Girl covering her face with a graduation cap Is College for Everyone?

Is College for Everyone? Top Alternatives to Traditional Higher Education

Traditional higher education doesn’t always match everyone’s learning style or life situation. A dilemma for many high school seniors is that tertiary education is often required to secure your career and your future. But the rising cost of college isn’t affordable for many lower-income students. For many career paths, a four-year course is also an unnecessary commitment. 

The good news is that nowadays there are a lot of alternatives to traditional higher education institutions. More technical and vocational education pathways such as coding bootcamps, trade schools, and apprenticeships mean you can get your dream career without going to college.  

Why College Isn’t for Everyone

There are plenty of reasons why people might decide college isn’t for them. Getting a degree can be stressful, with the simultaneous pressure to get good grades, afford the high tuition fees, learn to live independently and decide what to do with your life.

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College student enrollment has decreased by 11 percent between 2011 and 2019, according to NPR. Unfortunately, the cost of college is one of the main reasons fewer students in the US are attending. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one year costs an average of $28,123 at a four-year institution. 

The transition from secondary school to college can be difficult for a lot of people. Coursework is more demanding and can be difficult to cope with along with the other pressures of transitioning to adulthood. Between classes, homework, your social life, and extracurriculars, you have to learn to structure your time effectively. 

Pros and Cons of Attending College

Getting a college degree is still the surest way for you to secure a high-paying stable job in the future. It can also help you develop a sense of independence. However, for some people, it could be counterproductive to spend four or more years studying if this doesn’t align with your current situation or career goals. 

Top Reasons You Should Attend College

You want to work for multinational companies.

If you see your future as a corporate career with a multinational company, you need to earn a degree. Most global companies require candidates to have a minimum of a college degree. For more senior positions, then a good performance plus a postgraduate degree can help you up the corporate ladder.

You want to pursue a professional career.

If you want to be a doctor, lawyer, architect, engineer, or high-ranking public official, you need a college degree. You will typically need to complete a four-year degree followed by further postgraduate study.

You want financial security.

According to 2020 unemployment rate data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, college graduates are less likely to be unemployed. You can achieve financial security as a regular employee through a higher pay rate, job promotions, severance pay, and insurance.

It increases your confidence when applying for jobs.

Being a college graduate gives you a sense of achievement, and can increase your confidence when applying for jobs and doing interviews. College education teaches relevant and marketable skills that are useful to your chosen career. You are more likely to land a job if you have a four-year degree to back you up.

It broadens your professional network.

College can expose you to different people who are veterans in their field. Your classmates, professors, school administrators, and internship colleagues are the foundations of your professional network. As you move forward into a job and career after graduation, they will be useful in giving you advice or even job opportunities. 

Top Reasons Why You Should Not Go to College

You have a once-in-a-lifetime career offer.

People often skip going to college because they already have career opportunities offered to them at a crucial moment. Think of athletes, actors, and entrepreneurs who grab career opportunities the moment they come. They choose their career path over academics because they are already receiving opportunities they might consider quitting school for.

You have mastered a relevant skill.

Companies are always on the lookout for exceptional individuals with advanced technical, leadership, and management skills. If you have advanced skills in hacking, machine learning, coding, or cyber security, then a school diploma may not be necessary to get recruited in a big company.

Your work experience is already beyond what college can teach.

If you already have years of experience in your chosen field, you might not even be considering attending college. It might be more worthwhile to focus on advancing your current skills, learning new applications, and staying up-to-date with industry developments.

College can bury you in student debt.

Depending on the type of school you attend, a degree can come with a high price tag. If you don’t have a scholarship, educational insurance, or sufficient savings to pay for college, chances are you will be leaning towards student loans with high interest rates. Student loan debt can take years to pay off. 

Your mental health comes first.

Going to college takes commitment, time management, money, and support from family. If you are lacking these resources and support, or are dealing with personal problems, it might be best not to risk dropping out in the middle of a semester due to pressure. Earning a degree will be very stressful, and it’s always best to put your mental health first.

