Alternatives To College: How to Save Money On Education

By Todd Kunsman

Saving Money

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Updated on

Although attending a four year college can be a great plan and the logical next step after high school, it’s not the only choice that can set you up nicely in the future.

With the continued rising education costs and the influx of degrees shifting the market value, you may want to look into various alternatives to college instead. 

Again, this is not a knock on attending college. Pending your career interests, goals, and your ability to afford school and get scholarships to help — it can have a major impact on your career. 

But if you are looking for other alternatives or just want to analyze your options first, then stick with me below! 

The Rising Costs of College

The reason many people consider alternatives to college is the rising costs and potential student loan debt that can accrue. It’s not only a personal concern for many, but also creates stress on the family’s finances

Every year, college gets more expensive. From 2008 to 2018, the average tuition in college increased by 37% while state funding decreased by $6.6 billion. In the US, 8 out of 10 families need to use scholarships and grants in order to cover the cost of college.  

And even then, student loans will probably need to be taken out as scholarships may only cover a small percent. 

According to Student Loan Hero, Americans owe over $1.64 trillion in student loan debt, spread out among about 45 million borrowers. That’s about $587 billion more than the total U.S. credit card debt.

College is becoming less affordable (especially medical school), and fewer students are keen on graduating with hundreds of thousands in student loan debt that come with high interest tacked on.

If that worries you and you are still unsure of what your next step should be, then it may be worth looking at alternatives to college.

What Else Can I Do Instead of College?

For me attending college back in 2006 -2010 was the right move. I was fortunate enough to get some decent scholarship money, have parents to help pay part of the tuition, and had a job to help buy my textbooks. 

The downside was I still had to take out some student loans, but for all four years it was less than $30,000 total. Not long after graduating, I always wondered if alternatives to college would have been a better option. 

But now, my degree and experience helped guide me to where I am financially today and helped me grow in my career. So I personally have no regrets, even if I did have to pay student loans. 

However, just like personal finances, choosing whether to attend college or an alternative option will also depend on your personal interests and economic situation.

And what’s great about making these decisions today, is there are more options for you than ever before. 

So whether you are looking for that next step after high school or are considering switching careers and going back to school, use this list below to understand your options before committing to anything just yet. 

Tip: If you are looking for student loan rates or looking to refinance to lower your payments, I recommended using the free service Credible. It compares loans and rates based on information you entered, plus gives you the best recommendations. It’s free to sign-up and use.

1. Online School

Online school is pretty much self-explanatory: instead of learning in-person, you’re taking classes online. Some online schools offer certificates, bachelor’s and master’s, and many mix in-person classes with online classes. 

The main benefits of online school is that you can study at your own pace and on your own schedule. It’s also a lot more affordable and you have many more options in terms of classes and schedule. 

You may also find these are more affordable options than your traditional four year colleges, but you still need to do your homework on an online college.

You’ll need to ensure they are properly accredited and offer a positive record of preparing students for success. There have been quite a few scams in the past. 

The disadvantage is that you do need to be quite self-motivated in order to continue online courses. You’ll want to be interested in your subject, and willing to put in the hours online and in practice. 

You may also not get as much of the social aspect that comes with in-person university, and miss out on typical college activities such as sports, creative arts and others.

2. Trade School

A trade school is another type of education that usually lasts one or two years and earns you a certificate in something specialized. These kinds of schools are private, and usually prepare a student to enter a specific career after training. 

For example, these types of alternatives to college usually offer courses in welding, mechanics, heating and electrician. Examples of trade schools include the American Career College, Chamberlain University and Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics.

The benefits of attending a trade school is that the training is a lot more specific and geared towards a specific career. This means you are almost guaranteed a job once you graduate.

And the courses are a lot shorter than a traditional four year graduate school (typically you can graduate in 1-2 years), which means you end up in the workforce at an earlier age. 

Although they are a great alternative to college, trade schools can still be expensive and may require taking out some kind of debt.

You also may be limited to only certain kinds of jobs, and might have to re-train or go to another college if you want to pursue a different career. 

Note: Do your research on trade schools though before committing to any. There are “for profit” trade schools that will cost you more money. use the Department of Education’s College Scorecard to compare costs, graduation results, and salaries of former students.

3. Apprenticeship

Apprenticeships are becoming more and more popular as they offer cheaper and sometimes better alternatives to college. I surprisingly never really thought much about this before, but it is a potentially rewarding choice. 

An apprenticeship is a type of training that is sponsored by a company; you are paid to work a job while you are also educating yourself at the same time.

Apprenticeships are usually in the construction, manufacturing and healthcare field. Examples of companies offering apprenticeships are Walmart, CVS Health and Hertz.

