5 Alternatives to Pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree

February 9, 2024


Many people went to college after high school, and it proved to be a good investment. However, some people also realize that the college path isn't necessarily the right fit for everyone, nor is it something to be embarked upon lightly and without planning. A college degree isn't a requirement for every skilled job and for some, the time and money it takes to earn a bachelor's degree could be better spent elsewhere.

Here are five alternatives to the bachelor's degree route that, if they are the right fit for you, could cost less now and set you up for a good career later.

1. Learn a trade from a career school. If you're already interested in a particular type of skilled work, you could look into programs at a trade, vocational or career school. There are many focuses within different industries to choose from, including healthcare, technology, the culinary arts, HVAC and business.

Career school training often lasts two years and could be expensive. Just like with the traditional college and university system, federal financial aid may be available to help you pay for the education. You may also be able to start working sooner than you would if you pursued a degree from a four-year bachelor's program.

Keep in mind there are also other options to consider. Career schools teach you the practical skills and knowledge you need to do a job and you'll graduate with a diploma or certificate and/or be ready to get a license. In some cases, though, you could receive similar training and credentials from a community college, which could be less expensive.

As with traditional four-year programs, not all schools are reputable. Before deciding, be sure to research schools, the training programs they offer, their record with respect to job placements for graduates and the fees they charge.

2. Apply for an apprenticeship. Rather than paying for and attending school, you could apply for an apprenticeship. As an apprentice, a company will employ and pay you while you receive on-the-job training and classroom instruction. According to the Department of Labor (DOL), the average starting wage is $15 an hour, although it can increase as you gain experience.1

Apprenticeships are currently available in a wide range of industries, including construction, energy, manufacturing, healthcare, IT, hospitality and telecommunications. The training can last one to six years depending on the occupation and program. Once you complete your apprenticeship, you will receive a nationally recognized credential that could be used to continue your career.

The average annual income for someone who completes a program is $50,000, and those who go through an apprenticeship earn about $300,000 more than non-apprenticeship workers overall, according to the DOL.2 Many apprenticeships are also available for occupations that are expected to grow as fast, or faster, than average.

Applying for an apprenticeship doesn't guarantee you a spot within the company upon completion. You may still need to pass tests and go through an interview process. Some apprenticeships require participants to have certain qualifications, such as previous work experience. If you don't currently qualify for an apprenticeship in your desired field, career schools may offer pre-apprenticeship programs in which you can enroll as a first step towards getting an apprenticeship.

3. Join the armed forces. If you are interested in serving as a member of the military, there may be several paths to consider. You could join the military with the intent of continuing your career there or you can use the military as a starting point. The skills and experience learned as a member of the armed forces could help you get a civilian job after you finish your service.

Depending on your skills and experience, you could be eligible for a sign-on bonus when you enlist. Once you've joined, you may also receive on-base housing as part of your compensation package or could be offered a housing allowance if you'd prefer to live off-base. Additionally, you could receive financial assistance towards your education if you decide you want to go back to school after your service.

You'll need to pass the basic eligibility and physical requirements, as well as meet the age requirements, to qualify for military service. Your job can depend on the branch you join within the military, your experience, how you perform on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, your preferences and the current job openings.

4. Become a police officer or firefighter. If it appeals to you, look into a career of local public service by joining the police or fire department. Depending on where you live, the process can be competitive and difficult. Getting started in either profession can require rigorous physical training, written tests and in-person interviews. You'll also need to meet the minimum requirements, which could include some college experience and a clean criminal record.

Police officers and firefighters have very different jobs, and there's a lot to consider before entering either profession. You may want to reach out to local departments and set up informational interviews to get a sense of what the jobs entail before starting down either career path.

If you do pursue a career in public service, both police officers and firefighters can make a good living – particularly in large cities. Depending on location and how many years you serve, you also may be eligible for a pension and healthcare benefits for life upon retirement.

5. Get an associate's degree. An associate's degree from a community college could be a good middle-ground option if you want to continue your education without committing to a four-year school.

Full-time students can earn an associate's degree within two years, or you could work and study part-time and earn the degree at your own pace. You may still be eligible for federal financial aid, and community colleges are often much less expensive than other colleges or universities. The College Board found the average annual community college tuition and fees were $3,570 for the 2017-2018 school year, about 65 percent less than what you might pay at a four-year in-state public school ($9,970).3

An associate's degree could pay off for years to come, though. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that for those over 24 years old, unemployment rates are lower and median weekly earnings are higher for associate's degree holders than those who have only a high school diploma or some college but no degree.

Bottom Line: Pursuing a bachelor's degree isn't the right path for everyone, nor is it a requirement to have a prosperous or happy life. In the end, you may choose to pursue a bachelor's degree and then perhaps a graduate degree. However, you may first wish to consider the additional options available to you and even try out a few to discover which one suits you best.

by Hugh Norton