Alternatives to College

Table with a musical technology setup including a microphone Is College for Everyone?
Having advanced technical, mechanical, and engineering skills can be your ticket to a high-paying job even without a diploma.

A school degree is considered a staple of American life nowadays, and this expectation puts pressure on many high school grads to pursue a degree. If you look beyond a four-year college degree, there are many other learning options to explore. Below are some of the top alternatives to traditional higher education.

Trade School

Trade schools or technical schools are a great alternative to those who wish to advance their manual or technical skills. It can teach you the skills required for in-demand specialist job roles such as dental hygienists, computer technicians, paralegals, plumbers, welders, or web designers. Classes focus on honing practical skills and less on academic lectures. 

Courses take from several months up to two years to complete. The only downside to a trade school is that it doesn’t leave you with much job flexibility. You are limited to finding a job that is specifically looking for the skills you trained for. However, if you get lucky and find a good employer, the work can be stable and the pay is above average. 

Community College

A community college is another type of college where you can gain a certificate or associate degree in just two years. Much like trade schools, they train you to be job-ready. Many offer certificate courses for specific technical skills. 

Some community colleges can also be expensive but not as costly as universities, plus the schooling period will only be two years. You can also often make use of loans and scholarships. Many community colleges also let you transfer credits if you decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Coding Bootcamp

Coding bootcamps are ideal for those who are willing to undergo an intensive learning program to advance their skills. If you want to develop career-specific technical training in coding, web design, cyber security, or networking, a bootcamp will get you ready to join the job market. It is a mix of lectures and hands-on training packed into just a few weeks.

Many bootcamp programs offer career training such as coaching and job interview assistance. Advancing your technical skills through a bootcamp is an excellent alternative to traditional learning and can add to your credentials. There are plenty of top online bootcamps to make learning as accessible as possible. 

Online Courses

If you enjoy learning at your own pace, and want to be able to work and take control of your finances simultaneously, some universities offer online courses to earn a bachelor’s degree. You can study in your free time while keeping a job and units are credited at many US colleges. Online learning gives the flexibility to earn a degree while still focusing on career growth.

Start a Business

If you’re an entrepreneur with an instinct for business, you might be better off putting your heart and energy into starting a business. Several non-degree holders have become millionaires owing to their entrepreneurial spirit, including Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Ralph Lauren. 

Starting a business requires a great deal of time and effort because success doesn’t happen overnight. If you’re serious about it, it might not leave much time for a college degree. However, it’s a good idea to access additional learning through short courses to improve your business decisions.


Companies sometimes open up apprenticeship programs for undergraduate students and skilled junior workers. Apprenticeship programs are a full-time commitment where qualified individuals get to work inside the company and receive mentorship from senior employees. 

You’ll typically need to go through a job application process to become an apprentice. Competition can be challenging, so make sure you know what experience and qualifications they are looking for. Apprentices enjoy the same benefits that regular employees have, including regular salaries, living allowances, free meals, and health insurance. 

Vocational School

Vocational schools are just like trade schools, but the skills training is not as intensive. The method of teaching is a balance of lectures and hands-on training. Some universities offer vocational education for various technical and manual courses.

Just like in a community college, academic units under a vocational course can be credited for further degree studies in the future. Vocational training is less expensive and can help you land entry-level or manual jobs.

Short Courses

Short courses are for those who want to expand their knowledge or gain experience in a skill. For instance, those planning to open up a bakery might take several short courses in pastry making, accounting, and entrepreneurship to gain targeted knowledge for the business. Short courses can be as brief as just a few hours or spread over several weeks. 

Should You Go to College?

Getting a college degree and a stable job is still the safest way for you to be financially secure in the future. Many employers look for candidates who have been to college as a minimum education requirement. It also means you are more likely to have job security and promotion opportunities. 

But there are also a lot of reasons it might not be the right choice for you. Not every school graduate gets their dream jobs and many are buried under student loan debt. There are skills-based jobs out there that don’t require a college degree. Depending on your situation and career goals, you achieve your dreams without going to college.

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