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Alternatives to Traditional College

Suzanne Shaffer

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When my son was a senior in high school, he had no idea what he wanted to do after graduation. College seemed out of reach and of very little interest since he coasted through high school on the bare minimum of effort.

His involvement in NJROTC (Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps) in high school led him toward the military option. When he left for boot camp after graduation, he was happy with his decision to avoid the traditional college route.

My daughter, on the other hand, knew she wanted to go to college and where she wanted to go. When she graduated and left for college in the fall, she was content with her decision and looked forward to four years of education.

Each of my children chose a different path. If I had forced my son to attend college, it would have ended badly. If I had pressured my daughter to join the military, it would have been a disaster. But since I let them decide for themselves and didn’t push them in any one direction, they found the paths that were right for them.

While a college degree is an impressive achievement and has undisputed value, it’s not for everyone. There are many meaningful paths after high school graduation that don’t include a traditional four-year college experience.

If your student is vacillating about going to college or is currently in college but regrets the decision, don’t panic. Your student may need to follow one of these alternative paths.

Gap Year

The words “I want to take a year off before I go to college” aren't always welcomed by parents. Don’t fear the gap year! Not every student is ready for college right after high school. If that’s the case for your child, why would you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on tuition?

Gap years are most beneficial when students have a plan. Gap-year options may include working and traveling abroad, taking on an internship or apprenticeship, or volunteering.

If your student has accepted a spot at a college but wants to do a gap year, with approval from the school, they can defer admission and enter as a freshman the following year — usually with all financial aid intact. They should pay attention to deadlines and be sure to complete all necessary paperwork.

Still not sure about the value of a gap year? Read Will Taking Time Off Help Your Student Land a Job or Internship? and What My Daughter's Gap Year Taught Me.

Community College

Not only is community college a smart financial decision, but it could also be the best fit for your student. For a high school grad who is interested in higher education but unsure that a bachelor’s degree is their ultimate goal, community college is a good way to wade in, start exploring areas of academic interest, and get some basic credits out of the way. If they decide to transfer to a four-year college, they will save on tuition.

Your student can also work while attending and explore career options. In addition, many community colleges offer associate degrees in numerous technical and skilled trade fields.

Trade or Technical School

Trade and technical schools offer specific vocational training for a great variety of skilled careers. Most of these careers require two years or less of training. Mike Rowe of the popular television show Dirty Jobs runs a foundation for the skilled trades. In an interview with, he said, "America is in the midst of a skilled labor shortage, as hundreds of thousands of available jobs go unfilled because workers lack the necessary training. But even more upsetting is the attitude of many Americans that the trades are merely a last-ditch alternative when college doesn't work out.”

For a student who wants to get straight to work and learn by, doing a trade or technical school would be a much better choice than a four-year college. And attitudes are changing — some high schools now celebrate a Career and Technical Letter-of-Intent Signing Day similar to the signing days held to recognize student-athletes recruited to play at the college level.

If you’re worried about your student’s future earning potential without a college degree, rest easy. Take a look at these 25 great jobs that don't require a college degree. A bachelor’s does not guarantee a high-paying job or personal satisfaction.


If your student isn’t motivated toward college, volunteering for a year or two is a good way to build character and learn the value of service. Consider researching these programs:

  • The Corporation for National & Community Service runs Americorps NCCC, a residential program for young adults aged 18–24 who want to serve for about a year. Volunteers work in small teams doing community projects related to disaster recovery, environmental stewardship, education, and more. There are three application deadlines a year for this program.
  • The CNCS also offers AmeriCorps VISTA, which partners volunteers for a year with non-profit organizations dedicated to eradicating poverty.
  • The ACE Conservation Crew is much like AmeriCorps but focuses on work outdoors.
  • Global Routes sends young people to foreign countries for 12 weeks or so to perform service.
  • Catholic Volunteer Network has a searchable database of opportunities that don’t require a college degree or any religious affiliation.


For many high school grads, the military, with its diverse branches and areas of service, presents a good option. Benefits include a salary, room and board, paid college tuition through the GI Bill, and retirement after 20 years.

Bonus: the military will often train you for a career after your years of service, and your student can enter the workforce with experience.

Another option is to attend a military college and receive an officer’s commission after graduation in the service branch of your choice. To learn more about joining the military, you and your student can visit these helpful websites: and

Online Classes

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are free online courses open to anyone (check out the offerings on EdX). MOOCs deliver quality educational experiences and provide an affordable and flexible way to learn new skills and explore career-related subjects.

Options for online courses continue to grow. Khan Academy, which began as a series of YouTube videos, is making online instruction a more widely used tool for students who aren’t interested in traditional learning.

Apprenticeship or Fellowship

If traditional education doesn’t appeal to your student, an apprenticeship or fellowship might. The Thiel Fellowship, for example, selects 20 individuals under the age of 20 who receive $100,000 to skip college and realize their visions and ideas. The fellows are mentored for two years by top scientists, researchers, and business leaders.

A few other intriguing programs:

  • Echoing Green grants funding to young leaders who are passionate about social change.
  • TechStars provides funding and guidance for entrepreneurs of any age in the technology industry.

There are many more programs out there. Your student might also create a DIY apprenticeship with a local craftsperson or contractor.

Artistic Path

My nephew chose this path after trying college for one semester and realizing it was not for him. He filmed BMX racing for fun during high school and was able to turn this hobby into a freelance career. Today he travels the world filming race events and creating advertising video content for businesses.

If your student is creative with a hobby that might develop into a career, encourage them to investigate ways to generate income using their talent. Career paths of this type include videographer, graphic artist, photographer, musician, painter, and sculptor.

Career College

Students who aren’t keen on the idea of another four years of traditional classroom learning might warm up to a career college such as an art, fashion, or culinary institute. Another option is to consider a college that focuses not only on academics but also on hands-on education. One such college is Pennsylvania College of Technology. Students graduate with a liberal arts degree and are trained to enter the workforce immediately.

Internship or Job

Paid and unpaid internships can help students uncover their interests and gain insight into potential careers while learning what training or education those careers might require. Many employers offer paid education benefits to their interns and often hire interns as full-time employees after completion of the internship.

Your student could also consider simply getting a job and working for a year or two before deciding on a college path. An entry-level position in almost any field will teach your child valuable lessons like showing up on time, staying late if necessary, having integrity, and treating customers, co-workers, and employers with respect. That foundational ethic is in high demand in the workplace.


With a passion for a service or product, a commitment to work hard, and some knowledge of social media for marketing, just about anyone can become an entrepreneur. Some famously successful men and women became entrepreneurs without the benefit of a college degree: Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, CoCo Chanel, Mary Kay Ash, and many more.

Starting a business with little or no investment has never been easier, thanks to online tools and the wealth of information available from a simple Google search. Any entrepreneur will tell your student, however, that it requires long hours of hard work and dedicated commitment to your business.

For many students, a college education will be the right choice. For some, however, it will not.

It may turn out that a bachelor’s degree isn't destined to be a stop along the way of your child’s life journey. Education doesn’t have to be traditional. It’s perfectly acceptable for your student to explore other paths.

CollegiateParent provides descriptions and links for informational purposes only; we do not endorse or receive compensation from any of the programs mentioned in this article.
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Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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