Mrs. Eckert glanced at her daughter as they drove through town. It was the month before Brenda’s high school graduation, and her mother was curious about her plans. 

“So, have you decided on a college?” Mrs. Eckert asked excitedly. The two had been strategizing for months as Mrs. Eckert helped Brenda think through life after graduation

Brenda chewed her bottom lip as if she was unsure how to reply. Her mother sat quietly, giving her daughter the time that she needed. 

“I don’t think I’ll be going to college,” Brenda blurted out. “But, I do have a plan! I want to try self-paced education with alternative classes while I explore some other interests and do some volunteer work.”

She peered at her mother hesitantly as Mrs. Eckert mulled over this proposition.

Meanwhile, across town, Carter approached his dad in the garage, where his father was hard at work. 

“Dad, can we talk?” 

Mr. Bunch put down his tools and looked expectantly at his son. Carter had been taking a gap year since his high school graduation the previous fall. Mr. Bunch had been expecting a conversation sometime soon. 

Carter cleared his throat and continued. “I know we’d discussed college, Dad, but I think I’ve decided to go a different route. I’m considering attending a trade school or applying for an apprenticeship. I want to explore maybe becoming an electrician or welder. I think I’d be good at either of those.”

Brenda and Carter have chosen to think outside the proverbial box and look at college alternatives. Historically, college and university were for the rich, while trades and other occupations were typically for those who couldn’t afford higher education. Between the 1950s and 1970s, college and university became affordable for middle-class graduates, and college after high school became almost an expectation. 

Today, the U.S. is seeing another shift in post-high school norms. While college is still a popular option, more and more students are exploring alternative ideas.

Current Trends

The 2020 pandemic gave young Americans time to think, explore, and research. Inflation is encouraging an astounding surge in the average cost of living, and young people face a very different world than the one they had envisioned after high school. 

In 2021, LinkedIn observed a surprising downward trend. “Fall semester was supposed to bring relief to many colleges as students returned following steep enrollment declines last year. But instead, more opted out. Early data shows college enrollment fell another 3.2% from 2020, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, marking a 6.5% drop since 2019 — the largest two-year decline in the last 50 years.”

Virtual learning exploded into the limelight in 2020 and introduced students to the concept that a tremendous amount of schooling can be completed online. Young adults are exploring unconventional learning options en masse at an unprecedented rate. As older generations are rapidly retiring, the dire need for trade workers is becoming a reality nationwide. With dozens of reasons to explore traditional college alternatives, high school graduates are slower to flock to college campuses and are reconsidering their opportunities. 

Traditional College Alternatives

A college degree has been heralded for decades as the golden ticket for success. The winds of change are here, grasping the bouncing tassels of mortarboard hats sailing high into the air at graduation. Let’s explore six college alternatives for success. 


Before completely giving up on the college route, students can explore enlisting in the military and enjoying the college benefits there. As a service member, you have the option of Uncle Sam paying for your college degree. These benefits can be especially helpful for service members who otherwise couldn’t afford college on their own dime. 

Additionally, each marine, soldier, sailor, airman, guardsman, or coastie will receive basic military training and specialized training for their specific job. All of this training goes toward your college degree, which can be a substantial academic boost! 

Many schools work with active-duty military and their specific branches of service to provide military members with the opportunity to obtain their college degree, including the flexibility they need to complete their patriotic duties while still completing their education requirements. 

If you’re still interested in college, but not the traditional college experience, the military might be just what you’re looking for!

Dual Enrollment

If you’re looking ahead but haven’t graduated high school yet, dual enrollment could be a great option. Also known as dual credit, this concept gives you a leg up on a college education. High school students use the opportunity to earn college credits during their high school years. This helps to avoid some of the costs of the conventional college experience and cuts down on the number of credits you’ll need after high school graduation. Many students earn enough credits to gain an associate degree at the same time that they graduate from high school. 

Dual enrollment allows students to taste the college education experience without the pressure of a full-time college workload. You’ll get a feel for it from the comfort of your own home and with your parent’s guidance. This experience can help you decide what you want to do after your high school graduation. 

