In the not-so-distant past, going to college was considered a guaranteed path to a successful future. However, times have changed. With the cost of tuition soaring and wage growth remaining sluggish, pursuing higher education isn’t as financially feasible as it once was. To add to that, a number of viable alternatives to college present equal–and in some cases, better—earning opportunities.
Essentially, getting a degree isn’t a necessity to earn a decent living or to find professional fulfillment. If the idea of college doesn’t appeal to you for one reason or another, we’ll share 15 alternative paths that can also lead to success.
Formal education by the numbers
College enrollment is among the many aspects of society that have experienced a dramatic change since the onset of the pandemic back in 2020. Four-year college enrollment dropped by 4% during that time, while community college enrollment significantly declined by 16%. Those numbers have rebounded in the last year but still haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels.
One reason is the enormous (and continuously increasing) cost of going to college. For a public four-year in-state school, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2023-2024 school year is $11,260. That’s 2.5% higher than the year prior, adjusted for inflation. For a private non-profit four-year school, the cost jumps to $41,540, which is a 4% increase from the previous school year.
Student debt is also massive despite recent relief initiatives. Total student loan debt in the U.S. is a staggering $1.74 trillion as of September 2023, while the average household with student debt carries a balance of $55,347.
When you consider these figures, it’s not difficult to see why the cost of college alone is a prohibitive factor for many.
Reasons to choose an alternative to college
The numbers above are an eye-opening example of why it can be a more practical financial decision to pursue an alternative path instead of attending college. Educational options like trade school or certification programs can help you gain career skills at a much lower cost than two-year or four-year tuition.
There are also many fields that don’t require formal education, which means you start your career with no debt. Having little or no debt from an early age can put you in a much better position to accumulate wealth than someone who’s burdened by a hefty monthly loan repayment.
Faster workforce entry
If the idea of spending four more years sitting in lecture halls and studying for exams sounds less than appealing, you might be much happier going straight into the workforce. Getting a jump start on your career can be a strong source of fulfillment, not to mention a reliable way to make ends meet.
Maybe you have a disability that makes traditional classroom learning exceptionally challenging. Maybe taking tests fills you with anxiety. Or, maybe academics just aren’t your cup of tea. Whatever the case, there’s nothing wrong with preferring an alternative path over going to college.
There’s a growing movement in opposition to higher education as an institution. Aside from the exorbitant price tag, universities have faced criticism for prioritizing knowledge and titles over the skills that are desperately needed in the modern workforce. Several high-profile college admissions scandals have also put a bad taste in people’s mouths about the integrity of our nation’s education system, prompting many to explore other options.
15 alternatives to pursue instead of college
1. Trade school
Skilled trades like plumbing, mechanics, and welding are experiencing dramatic staffing shortages. As a result, the demand for workers in these positions is high, and salaries are, too. Trade school takes less time to complete than a traditional degree, and most trades allow you to gain hands-on experience and make money while you’re learning.
In addition to offering job security and competitive pay, pursuing a trade is strongly linked with job satisfaction. Eighty-seven percent of trade workers say they’re happy with their jobs, which is a significantly higher portion than the 51% of all young workers who say the same.
Cosmetology careers like hairstyling, esthetics, and nail care allow you to make money helping others look and feel their best. Many cosmetologists have the ability to set their own hours, and some work their way up to owning their own salon or spa.
For most cosmetology practices, you must complete a course in your desired specialty and obtain a license or certification from your state. A typical cosmetology course ranges from a few months to two years, depending on your specialization.
3. Real estate
If you’re a strong communicator who enjoys working with people, the real estate industry might be right up your alley. You can help buyers and sellers complete real estate transactions as an agent, prepare attractive listings as a stager, or guide buyers through the purchasing process as a loan officer, just to name a few options.
The real estate field is based largely on connections, so people who enjoy building their network will have the best chance of success. For those who do succeed, the industry can be quite lucrative, with top realtors commonly earning six figures and brokers making even more.
4. Military service
Enlisting in the military gives you the unique opportunity to serve your country while gaining valuable professional and technical training. Serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, or Coast Guard can prepare you for a career both in the military and as a civilian in various fields, including engineering, logistics, media, healthcare, and more.
In addition to honing your leadership and teamwork skills, military service comes with a host of benefits, like free and subsidized housing, healthcare, and home financing. Plus, if you decide to pursue college in the future, the military will cover your tuition and assist with other costs as long as you complete your required service.
5. First responder
Some of the most essential people in our communities work in jobs that don’t require a degree: first responders. Firefighters and EMTs do the important work of responding to emergencies, protecting people and property, and providing life-saving care.
