Despite a growing sentiment against college and its high sticker prices, getting a bachelor’s degree is still worth it: In 2021, the median earnings of 25- to 34-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree were 55% higher than those who only completed high school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
But a traditional college degree isn’t the only ticket to a well-paying career and rewarding life.
“The number of alternative pathways that are available is expanding dramatically. It’s no longer, ‘I have to go to a four-year school,’” says Mark Schneider, director of the U.S. Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences. Increasingly, he says, hiring managers focus on skills rather than degrees.
Many of these alternative pathways are more affordable than a bachelor’s degree, too. To build the skills necessary for a successful and potentially lucrative career, consider these six routes.
If you want to build skills and learn
1. Community college
You can earn an associate degree in just two years at a community college. The U.S. contains more than 1,000 community colleges, and average annual tuition and fees cost $3,860 — compared with $10,940 for a public, in-state four-year college, according to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). Students may also use need-based Pell Grants — up to $7,395 per year that won’t need to be repaid — and student loans to pay for community college. Submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to become eligible for financial aid, including loans, grants and some scholarships.
It’s an affordable choice that can open doors. For example, a student who graduated with an associate degree in 2020 was expected to see annual earnings $9,600 higher than a person with just a high school diploma, a recent AACC analysis found.
“Most community colleges have job placement services, connections to local businesses, partnerships with universities, internships, apprenticeships and a host of other programs to ensure that students have the resources they need to succeed in and beyond college,” says Martha Parham, the AACC’s senior vice president of public relations.
2. Trade schools
Trade schools provide focused training for skilled jobs like plumbing, electrical work, automotive repair and even hair styling. Also called vocational schools, these programs can last a few months or up to two years.
The Education Department’s College Scorecard and accreditation database can help you search for legitimate, accredited trade schools. You can use federal financial aid at some accredited trade schools.
3. Professional certificate programs
Professional certificate programs won’t give you college credits like a four-year university or a community college would. However, they’ll teach you skills that could help you land a job.
Online bootcamps — often for technical skills like coding — are a popular short-term option. The average coding bootcamp lasts 14 weeks and costs $13,584, according to 2017 data from Course Report.
Students can’t use the need-based Pell Grant to pay for education programs that last less than 15 weeks, but federal student loans can be used for some accredited professional certificate programs.
If you want to get right to work
An apprenticeship can give you hands-on training in industries spanning from graphic design to carpentry. These are jobs, so you’ll generally get paid for your time.
This route also comes with strong future career prospects. About 93% of apprentices who complete an apprenticeship retain employment, with an average annual salary of $77,000, according to an August 2022 report from the U.S. Labor Department.
Apprenticeship opportunities can be tricky to find if you don’t have family or community connections, Schneider says. But it’s becoming easier to find opportunities. For example, some community colleges and state governments offer apprenticeship programs. To explore opportunities nationwide, check out the Labor Department’s apprenticeship job finder tool.
5. Entry-level jobs
Jumping directly into the workforce after high school can help you build professional experience and lay the foundation for a career. And even if you weren’t recently in high school, entry-level jobs can help you start transitioning into an entirely new career.
Top entry-level jobs without college degree requirements include auto body technician, business analyst, sheet-metal mechanic and salon manager, according to a February 2023 analysis by job listing website Indeed.
Unlike an apprenticeship, entry-level jobs may have less focus on skills-based training.
6. Volunteer work
Volunteering can help you make the most of a gap year after high school, whether you want to go back to school or land a job afterwards. It can also help you get a foot in the door at any point in life. You’ll develop new skills and build a strong network.
Some established programs, like AmeriCorps, City Year and The Peace Corps, even offer a modest living stipend or free housing.
Sustainability-minded students should check out the American Climate Corps, or similar initiatives by their states. This new, paid workforce training and service initiative will give 20,000 students pathways to “high-quality, good-paying clean energy and climate resilience jobs in the public and private sectors,” the White House said in a September announcement.