You’re at a crossroads, trying to decide the path life’s great journey will take from here on.
Maybe high school is coming to an end for you. Maybe you’ve just dropped out of college. Or maybe you’ve recently been furloughed.
Do you go to college? Get a job? Take some time off? Reinvent yourself?
The odds are, you’re probably leaning towards option one – go to college.
That’s okay. From a young age, we’re conditioned to work hard through school and then continue education at the college level. A lot of us meekly follow this path, believing it’s the best option for our future success.
We don’t stop to consider that there might be another way, a way that doesn’t saddle us with a mountain of debt and leave us half-jokingly telling our friends that we didn’t really learn anything all that useful for the thousands of dollars we spent.
When smart people make an investment in something – be it time or money, or both – they carefully consider all their options and the possible outcomes before taking the plunge. Why should education be any different?
While nothing is certain, having a decent grasp of all the options before you make a decision definitely helps.
In this guide, we’ll help you to decide whether college is really worth it and show you some of the best alternatives to college available.
Is College Really the Best Option for You?
There are, of course, valid reasons that people choose to go to college. And granted, some do graduate within four years and go straight into the job of their dreams – or at least, what they think their dream is at the time.
But, for a lot of people, the transition from higher education into full-time work isn’t quite that straightforward.
Many find themselves coming out the other end with a very expensive piece of paper but no idea what they want to do, or without any practical workplace skills. So they fall into the first jobs they can find. And all too often, the jobs they find could have been had without a degree.
Case in point, recent figures by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that 39 percent of recent college graduates – and 32.7 percent of all college graduates – are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree. Recent data analysis of job postings and resumes conducted by Burning Glass puts that number even higher, estimating that 43% of all college grads are underemployed in their first jobs out of college.
It’s clear there’s a major disconnect between what’s being taught in colleges and what the job market requires.
Apple CEO Tim Cook recently pointed out that there’s a “mismatch between the skills that are coming out of colleges and what the skills are that we believe we need in the future,” and about half of the company doesn’t hold four-year degrees. Apple is just one example of a prestigious company that doesn’t require a college diploma for certain jobs.
This is unsurprising when you consider the fact that many employers feel that college graduates are unprepared for the workplace and lack skills critical to business.
What’s more, the costs of obtaining degrees – of dubious usefulness – continue to rise.
Over the last ten years, the costs of attending both public and private colleges have increased by more than 25%. Not to mention, the total US student debt has climbed nearly 120% in the same period, topping over $1.6 trillion in 2020.
But what about the mythical “college experience” – building social skills, networking, and having a good time, Asher Roth-style? By all accounts, college certainly has its moments. But those can be had without spending fortunes for the privilege.
At any rate, with many schools now operating remotely or semi-remotely in response to COVID-19, you’re unlikely to experience this aspect of campus life any time soon.
Ultimately, it’s your choice to make. If you are seriously considering college, you owe it to yourself to consider the cost and ask yourself some important questions about what you want from your college experience. If you’re still convinced it’s the right path, then at least you can go forward confident in the knowledge that you made a calculated decision.
However, if you’re still on the fence, and you’re just going because you think it’s what’s required of you, take a deep breath and think about why that is.
Are you using college as a stop-gap while you figure out what you really want? Are you hoping you’ll find yourself in a campus coffee shop? It’s an expensive experiment, and frankly, there are better ways to find out what you like and what you’re good at.
So buckle up. Because we’re about to take a whirlwind tour of some of the top college alternatives available to you in 2021.
Further reading: The Benefits of NOT Going to College
How Do You Know a College Alternative is the Right For You?
You might be thinking “Well, skipping college sounds great, but how do I know it’s the right move for me?”
Honestly, nobody can tell you whether a college alternative is the right path for you – except you. Which route is best for you depends on where you’re at in life and where you want to be. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees or silver bullets.
Sure, college might be the right path for you if you’re dead-set on a specific career and you’re certain that there’s no better way of getting qualified for that career, for instance, if a degree is legally required to work in that field.
However, even if this is you, you may later come to regret your decision if you didn’t take the time to validate whether this career – and the lifestyle that comes with it – really aligns with what you want from life.
If you’re hungry, willing to work hard, and a little bit clever about it, you can soon be much closer to where you want to be (or at least figuring out where you want to be) without spending $160K or more in the process.
What’s the worst that could happen if you took a year off to experiment and give yourself time to decide? Gaining some experience and trying different things might change your perspective – and your priorities.
Further reading: College Isn’t for Everyone (and That’s Okay)
Choosing a College Alternative
At Praxis, we believe that you should do everything in your power to inform yourself and test your assumptions before making decisions that require a significant time or financial commitment.
For each path you’re considering, weigh the downsides against the potential payoffs, and select the path with the lowest downside-to-payoff ratio (i.e. the path that requires the lowest investment and has the highest potential return on investment).
For instance, if you’re weighing whether you should go to law school or give starting that web design business you’ve been daydreaming about for months a shot, compare the up-front costs and time commitment of both options. Which hypothesis would be the least expensive to test?
