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Top College Alternatives to Four-Year Universities

By Zach Skillings

Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.

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and Cait Williams

Cait Williams is a Content Writer at Scholarships360. Cait recently graduated from Ohio University with a degree in Journalism and Strategic Communications. During her time at OU, was active in the outdoor recreation community.

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Reviewed by Annie Trout

Annie has spent the past 18+ years educating students about college admissions opportunities and coaching them through building a financial aid package. She has worked in college access and college admissions for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission/Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation, Middle Tennessee State University, and Austin Peay State University.

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Edited by Maria Geiger

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Updated: October 20th, 2023
Top College Alternatives to Four-Year Universities

Let’s face it. The traditional college experience simply isn’t for everyone. With rising tuition costs and plenty of rewarding careers that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, many high school graduates are turning to alternatives to establish themselves in the professional world. From coding bootcamps to apprenticeships, there have never been so many alternative opportunities for students. Below we’ll discuss the variety of routes available for high school graduates who are looking for alternatives to college. 

College alternative #1: Coding bootcamps 

Coding bootcamps are intensive, short-term training programs in web or mobile development, design, or security. These programs are offered both online and in-person and typically take less than four months to complete. 

Options after completion 

Coding bootcamp graduates generally seek jobs in web development, software development, information security, and information technology. The average starting salary for coding bootcamp graduates is $65,000. 


Most bootcamp graduates successfully find employment in their desired field within three months of completing their program. Additionally, coding bootcamps are more affordable than bachelor’s degree programs in computer science. Coding bootcamps cost an average of $13,000. In contrast, tuition at top computer science programs can be triple or quadruple that in just one academic year.

See also: Top Coding Bootcamp Scholarships


Bootcamps tend to prepare students for jobs in one specific area of computer science, while bachelor’s degree programs prepare students for a variety of jobs in the field. And while bootcamps are more affordable than a four-year education, there are typically less financial aid options for bootcamp students. 

See also: Are Coding Bootcamps Worth it?

College alternative #2: Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are paid, full-time career training programs that teach skills through a combination of on-the-job experience and classroom instruction. Depending on the specific program, apprenticeships can last anywhere from one to six years. The requirements needed to complete an apprenticeship vary by program. Apprentices typically work 2,000 hours a year and have a minimum of 144 hours of classroom work. That is equivalent to 43 hours a week for 50 weeks a year. 

Options after completion 

After completion of their program, apprentices seek out employment in skilled trade occupations such as carpentry, electrical engineering, plumbing, tractor-trailer driving, masonry, and construction labor.  Salary varies depending on the industry, but can range anywhere between $26,000 on the low end and $51,000 on the high end. 


Apprenticeships are great options for high school graduates looking to train for a career while earning money instead of going into debt. The average starting wage for apprentices is around $15 an hour, which increases as the apprentice’s skills grow. Apprenticeships are also a secure route to launching your career. Apprentices typically do not struggle to find full-time employment after completion of their program.


One risk of taking on an apprenticeship is that you may have less career options by limiting yourself to a particular industry. It can be very difficult to change career paths after completing an apprenticeship program if you don’t have an undergraduate degree. Apprenticeships can also be difficult to obtain since there are relatively few available and the competition is tough. If you’re considering an apprenticeship, try using the Department of Labor’s apprenticeship finder.

College alternative #3: Online classes

Online classes are becoming increasingly popular, especially now that so many schools are making the transition to online learning since COVID-19. But even before the pandemic, online learning was an alternative to traditional college. Meanwhile, many brick-and-mortar colleges offer online courses in addition to in-person ones.  

Another option is Mass Open Online Classes (MOOCs), which are free online courses available for anyone to enroll. Students who take MOOCs can develop professional skills needed to build their career while setting themselves apart from other job candidates. Some MOOCs even offer academic credit, which is great for learners who think they might attend college in the future. 

Options after completion 

There are a range of career opportunities for online learners depending on the credential they’re pursuing. Certificates, associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and even master’s degrees can be earned online. 


Many students enjoy online classes because they offer the flexibility to learn according to their own schedule. Students can attend online classes and listen to lectures from the location of their choice and whenever is most convenient for them. Because of this, online classes are popular among working adults with full-time jobs, children, and other commitments outside the classroom. While tuition prices vary from program to program, the cost of an online education is generally more affordable compared to in-person learning. 

