alternatives to college

Back in March, I wrote a blog post about a friend of mine who dropped out of college and has nonetheless been very successful. College wasn’t for her. While I usually work with students who are very invested in earning, at a minimum, their Bachelor’s degree, I occasionally encounter high school students who, like my friend, see college as a barrier to beginning their professional life rather than an opportunity. Understandably, parents of such high schoolers tend to be very concerned. For a few generations we’ve been told that college is the path to financial security. And this is largely borne out by statistics; census data tells us that the average high school graduate makes $35,000 a year, while a college graduate will take home closer to $54,000 annually.

However, as with all statistics, there is the rule and there are the exceptions. Pathways to success that don’t include a Bachelor’s degree do exist. Here are some of them.

Associate’s Degrees and Certificate Programs

One pathway to consider is your local community college. While one of the missions of community colleges is to prepare students to transfer to a four-year, Bachelor’s-degree-granting institution, community colleges also offer Associate’s degrees and certificate programs. These might take from six months to two years to earn and are designed to prepare a student for the workforce instead of further study. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook reports that mid-career web developers earned a median pay of over $69,000/year in 2018; the entry-level degree required for this profession is an Associate’s. Other commonly offered Associate’s and certificates include nursing, hospitality management, and legal assisting.

While most Americans are aware of the abundance of jobs in the computing field, what they might not know is that we are facing a shortage of skilled tradespeople and technicians. Low-skill factory jobs may have gone away in many sectors of the economy but highly skilled factory workers are in demand. In addition, those with strong technical skills can train and move into fields like electrician, plumber, auto repair, construction, and agriculture. These technical skills are taught not only at community colleges but also at some high schools, which offer vocational/technical training programs for both high school students and adults, generally via evening programs. Even better, these high school programs are often free.


Another option is to learn a trade through apprenticeship programs, which are often available through labor unions and state and federal training programs. Some people even get their start through non-profit organizations designed to introduce you to various trades before you choose. If you want to know what opportunities exist in your area, a quick internet search of unions in your state should provide you with some solid leads. If you can’t find anything on the union’s web page, pick up the phone and call! Consider also searching state and federal government websites and others like

Career and Trade Schools

Career or trade schools, which provide focused program offerings in one or a few areas such as cosmetology or aeronautics, provide an additional option. Be aware, however, that most such schools are for-profit, which generally means they are more expensive than the other options discussed in this article, and their students tend to graduate with significantly higher levels of student loan debt. In some professions, degrees from for-profit institutions may earn less respect and garner worse outcomes than not-for-profits or non-profits, so we recommend avoiding them unless they are the only option in your area for the career that interests you.

I’ve mentioned a lot of different careers in this article, and you may be interested in some I haven’t yet. There are a lot of options, but how can you determine which career might pay enough? As I mentioned above, the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupation Outlook Handbook is a great resource for researching careers, median incomes, and expected future growth. It’s a powerful tool that will allow you to decide how much time and money you might want to invest in pursuing a career.


Written by Sally Ganga
Sally Ganga is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Prior to joining College Coach, Sally was a senior admissions officer at The University of Chicago, Reed College, and Whittier College. Visit our website to learn more about Sally Ganga.