9 Alternatives to College

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

There are several ways to start your career or continue learning without pursuing a traditional college education.

[Featured image] Woman sitting in front of a computer and large monitor smiles after pursuing an alternative to college and finding a coding job.

Attending college can be a helpful starting point when you're interested in deepening your knowledge and strengthening your skills, but earning a degree isn’t the only path toward career success. In fact, there are plenty of ways to qualify for jobs without immediately pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

In this article, we’ll explore nine alternatives to the traditional four-year college experience, including ways to start earning money quickly, build job-specific skills, and attain career credentials over time.

9 alternatives to college

Whether you're interested in more affordable and flexible ways to earn a college degree, or you're interested in other kinds of opportunities to develop your skill set without attending college, we've compiled nine ways to get started.

1. Enter the workforce.

It’s becoming increasingly common for companies to ease or eliminate their education requirements for job candidates, particularly in the high-paying tech industry. Many jobs, like web developer or project coordinator, now don’t require a college degree. If you demonstrate that you have the right job skills, you may already qualify for entry-level positions.

It can help to search for jobs that don’t include an education requirement. However, if you meet most of the remaining requirements, it may be worth applying for the role anyway. Some surveys suggest that hiring managers will consider hiring candidates who meet half of their stated requirements, particularly if they can train employees in the areas where they’re less skilled.

Read job descriptions for the roles you are interested in, and take note of the skills mentioned. Then, use those descriptions to tailor your resume, cover letter, and (if applicable) portfolio.

2. Start a business.

If you don’t want to work for anyone else, you can work for yourself. Starting a business may require some upfront investment, but it can afford you flexibility in how you work, schedule, and manage your other responsibilities.

Here are some ideas to start your entrepreneurial venture:

3. Pursue an internship or apprenticeship.

Internships and apprenticeships are job programs designed to train entry-level (or pre-entry-level) employees in the key skills they’ll need to succeed in their desired career path. The structure of such programs varies from company to company, but they may involve a combination of hands-on, experiential learning and more traditional classroom-style instruction.

Internships may be paid or unpaid and typically last a few months. Apprenticeships tend to be paid programs that last between one and three years, sometimes resulting in an industry credential. Given the time commitment, you may pursue an internship if you want to explore a specific career area, whereas you may pursue an apprenticeship if you already know the industry you hope to work in.

According to Apprenticeship.gov, 93 percent of apprentices in the United States retain their employment upon completing their program, and the average starting salary after completing an apprenticeship program is $77,000 [1]. Industries that commonly offer apprenticeships include construction, cybersecurity, energy, health care, hospitality, manufacturing, and transportation.

Learn more: How to Write an Internship Cover Letter: 9 Tips (+ Examples)

4. Build skills with massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are online courses that are available for anyone to take at any time and from anywhere. MOOCs cover various topics, from technical concepts to business essentials and even personal development. Some MOOCs cost money, but you'll find plenty of free online courses as well.

MOOCs can be valuable if you want to gain or enhance your skills in a specific area and learn from an expert. You can then apply these skills to your job search or building your own business. For example, many people learn to code through MOOCs, then can add technical skills like C++ or Python to their resume.

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5. Earn a professional certificate.

Certificate programs are lengthier programs lasting anywhere from three to six months that are designed to build and enhance job skills for specific career paths. Often, they conclude with a credential you can feature on your resume or LinkedIn profile.

Since certificate programs typically center the education on necessary job skills and don’t require peripheral components (such as core coursework), they tend to take less time to complete than a degree. They are also significantly less expensive, costing anywhere from $50 per month to about $6,000 for a complete program.

On Coursera, many entry-level professional certificates take about six months to complete when you can dedicate 10 hours a week to studying. These professional certificates tend to be well suited if you want flexible scheduling options, such as virtual learning and asynchronous coursework, so you can schedule your learning around other commitments. Plus, you may be able to earn college credit for your professional certificate program should you choose to pursue a degree in the future.

6. Enroll in a bootcamp.

Bootcamps are similar to professional certificates in that they focus on specific job skills—often related to technical careers and coding jobs—however, they tend to follow a more condensed timeline.

Many bootcamps offer full-time study options, enabling learners to complete a program in about three months. This schedule typically requires learners to pause their regular daily commitments, such as working a day job. Some bootcamps offer part-time options, though even the part-time programs may require synchronous instruction or hefty weekly time commitments. Still, many bootcamps provide online instruction, allowing for some flexibility.

Bootcamps are a bit more expensive than professional certificates, costing between $10,000 and $20,000. They are typically well suited for people who want to gain job-relevant skills quickly and do not have extensive outside commitments.

Read more: A Guide to UX Certifications and Bootcamps

7. Enroll in community college.

Community college is not an alternative to college, but it is a more economically available option for people who want to continue their formal education in a traditional classroom setting. Some states even have programs for free community college.

For those pursuing an undergraduate degree, community colleges often award degrees at the associate level, while four-year colleges award bachelor’s degrees. (Some community colleges also offer bachelor’s degrees, though this is less common.) You can also earn a certificate or take individual courses at a community college.

Earning an associate degree is roughly a two-year commitment, but it can translate into higher earning power. Additionally, if you later decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree, having an associate degree can cut the time it takes to earn it in half.

8. Consider online college.

Like community college, online college isn’t an alternative to college, but it is an alternative way to pursue your degree. Online colleges tend to be more flexible and affordable than in-person institutions, with options like asynchronous courses and the ability to learn from anywhere.

However, earning your bachelor’s degree online still requires the same commitment to your education as an in-person degree, as the course requirements generally remain the same. Because of this, online college may be a good option for people intent on earning their bachelor’s degree but who want more flexibility in how they earn it.

And as long as you are attending an accredited institution, the degree you earn online is equivalent to the degree you’d earn through an in-person program. 

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9. Attend a trade school.

Trade or vocational schools also prepare students for a specific career path. However, these programs may take closer to a year or two to complete. They often require in-person instruction due to the hands-on nature of the careers they center, such as plumbing, carpentry, cosmetology, and dental hygiene. 

When you complete trade school, you may qualify for professional licensing exams, which—depending on your profession—may be required by law for you to begin working in your field of choice.

With a total cost of around $33,000, trade schools tend to cost more money than a professional certificate program or a bootcamp, but less than pursuing a bachelor’s degree at a private university. Because of the time and financial commitment, trade school is best for people who intend to pursue a career in a skilled trade.

An infographic that reads: A university degree built for you. Fit a degree around your life—not the other way around.

Choosing the right college alternative for you

As you think about your next steps, keep in mind that the above list is not exhaustive and that these options are not mutually exclusive—meaning there are endless possibilities for what you can do next, and you don’t have to choose just one thing. For instance, perhaps you enroll in a professional certificate now, before pursuing an online bachelor's degree later.

Here are some things to consider to make the best choice for you at this moment:

  • Time: How much time do you want to take before you move into the next phase of your career?

  • Finances: How much money do you need to earn, and how much are you willing to spend?

  • Goals: What does long-term success look like to you? 

In thinking about these questions, it may help to organize your thoughts with a career development plan.

Getting started with Coursera

Continue learning with Coursera. Explore Career Academy to see the types of careers you can pursue with a professional certificate, or browse thousands of online courses from world-class institutions and industry leaders. Sign up today to start your free seven-day trial.

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Article sources

  1. Apprenticeship USA. "Did You Know?, https://www.apprenticeship.gov/." Accessed June 5, 2023.

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.