See also: Top Scholarships for Online Students


Some students find that an online education simply does not fit their learning style. There is little to no in-person interaction with professors and peers in online courses, meaning that most of the learning is self-motivated and done through reading. Online learners must possess the self-discipline to stay on top of deadlines and balance classwork with other commitments.

It’s also important to know that the quality of online degree programs vary by institution. If you’re considering taking online courses, be sure to research the school to make sure it’s legitimate, properly accredited, and has a track record of preparing students for success after graduation.

College alternative #4: Military 

The military consists of six branches including the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force and Coast Guard. Everyone who enlists in the military takes on a minimum eight year service obligation, but this does not mean all eight years have to be spent on active duty. Learn more about the different branches of the military at the U.S. Department of Defense

Options after completion 

Some join the military and find rewarding, lifelong careers as service members while others fulfill their obligation to the military and then pursue a college education. Additionally, many use their time in the military as the foundation for a civilian career. According to Business Insider, military veterans often transition into fields such as healthcare, public administration, information technology, financial services, education, and law enforcement. 


The military offers competitive pay, comprehensive health care coverage, housing, and the opportunity to travel around the world. Additionally, the military can help pay for college or pay off college loans. Most enlistees are eligible for 100 percent of college tuition through the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) while on active duty. And of course, there are intangible rewards to joining the military such as gaining self-discipline, leadership skills, and work ethic. Learn more about the benefits of joining the military at 


Joining the military is a serious commitment that requires a lot of hard work and sacrifice. There’s always the chance of enduring physical or emotional damage while on duty, and enlistees may potentially endure long periods of time away from their friends and family. 

College alternative #5: Trade school 

Also known as career schools or technical schools, trade schools are post-secondary institutions designed to provide students with the specialized job training needed for specific occupations.

Options after completion

Students who go to trade school often pursue careers in fields such as carpentry, automotive maintenance, HVAC, information technology, nursing, cosmetology, and electrical engineering. 


Trade school programs are very affordable compared to four-year colleges and universities. Additionally, trade school programs are relatively short and are usually completed in two years or less. Trade school is a great option for high school graduates looking to launch their career in a specific skilled trade profession as quickly as possible. 


Students who earn a trade school certificate typically can only enter a specific profession. Bachelor’s degree holders have the option to pursue a variety of careers. Additionally, on average trade school jobs tend to pay less than college-based jobs. However, this varies greatly depending on the industry. Take a look at this report by Moneywise to gain a better understanding of how trade school salaries compare to college degree salaries.

Other alternatives

Of course, there are other alternatives to college than the ones we’ve discussed. Other options include performing volunteer work for a program such as AmeriCorps or PeaceCorps, getting an entry-level job to save up money, or simply taking a gap year to explore your interests and figure out your plans for the future. 

Learn more: Google Certificate Program: Everything you need to know

Key Takeaways

Key Takeaways

  • College alternatives can be a great option for some students to pursue instead of four year degrees
  • College alternatives can include coding bootcamps, trade schools, apprenticeships, the military and online classes
  • Be sure to compare salaries and job outlooks for both college alternatives and college itself, as there is no right or wrong choice, but only what is best for you
  • Don’t forget that there are also more alternatives than just those we listed in this article
Key Takeaways

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Frequently asked questions about college alternatives

Can you experience college without going to college?

Attending an alternative to college does mean that you’ll miss out on some of the things your friends may get to experience. However, attending college simply for the experience also isn’t a great reason to attend college. College is a big investment and should be something you’ve heavily researched and understand before you spend tens of thousands of dollars on it.

Can you be successful with a college degree?

Yes, it is entirely possible to be successful without a college degree. However, it’s important to remember that that can vary depending on the field you’d like to be in. If you’d like to be something like a lawyer or a doctor, you can’t be successful in without a degree.

What happens if you don’t go to college?

The great thing about college is that it will always be there whenever you are ready. Just because you don’t attend college right after high school doesn’t mean you can’t go back. Lots of adults choose to go back to school after being in the workforce or taking time to figure out what it is they’d really like to study. So, if you don’t go to college, that’s okay because it’s always going to be there!

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