all the pros and cons before signing anything.

4. Serve with Americorps.

Americorps, like the armed forces, is an opportunity to serve the country while gaining marketable skills and earning money for education. Members can choose from one of three programs to participate in, are paid a living stipend, and offered some health benefits while they are employed in service work in the areas of education, public safety, health, the environment, and/or bringing communities and individuals up out of poverty. The term of service can last anywhere from three to 12 months. A college degree is not necessary to enroll, which is one way Americorps differs from the Peace Corps, which prefers candidates with a college degree and a second language.

5. Attend a work college.

If you don’t want to give up the dream of a four-year college, but can’t afford it, this option is your friend. Work colleges require students to be employed at the school for 15-20 hours a week, earning money for tuition while gaining job skills.

6. Become an apprentice.

Apprenticeships are not a thing of the past, and though they have declined in recent years, are still touted by experts in the labor field as the key to matching skills wanted with training received. Becoming an apprentice means you get on-the-job training from experienced professionals while getting paid, unlike the infamous unpaid internship.

As to the stigma associated with apprenticeships, Lauren Weber of the Wall Street Journal writes that it has much to do with blue-collar stereotypes associated with the construction industry, which makes up two-thirds of apprenticeship programs in the U.S. People may want get over that prejudice real fast since President Obama set aside $100 million last month specifically for apprenticeships in high-growth industries like healthcare, information technology, and supply-chain management.

7. Take free online courses.

Want to expand your mind as if you were an academic pursuing a liberal arts degree, but don’t want to go thousands of dollars in debt to do so? You can still live the fantasy by putting on your bow tie and tweeds and marking up your copy of The Canterbury Tales right from home or from Starbucks. The world of massive open online courses, a.k.a. MOOCs, offers online courses you can take from real, live professors, even Ivy League profs.

Some great resources for this continuation of education include Open Culture, Harvard Open Courses, Open Education Database, Coursera, and edX. Even University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School is putting many of its business courses online. Melissa Korn of The Wall Street Journal writes, "The school is still learning how best to translate its on-campus offerings to the Web, but officials say the venture has already strengthened the brand and delivered an edge over competitors in an area that could ultimately upend traditional M.B.A. programs."

8. Pound the pavement.

If all else fails, apply for an entry-level position in a field that interests you to gain experience and to get your foot in an industry door. There are jobs out there that don’t require a bachelor’s degree. Job seekers can also use Payscale’s Research Center to find salary information.

Tell Us What You Think

What other alternatives would you add to this list? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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