The advantage of apprenticeships is that you are literally being paid to learn!

Not only are you being paid, but once you complete your training and improve your skills, you are guaranteed a job, can increase your salary, and may even be able to earn an additional certificate.

The only negative is that it may be harder to transition to another company if you are still in the middle of the apprenticeship. The company is training you to be their employee, so you may have difficulties switching careers later on.

Additionally, these can be quite competitive and may not be easy to do immediately. So there might be a bit of a waiting list pending your choice. 

4. Community College

Community colleges are cheaper alternatives to the regular four year universities.

They are local public schools that offer training programs as well as associate degrees to those who want to transition to a four year college later on. 

Every state has their own community colleges – simply search for community colleges online and you’ll find a list of the closest ones. 

When my family and I were weighing my options for college, going to a local community college was potentially my first option. It was much more affordable and I could then transition after to finish at a traditional four year school. 

There are many advantages to attending a community college. First of all, they are a lot cheaper than regular four year colleges.

For public community colleges, the average tuition cost is approximately $4,801 per year for in-state students and $8,577 for out-of-state students, according to Community College Review.

Community colleges also make the transition to a college easier, since for the first two years you can stay at home, work a job and prepare yourself for regular college. You can also use those first 2 years of community college to explore interests and test different classes.

The only negative is that you will need to transition in the middle of your education, which may be a bit of a hassle. You’ll also want to make sure you can go to the college you want to and that your community college allows you to do the correct transfers.

5. Online Certifications

Online certifications are online courses that train you in a specific skill and then offer you a certificate of completion. These could be coding schools, online colleges and other types of specialty courses. 

If you want to build programming skills, for example, an online certification is a great way to get started.

Companies such as Treehouse and Codecademy offer online coding certifications and don’t require a huge amount of education costs or time. The advantages are that online certifications are designed to train you online for a career in your field.

Did you know? You can take some free courses online at well-known schools like Harvard and MIT. Yup, for example through Harvard’s edX program you can take a huge list of Harvard courses for free.

A whole array of institutions including private companies, colleges and trade schools offer these courses, which means there are a lot of options to choose from. They are a lot cheaper and can be completed in your own time.

The negative is that you won’t be able to get federal aid, since these courses are usually for profit. You’ll also need to do your research to make sure you’re taking a course that is relevant to what you want to do. 

Note: I went to school for graphic design and changed my career to digital marketing. But instead of going back to school, I took free online courses with certifications, read as much as I could, studied other people in the field, and took a job where I could learn while working. Not every career choice has this option, but it is possible for many.

6. Start A Business

Instead of studying business in college, starting a business yourself can be a great way to learn the ins and outs of business management and entrepreneurship. 

Thanks to the internet and the large amount of books, online courses and resources, the barrier to building a business has never been lower.

With just $100, you can easily set up a website and start selling products, services, or other people’s products. 

Of course, don’t expect to get rich overnight, it takes a lot of work to build an audience and can take a year+ before you make any money. But making money online has become more lucrative and interesting to those not looking to go in a traditional career route. 

The advantages of starting a business is that it encourages you to develop your own critical thinking skills, master how you manage your time, sell yourself and network with other business owners.

You’ll gain confidence in your skills, learn more about the world and have something to for in the future. 

The disadvantage is that there is always a risk of losing money – as is the case with all businesses – and it’s likely you will fail and make mistakes. 

The other disadvantage is that you may struggle to make an income early on and it may be harder to enter the workforce as an employee. However, if you always take on a mentality of learning and growth, all mistakes can be learned from.

7. Military 

Another popular alternative to college is joining the military. For one, you do not need a college degree to attend and the military can even cover your costs to get an education through various government programs.

However, when you join the military you’ll be trained for different career fields so you can easily find a job after your service is complete.

But you have quite a bit of options to consider if you decide to serve your country.

I have a few friends who went this route and now have great careers without finishing or even attending a traditional college. Plus, they had no student loan debt to worry about.

But it can be a tough decision to make and the military is something you have to truly think about before signing-up.

Final Thoughts

The above are some of the top alternatives to college to consider, but they also are not your only options either. Sometimes people even take a year off to travel or work part-time before making a decision. 

But no matter what you do, these options can set you on a path to understanding that college is not the only way, nor will your career suffer if you choose not to attend a four year college. 

So whether you are personally trying to figure out your options or you are preparing to have a discussion with your own children, hopefully the above can be helpful.

What do you think of these alternatives to college? Did you choose the traditional four year college or did you go with one of these options above? Let me know in the comments below!