Self-Paced Learning

We live in a day and age where countless opportunities offer a living wage through entrepreneurship, free-lance work, self-teaching, and remote certification. Self-paced learning is a viable option. 

OnPoint Credit Union notes, “Certain careers don’t require any formal education. You can find both free and paid self-paced resources for illustration and animation, coding, video production, design, user experience, and similar types of jobs. A self-paced approach to college alternative allows you to learn skills as slowly or as quickly as you want. Control of timing can also give you the freedom to start building your skills without disrupting your schedule to accommodate formal instruction.”

Academic courses can be free, or you may pay a small fee online. Forbes offers students a quick list of websites to get them started. 

Rethink the College Experience

If you want to follow a more traditional college workload but don’t want the conventional college experience, you have options!

  • Online College: Online colleges offer full degrees through online classes. This option is generally cheaper than traditional college and offers more flexibility. has an informative article for exploring the online college option.
  • Work College: Work colleges allow students to work through the school to pay for their degree. Students attend classes, and work in their off time. This is a terrific way to get that education without accepting mountains of debt. 
  • Community College: While not as glamorous sounding as a state-of-the-art university, a community college may be your best bet for knocking out those early classes. Global Citizen Year points out, “Community colleges are often high quality, inexpensive ways of getting your first two years of education under your belt. You can then decide if you want to get a job and start your career or continue the student life and keep on with the education.”

Trade School

“Trade schools and vocational education provide in-depth knowledge of skills needed for particular careers or trades…This kind of college alternative can provide a more straightforward path to a fulfilling career since you won’t be taking electives or other classes unrelated to your career path. Although a trade-school isn’t free, they offer a shorter timeline for joining the workforce and cost less than a traditional college with an average tuition of about $33,000 depending on the school and specialty.”

This explanation from On Point Credit Union gives you a pretty good idea of what a trade or vocational school has to offer. Trades are the foundation of our country’s infrastructure and represent an essential portion of the workforce. 

Trade or vocational schools are necessary or helpful for many careers including:

  • Culinary arts
  • Auto industry 
  • Certain careers in the medical field
  • Dental
  • Welding
  • Firefighting
  • Law enforcement
  • Animal care
  • Technology

Workforce Training Program

Some careers don’t require a degree or something as specific as trade school. EMTs and semi truck drivers, for instance, only need a highschool diploma and job specific certification. Workforce training programs offer a viable work option without the added stress and financial strain of a college degree. 

The Center for Employment Training explains, “Essentially, workforce training programs are all about providing people in the workforce with the skills they need to succeed there. After completing a training program, students will have new and improved skills that help them to be productive and effective in the workplace.”

Generally speaking, you’ll complete your training with the expectation of making a living wage when you land a job in your chosen field. 

It’s Not a Forever Decision

If you decide not to obtain a college degree early in life, it isn’t a closed door. College can be an achievement later in life, after you’ve gained some perspective and experience and are more financially stable. Thousands of moms, dads, and even grandparents have gone to school years after graduating high school. 

NPR notes that it’s “never too late for college” and points out that 40% of college students are 25 years or older. The New England Institute of Technology observes that 17% of part-time undergraduates enrolled in public four-year institutions are 35 and older, emphasizing NPR’s “never too late” theory. 

Choosing to delay college isn’t the end of your college hopes. If you choose an alternative path early in life, college or university is always an option when you’re ready. 

Narrow Your Focus

Brenda and Carl are starting their new lives with thoughtful, well-researched strategies. Along with their parents, these two young people will formulate a plan and decide the best, most advantageous way to execute their intentions. 

Before deciding on the right path for you, decide the goals and motivations behind your top choices. If money is a consideration, be sure to research which option best suits your financial situation. For instance, trade school could be your answer to a valuable certification without the added cost of college. (See some comparisons between the two here.)

Deciding to opt for an alternative to the conventional college experience can be wise when you do so with a plan. Success is not dependent on a college paper with letters after your name. Success comes in many forms, by many different paths. The trick is to choose the correct road for you!

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  1. […] for new adults beyond the traditional college route. From a gap year to trade school, help your kid explore all their options before deciding which path they want to take to further their education. If they’re still in high […]

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