The web design business has low up-front costs, and you could give yourself a deadline (say, a year) by which you need to hit a specific goal. Compare that to the per-year cost of college and the multiple-year commitment, and suddenly college seems like the bigger risk.
As you go through the alternatives to college below, keep this equation in mind: ask yourself which options require the highest up-front investment and risk, and which offer the highest potential reward – and, of course, weigh these factors against what interests you and aligns with your personality, skills, and goals.
So without further ado, here are our 21 top college alternatives for 2021.
21 Top Alternatives to College for 2021
There are a lot of different entry points into the world of work and ways of gaining the skills required to get to where you want to be. If you’re not so sure about that last part, that’s okay too. Some options will help you decide what you want to do as you go along. Others even give you the option to pay only once you’ve landed a job.
1. Join Praxis: The Ultimate College Alternative
We may be slightly biased, but we believe that Praxis is one of the best options available for college opt-outs, dropouts, and career changers, which is why we’re excited to include our program in this list, along with 20 more fantastic alternatives to college.
Praxis is a practical alternative to college designed to give individuals who aren’t afraid of choosing their own path a way to enhance their skills and set themselves up for the world of work.
At Praxis, you’ll undergo hands-on remote training followed by real, paid work experience. We’ll help you figure out what you’re good at and hone the skills you’ll need to enter the workplace and kick ass.
Praxis is an intensive 12-month program for driven young professionals who want real-world skills and a self-directed education experience that puts you in the driver’s seat of your career. Plus, if you complete the bootcamp successfully, we guarantee that you’ll land a full-time job offer at a growing company.
And because we believe that our success should be tied to yours, we’ve put skin in the game and back this guarantee with this promise: if you’re not hired full-time within 6 months of graduating the bootcamp, you won’t pay a dime.
Praxis focuses on non-technical business roles. In other words, you don’t need to know how to code to succeed. Through our program, participants land exciting roles in sales, marketing, customer success, and operations.
You’ll be busy, but the time commitment is 10-15 hours per week, so it’s entirely possible to do the Bootcamp part of Praxis while holding down a job.
Praxis tuition costs $12,000, and 93% of Praxis participants graduate with a full-time job offer – with an average first-year income of $50K. Even better? You can expect to earn more than the cost of tuition within your first six months on the job. Plus, you also have the option to defer payment until after you land your job.
2. Do an Apprenticeship
An apprenticeship is a period of on-the-job training, so you’re actually paid to learn (although keep in mind that apprentice wages generally aren’t as high). Employers offer apprenticeships because they let them nurture talent to meet the needs of their organization.
Traditionally, apprenticeships are associated with trades such as construction, manufacturing, plumbing, woodworking, and sorcery (we regret that the latter is fictional). However, this is changing as companies across all sectors seek young career builders who are hungry for knowledge and experience.
Even well-known companies now offer formal apprenticeships, including Google, IBM, Toyota, and Bosch, although keep in mind, these tend to be highly competitive.
In Europe, over 9.4 million individuals in 27 countries are currently enrolled in apprenticeships.
Apprenticeships aren’t quite as common in America, but they’re steadily gaining traction as a growing number of industries face skills shortages and employers invest in their own training programs.
3. Go to Community College
Community college, or “two-year college,” is a shorter, lower-cost alternative to a regular college. Although you still pay, the fees are much lower, with tuition fees around $3,000–$4,000 per year on average. They typically offer a mix of associate degrees and ready-to-work technical qualifications.
If you’re unsure about committing to 4 years of college, community college can at least be a less costly way to test the waters of college. Plus, you can always switch to a four-year institution later on (although it’s worth noting that there are sometimes difficulties transferring).
While community college is a cheaper option, they still suffer from similar problems to regular colleges. You’re still unlikely to be truly prepared for the real world upon graduating.
4. Enroll in a Coding Bootcamp
Software development, data science, and associated skills such as UX design are in high demand worldwide. As a result, a number of privately-run bootcamps have sprung up to help with supply.
Many of these, such as the Lambda School, can be attended remotely and give the option to only pay once you land a job paying over a certain salary threshold.
However, not everyone is cut out for a career in coding, and the fees can be on par with those of college tuition.
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5. Take Online Courses
If there’s a specific skill you want to learn or improve, online courses can be a great way to do so. There’s a huge number of courses and resources available online, ranging from introductory to advanced levels.
Of course, these courses vary wildly in terms of quality and price, with some charging fees bordering on those of college courses while others are completely free.
For example, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are free online courses open to anyone and cover a broad range of topics from architecture to computer science to Mandarin. EdX is a popular resource, featuring courses designed in partnership with top organizations like Harvard and Microsoft. If software development is your thing then CodeAcademy has taught millions to code.
While readily accessible education at any level is a beautiful thing, you need to have serious drive and self-discipline to teach yourself something from scratch and take it to a professional level. MOOCs, in particular, require a lot of time investment as users need to personally curate information and assess the quality and relevance of individual modules.