There are many paths to becoming a first responder, but a good starting point is to earn your EMT certificate. This requires completing a course and passing an exam. From there, you’ll be qualified to apply for a number of first responder positions; hiring requirements vary by municipality and state.
6. Giving back
If gaining knowledge in a classroom setting doesn’t suit you, you can do so out in the real world while making a tangible impact on people’s lives as part of the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps. The Peace Corps is a government-sponsored program that trains volunteers and sends them to work on projects to benefit communities overseas. AmeriCorps is a similar program in which volunteers work on projects in the states.
Peace Corps and AmeriCorps volunteers commit a specific amount of time, typically a year, to work on projects in education, health, infrastructure, and public safety. In exchange, volunteers are provided a place to live, a housing allowance, and a stipend to cover living expenses. While the pay is modest, the experiences you gain will last a lifetime. Additionally, many employers prioritize candidates with experience in one of these volunteer groups.
The fitness industry offers an array of jobs that involve helping people improve their physical fitness. You might offer one-on-one guidance as a personal trainer, operate a gym as a fitness center manager, or oversee a youth sports team as a coach.
If you provide exercise-related guidance to clients, you’ll typically need to be CPR certified and receive your personal training credential through a reputable organization like the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA) or the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
One of the most in-demand skills is one that also doesn’t require a college education to learn: coding. As a programmer, you’ll use specialized language to communicate with computers and make them perform specific tasks. Some of the most common programming job functions are designing websites, building apps, and creating software programs.
Many of the most talented programmers are self-taught. There are a wealth of resources to help you learn programming independently, from online courses to coding bootcamps.
9. Professional driver
If you have a driver’s license and a clean driving record, you can put your skills to use behind the wheel as a long-haul trucker, delivery driver, or chauffeur. You’ll need to obtain your commercial driver’s license (CDL) to qualify for these positions. The process varies by state, but it’s much like getting your driver’s license. You’ll first need to obtain a permit, practice, and pass a road test while riding along with an examiner.
Sales is one of the unique fields where success is primarily determined not by technical know-how but by personality and drive. If you’re a go-getter who’s great at making people feel at ease, you can achieve strong performance whether you’re selling cars or computer software. Most sales jobs come with training to help you understand the product thoroughly, so you don’t necessarily need to start selling something you’re already familiar with.
Sales jobs exist in every industry, but some of the highest salaries can be found in tech, manufacturing, and pharmaceuticals.
11. Flight attendant
One of the downsides of college is that it ties you to a specific place for a fixed amount of time. There are no such restrictions when you’re a flight attendant. Flight attendants play a critical role in making air travel go smoothly, assisting passengers, and ensuring safety requirements are met.
Most airlines require only a high school diploma or a GED to apply. In exchange for your strong customer service skills and patience, you’ll get to see the world on your employer’s dime.
12. Yacht steward/ess
Life aboard a luxury yacht doesn’t sound too shabby. That’s what you’ll experience as a yacht steward or stewardess. They’re the crew members responsible for ensuring the vessel’s elite guests have a five-star experience.
To work as a steward/ess, you’ll need to meet two minimum requirements: completing the five-day STCW safety course and obtaining your ENG1 medical certification. From there, the majority of your success will be determined by your work ethic and the ability to go above and beyond to provide an excellent onboard experience.
13. Content creator
Platforms YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram have given ambitious individuals an unprecedented opportunity to make money by doing the creative work they love in front of an online audience. Content creators earn money through advertising, sponsored content, affiliate sales and the creation of products, all of which are directed toward the audience they’ve built.
Becoming a content creator is something other than a get-rich-quick plan. It takes time, hard work, and a healthy dose of talent to establish the sizable audience that’s required to earn a meaningful amount of money. But suppose your chosen niche is something you’d be doing anyway, like cooking healthy meals or completing creative home renovation projects. In that case, you might be able to carve out a decent income by putting your work online.
14. Gig work
Gig work is another viable way to earn money independently. You can do so online by providing digital services like marketing and design or in person by completing tasks like deliveries and handiwork. An estimated 73 million Americans partake in gig work, either full- or part-time. Several platforms make it easy to set up a profile and begin applying for gigs; Upwork and Toptal are among our favorites.
If you’re interested in pursuing gig work, check out our post on the top freelance jobs on the market.
What do Richard Branson, Coco Chanel, and Walt Disney have in common? All of them crafted multi-billion dollar empires, and all of them did so without attending college. Business ownership can be an enticing and rewarding career path for those who aspire to be their own boss. Whether you’re passionate about cupcakes or carpentry, you can carve out an empire of your own through entrepreneurship.
College isn’t the be-all, end-all of success, and your potential isn’t limited by choosing an alternate path. With drive and dedication, skipping out on higher education in favor of something else that interests and excites you can result in higher earnings and greater happiness.