High school graduation is a huge milestone, but it leaves a lot of teens asking, “What comes next?” While heading straight to a traditional four-year college is the right decision for some, it’s not the only smart choice a high school grad can make. In fact, there are a lot of valid alternatives to college for every type of student. Here are some practical options to consider instead.
Adult Education Programs
There are so many ways to continue your education without committing to a huge expenditure of time and money. Try some of these alternatives to college if you want to keep developing your skills and talents.
Many good careers require some prerequisite training, and technical schools provide the knowledge and hands-on experience prospective workers need. Technical schools can help students become cosmetologists, health-care technicians, hospitality and service industry experts, human-resource experts, culinary arts workers, legal assistants, and more. The time and financial commitment are both much shorter than a four-year degree, getting people into the workforce more quickly.
Skilled Trades Training
Careers in the skilled trades can pay extremely well, and there’s an ongoing shortage in many fields. Skilled trades include plumbers, HVAC repair, carpentry, welding, heavy-equipment operators, transportation workers, and many other options. Training programs are often less than a year, and they’re very affordable compared to traditional college.
Learn more: Guide to Vocational and Skilled Trades Schools
Though not as common as they used to be, apprenticeships allow people to gain new skills on the job, effectively getting paid to learn. Most apprenticeships are in the skilled trades and can take several years to complete. Take-home pay is lower at first but often raises substantially as you advance.
Learn more: ApprenticeshipUSA
We tend to think of internships only as part of the traditional college experience, but that’s not always the case. Some companies hire interns who are willing to work for a lower salary (and sometimes no salary) in exchange for the learning experience. This can be a good way to make connections or see if a career seems right for you.
Learn more: Internships Aren’t Just for College Kids
Many people take community college courses, for a variety of reasons. You might work toward a two-year associate’s degree, required for some careers. You can also earn credits and later transfer to a four-year college (be sure to verify your credits will transfer in advance). Or simply take courses in subjects that interest you, to help advance your own possible career.
This is an option that many may not be familiar with: a four-year degree-granting institution that integrates meaningful work experiences throughout. Although lots of people work their way through college, these schools specifically require students to work. This reduces the cost of education while providing valuable experience along the way.
Learn more: What Is a Work College?
Taking online classes is ideal for those who need a lot of flexibility. This allows you to learn over time while still working, traveling, or handling family or personal matters. Tuition may be lower, plus students save on boarding or commute costs. Online college can still require a large investment of time and money, though, so be sure the commitment is worthwhile for you.
Learn more: The Best Accredited Online Colleges in 2023
A certificate program builds the skills you need to succeed in specific careers. Some jobs require certification or licensure by the state or another organization, and certificate programs can help prepare you for those requirements. In other cases, a certificate program can strengthen your resume, showing you have provable skills in areas like computer science, marketing, office administration, and more. Certificate programs are generally fairly short (weeks or months vs. years), and the costs aren’t usually prohibitive for most.
Learn more: What Are Certificate Programs? A 2023 Guide
Free Online Courses
If you’re interested in continuing to learn but can’t afford a financial investment right now, look into the thousands of free online courses available on the web. Whether you’re auditing classes from prestigious institutions like Harvard or Yale or studying a language with Duolingo or Rosetta Stone, online classes are viable short-term alternatives to college because they let you explore subjects to find potential new career ideas.
Learn more: Best Free Online Classes for Adults in 2023
Coding Boot Camp
In many areas of the country, computer programmers and other experts are in high demand. If you have an interest in and aptitude for computers but don’t want to pursue a full computer science degree, consider attending a coding boot camp. In several intense months of practical training, you’ll gain the necessary skills for many coding jobs. Be aware that the upfront costs can run into the thousands, though certainly less than a four-year degree.
Learn more: Guide to Coding Bootcamp Programs
Workforce (Full- or Part-Time)
If you want or need to start making money right away, these alternatives to college can provide a solid paycheck, even if you don’t have a four-year-degree.
Despite the jokes, skipping college doesn’t mean you’ll have to work in fast food for the rest of your life (unless you want to). Many entry-level jobs pay reasonably well, with the chance for increased pay as you gain experience. Do some research to see what’s available in your area, and remember that the increased availability of remote work in recent years means that you may even be able to work from home.
It takes a special kind of person to run into a burning building instead of out. If that sounds like you, consider a career as a firefighter. In many areas, you can volunteer first to see if this career is a good fit.
Learn more: Requirements to Become a Firefighter
Law enforcement needs thoughtful, compassionate workers now more than ever. Consider taking the opportunity to be the change you’d like to see in your local police force.
Got the travel bug? Flight attendants work extremely hard, but they’re rewarded with travel possibilities. Know that you’ll likely start out working shorter local routes, but may be able to work your way up to cross-country and international routes as you gain experience.
Learn more: How To Become a Flight Attendant
Real Estate Agent
The housing market can be a bit crazy, but that’s why we need smart, honest Realtors to help folks navigate it. Most states require you to earn a license, after which you can join an established agency or strike out on your own. This is a terrific career for those who enjoy meeting new people every day.
Learn more: How To Become a Real Estate Agent in Five Steps
This is another career that generally requires a license, but has the potential to earn you an excellent paycheck. Pursue a sales job, or work behind the scenes in administration and adjustment.
Learn more: How To Become a Licensed Insurance Agent
If you’re a people person who enjoys taking care of others, consider a career in caregiving. Whether you work as a community or home health aide or take a job in a nursing or assisted-living facility, you’ll get the chance to help those who need it most.
Learn more: Caregiver Certification Basics
Focus on health and personal wellness with a career in personal training. This is a great job for those who enjoy the benefits of exercise and healthy living and want to help others do the same.
Learn more: How To Become a Certified Personal Trainer
Love spending time with kids? Work for a childcare or daycare facility, and maybe start your own someday. Or think about becoming a nanny or full-time babysitter.
Learn more: Requirements for Becoming a Day Care Worker
If you enjoyed a specific subject (or subjects) in school, consider becoming a tutor to students who need help. Work for an established company or start your own tutoring business, working online, in-person, or both.
Learn more: How To Find the Best Online Tutoring Jobs
While some jobs require you to hold a degree in teaching English as a second language, many tutoring and teaching gigs simply ask that you be patient, friendly, and willing to help others. You might teach classes in person at a community center, or take on clients from around the world through online programs.
Learn more: Becoming an English Tutor
Start a Business
There’s no doubt that starting your own business can be risky, but if you’ve got a brilliant idea or know of a niche that needs to be filled, it just might be worth a shot. Just remember it usually takes two to three years for a new business to be profitable, so plan to have an alternative source of income in the meantime.
Learn more: Steps To Start Your Business
More Alternatives to College
Looking for even more ideas? Consider these.
While it’s not for everyone, the military offers a variety of possibilities for those who are interested. Enlist for a few years, then move on to college or a job. Or consider making a career out of your service.
Learn more: Requirements To Enlist in the U.S. Military
Spending time with an organization like the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, or other volunteer organizations can be a truly unique experience. In many cases, you’ll be able to travel someplace new to become part of the local community while you serve. Rewarding volunteer work can also help build experience and connections you can use later in a paying career.
Learn more: How To Find Volunteer Work
Some new high school grads want to go to college but aren’t quite ready to get into the grind right away. A gap year can be a chance to travel, gain real-life experience, or explore creative or personal interests. Studies show that around 90% of people who take a gap year really do continue on to college within a year of their break. So it’s OK to take a little time to figure out who you are and what you want to do, if that’s a possibility for you.
Learn more: What Is a Gap Year and How Do You Take One?