Getting an education has many benefits, but a traditional four-year college is not for everyone. College is expensive, time-consuming and, depending on your career goals, may not be necessary to find a well-paying job.

Many alternatives are available if you want to gain education and experience without attending a four-year college. Some alternatives include trade or technical school, volunteer work, the military, coding boot camps and apprenticeships.

5 alternatives to a college degree

Whether you’re taking a gap year, looking to cut out the cost of a college degree or pursuing a specific technical career, there are practical alternatives for every situation.

Trade or technical school

Trade schools (sometimes referred to as technical schools or vocational schools) are institutions that train students in a specific skill. Trade schools train you for careers that most colleges don’t offer majors in, like welding, carpentry, specific health professions and the culinary arts. Because they’re hyper-focused, trade school programs typically last less than two years — and sometimes less than a year.

Trade schools often offer a hands-on approach rather than a lecture-oriented approach due to the nature of the training. Plus, many trade occupations offer competitive salaries or rates, and trade students often walk away with less debt and more job security than those with a traditional college degree.

If you are interested in applying to a trade or technical school but are unsure where to start, Real Work Matters has an online database of trade schools and vocational programs that can help you find the right program for you.


Apprenticeships provide on-the-job and classroom training for certain high-demand fields, including information technology, health care, cybersecurity, hospitality, plumbing and construction.

Apprenticeships are generally a long-term commitment, ranging from one to six years, depending on the job, and you’ll need to complete a set number of work hours. Despite the longer commitment, many high school graduates choose to pursue apprenticeships over traditional college degrees due to the lower cost and the job security upon graduating from the program.

Finding an apprenticeship can be difficult if you do not have connections or know where to look. If you are looking for an apprenticeship, Apprenticeship USA can help you find potential opportunities.

Coding boot camps

Coding boot camps are intense, short-term programs that train students for careers in software engineering and other technical fields. These boot camps focus on teaching programming languages like HTML, CSS and Python. Depending on the boot camp, you may also build your expertise in UX/UI content design, digital marketing and full-stack web development.

Most programs offer full-time and part-time enrollment options, and you can often enroll online or in person. While most boot camps are recognized by employers, keep in mind that they aren’t accredited. Costs vary by program, but boot camps are typically much more affordable than a traditional college degree.

Research the best programs and figure out how much they will cost before signing up for a coding boot camp.

Military service

Enlisting in the military is a common alternative to earning a college degree, and if you decide to pursue higher education down the road, the GI Bill can help you pay for it.

Joining the military doesn’t mean you’ll always be on the front lines; there are plenty of other positions in the military, including office jobs. Still, you’ll need to think hard about your decision before taking this step. Enlisting in the military is a big commitment and isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. Being a soldier can be extremely difficult, both physically and emotionally, so speak with current and former service members and consider the long-term reality of what it means to serve before enlisting.

Volunteer work

Volunteering is a great way to take advantage of a gap year or prepare for a career in the nonprofit sector. Volunteering can help you get out of your comfort zone, experience the world and discover what you’re passionate about.

Some organizations to look into are:

  • Habitat for Humanity: Habitat for Humanity is a global nonprofit organization that helps build and repair homes for low-income families. It’s located in all 50 states in the U.S. and in 70 countries, so volunteers can choose to travel abroad or stay within the states.
  • AmeriCorps: AmeriCorps is a national program that serves local communities through projects like building homes, teaching children literacy skills and helping communities impacted by national disasters. AmeriCorps members can also receive tuition payment assistance, and the AmeriCorps Employers of National Service network can connect you to employers across the country.
  • Peace Corps: The Peace Corps is an international organization dedicated to working alongside global communities in an effort to promote world peace. Volunteers have the opportunity to work in a wide range of sectors, including community economic development, agriculture, health and youth in development.

How to determine the best college alternative for you

Once you’ve decided that an alternative to a college degree is the route you’re going to take, think about your long-term goals and passions. If you think that a college education may still be in your near future, consider a gap year volunteering or working to take some time to figure out what it is you’re truly passionate about.

If you’re interested in a specific trade or career, a coding boot camp or an apprenticeship would be the better option. There’s still a financial commitment, but it’s often less than that of a four-year degree. Plus, there are plenty of companies that offer private student loans for career programs if you need help paying for your program.

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