5 Alternatives to College for Both Young and Experienced Professionals

If the crippling, record-high level of student loan debt in the United States is any indication, a four-year college program isn’t always the best or most financially conscientious option for people who want to advance their careers.

For those without impressive savings, but who have the usual social responsibilities and expenses of a 20-year-old, finding the time or money to earn a four-year-degree can be practically impossible. Trust us, we know the fight for career advancement is insanely frustrating, especially if you’re one of the poor saps stuck somewhere between “too young to have enough experience” and “never going to know retirement.” Don’t lose all hope, though, because there are viable options for young and experienced professionals alike. To help you navigate the landscape, we’ve summarized five alternatives to college.

Trade School

Perfect for: Anyone looking for new career skills, but not a four-year degree

If you’re interested in learning a new skill set but not feeling the four-year path, consider a trade school. Also known as technical or vocational schools, trade schools offer specific job training. Instead of leaving with a general education, you’ll graduate with hands-on knowledge in a certain industry. Trade school students typically earn an Associate’s Degree. A trade school is a great college alternative for both young graduates who aren’t interested in a four-year degree and for working adults who are looking to make a career shift. There are hundreds of trade schools across the United States.

trade school
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Trade School Tips:

  • Most trade schools are open enrollment, so you don’t have to go through the stress of a typical college application.
  • Trade school coursework can often transfer to a four-year college if you do decide to pursue a higher degree in the future.
  • Many community colleges offer vocational training or can point you in the right direction if they don’t.
  • If you’re between the ages of 16 and 24, you can also check out JobCorps, which offers technical training and education at no cost.

Professional Re-entry Internships (Returnships)

Perfect for: Anyone returning to work after a gap in employment

We tend to think of internships as the unpaid gigs undergrads use to beef up their resumes. In recent years, though, professional re-entry internships (aka returnships) have been slowly gaining in popularity. The nice thing about returnships is that the companies offering them tend to understand that experienced professionals aren’t into working for free (go figure). Just like student internships, returnships don’t guarantee full-time employment, but they are a phenomenal way to get your foot in the door at a company and gain experience. If you’re re-entering the professional world after a break in employment, a returnship might make a lot more sense for you than college. Organizations like iRelaunch can help you find opportunities and learn more about professional re-entry. You can also look into individual companies to see if they offer internship opportunities for non-students. Goldman Sachs, General Motors, and Cummins are three such companies that offer re-entry programs in the United States.

Start up business colleagues having a talk
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Returnship Tips:

  • Many returnships require you to have been out of the workforce for a certain period of time. Be sure to check all the requirements before applying.
  • Networking can come in handy when seeking a returnship, as some companies may be open to creating one for you if you can get the ear of the right person.
  • If you’ve been out of the workforce for a while, your resume probably needs a few touch-ups. Make sure you review and update it (along with your LinkedIn profile) before you start sending out applications.

Apprenticeships

Perfect for: Anyone who wants to learn on the job

If our first two college alternatives don’t feel quite right for you, an apprenticeship might be what you’re after. Not quite trade school, not quite internships, apprenticeships are actual, real-life jobs that pay you and train you at the same time. A wild concept, we know. As an apprentice, you’ll work with a master craftsman in a highly skilled trade who will teach you the skills you need through on-the-job training. Apprenticeships can take anywhere from several months to a few years to complete. If you’re interested in finding an apprenticeship, Apprenticeship.gov is a good place to start your search.

alternatives to college tattoo artist getty images
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Apprenticeship Tips:

  • We tend to associate apprenticeships with more traditional industries like manufacturing, but there are opportunities available in other industries as well, like health care and technology.
  • A quick Google search of “apprenticeship + your location” can return local results that might not show up in large databases.

Online Learning and Certifications

Perfect for: Anyone looking to enhance their existing skills

Thanks to the internet, you don’t have to enroll in (or pay for) a four-year program to take college-level courses. Online learning resources like Coursera and EdX allow anyone with an internet connection to enroll in free courses from schools around the world. If you’re looking for more specific skills-based courses, LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda) is one of the web’s best resources for learning software and management skills, and Codecadamy is an un-intimidating way to begin learning to code.

financial planning computer bills
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Some online courses can even earn you industry-respected certifications. For anyone interested in or working in sales and marketing, HubSpot offers courses in everything from inbound strategy to sales enablement, that grant you certifications to add to your resume. Google Academy offers a wide range of valuable certifications for anyone from developers and engineers to marketers and analysts.

Online Learning Tips:

  • Online certifications have exploded in popularity recently, but be aware that not all certification programs are created equally. The resources we’ve listed here are highly trusted and respected, but you’re likely to find plenty more in your own search, so make sure they’re worth your time (especially before you shell out any course fees).
  • If you’re not sure which certifications are sought after in your industry, try looking at the profiles of LinkedIn members who are in the industry you’re targeting to see what they have earned.
  • Earning certifications can be a nice way to move up the ladder at the company you already work for. If you’re looking to move up the ranks, talk to your boss about the skills they’d find most valuable.

Volunteer Work

Perfect for: Anyone in need of gaining portfolio work without quitting their day job

You may have noticed a tinge of saltiness from us about working for free, but we do see volunteer work as a worthwhile alternative to college. For starters, working as a volunteer gives you more freedom to find exactly the type of organization you’d like to work for. Volunteer work also tends to be much less hour-restrictive, meaning you can work on projects before or after your day job. Plus, if you work in a creative field, the work you do for non-profits can help you fill out your portfolio. Finally, just because you’re volunteering as a way to jump-start or redirect your career doesn’t mean the natural benefits of volunteering go away. You’ll still get those warm vibes from knowing you helped a cause you believe in. Idealist and VolunteerMatch are both excellent resources for finding volunteer opportunities, or you can join an organization like Taproot that matches non-profits with candidates from their pool of pro bono talent.

volunteer work
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Volunteer Work Tips:

  • Volunteer work isn’t just about portfolio-building. It can also be a great way to network. Treat your volunteer projects with the same urgency and respect you do your career, and you can gain references, referrals, and unexpected opportunities.

Whether you’re fresh out of high school and searching for the next step or you’re an experienced professional who wants to get more out of their career, you shouldn’t feel like you have to dive into financial debt and time loss to be successful. Use these five college alternatives to jump-start your career, change your focus, or advance in your current field.

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