Read more: The Beginner’s Guide: Online Learning & Self-Directed Education
6. Start a Business
A lot of successful people dropped out of college to start their businesses. While starting a business from scratch may seem intimidating if you don’t know what you’re doing, all it takes is a good idea, a lot of guts, and a plan.
If you’re considering skipping college, you’ve got the first two in spades. As for the plan? There are plenty of resources available to help you find your feet, whether you need help creating a business plan; creating an investor pitch deck to convince investors to fund your idea; registering your business; finding suppliers; hiring employees or freelancers; building a website, handling bookkeeping, payroll, and taxes; setting up an eCommerce site, creating and executing a marketing strategy, and much, much more.
There are currently more than 22 million self-employed individuals in America – not counting those with employees of their own. That’s about 14 percent of the entire workforce!
7. Become a Realtor
Real estate is a self-starter career with a low barrier to entry, which makes it easy to get started. Each state has its own requirements, but the core requirements generally look like this:
- Be older than 18 or 19 (varies by state)
- Be a legal US resident
- Complete your required pre-license education (find your state’s requirements)
- Pass your state real estate examination to obtain a realtor’s license
It’s that easy. The rest is up to you. The more you invest in your personal development and hone your sales and marketing skills, the more likely you are to succeed.
8. Join an Accelerator
If you have a great idea for a startup but need some cash and mentorship to get it off the ground, you could apply for a fellowship, incubator, or accelerator like Y Combinator, the Thiel Fellowship, or Echoing Green.
Accelerators are fixed-term programs that nurture and mentor startups and provide all sorts of resources, financing, education, and networking opportunities to help them succeed.
Participating in an accelerator is an intense, immersive, competitive process that typically culminates in pitching your startup to venture capitalists (investors).
9. Get a Job
If you’re not ready to start your own business, you could gain some experience (and earn money) first working for someone else, even if it’s a temporary stepping stone while you save up some money and figure out what you want to do.
It also doesn’t have to be a stepping stone. You may think that getting a job straight out of school is impossible, or that the only jobs available are in fast food or retail, but that’s far from the truth.
Whatever you’ve been told, you don’t need a college degree to get a job. While a lot of jobs might list degree requirements to filter applicants, most of the time, these requirements aren’t set in stone.
If you have the skills your prospective employers are looking for and you can convince them of your ability to create value for them, your (lack of) formal qualifications are unlikely to matter to them.
If you’re new to the world of work and don’t have much experience yet, there’s no better time to start getting some by taking an entry-level job.
10. Hone Your Skills
One of the big limitations of college is that it tends to deliver a very general education, which limits how well you learn any specific skill. And what you do learn is taught in such a high-level, theoretical way that you don’t get to do much hands-on, learn-by-doing, practice-based learning.
This means that after four years, you may have a lot of surface-level knowledge of skills, but very little practical mastery.
Have you heard of the 10,000-hour rule? In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery at any given skill.
But what do 10,000 hours look like in reality?
If you worked at something for 8 hours, 5 days a week, for 50 weeks a year, that would amount to 2,000 hours. That means that it would take you about 5 years to become a master of your craft.
In other words, going to college for four years (or more) robs you of some 8,000 hours you could have spent honing a skill.
On the other hand, if you worked at a chosen skill like it’s a job – or made it your job – for those four years, you’d be nearing 10,000 hours by the time your peers are graduating.
11. Do an Internship
Internships are an excellent way to get work experience or get your foot in the door at a company you want to work for. They’re also a great way to get a glimpse of a career path and evaluate whether it’s a good fit for you. Internships can also lead to important connections and help you build professional relationships that may open doors for you in the future.
While interning may not pay very well, it’s fairly common for internships to convert into full-time jobs.
12. Monetize Your Hobby
Thanks to the internet, it’s entirely possible to make money from your hobby or passion these days. If you enjoy writing, photography, making music, dancing, filming videos of yourself playing video games, or any number of other hobbies, you can probably make more money online than you think possible, whether it’s as a side-gig or a full-time job.
With the help of a YouTube video or two, you can quickly learn how to make yourself a basic website (even if you don’t know the first thing about coding, promise). Once you know how to build your own website, your imagination is the limit.
13. Build a Digital Footprint – and an Audience
Today, being a content creator is an increasingly viable way to earn a living. Whether you blog on Medium or WordPress, curate a newsletter on Substack, launch your own YouTube channel, build a TikTok empire, host an original podcast, become a Twitch streamer, or create educational online courses – or whatever avenue you choose – creating content online and building an audience can be a full-time (and well-paying) job.
In addition to being an avenue for expressing yourself and earning an income, building a digital footprint – a “brand,” if you will – allows you to build a signal that’s stronger than any college degree.
14. Learn a Trade
If you think a desk job will bore you senseless and the idea of doing practical, hands-on work, you might consider going into a trade.
Trades careers include jobs like electricians, carpenters, welders, plumbers, pipefitters, mechanics, gas-fitters, HVAC technicians, landscapers, foresters, masons – the list goes on. Many of these jobs don’t require formal education and offer on-the-job training and apprenticeships, and many of them pay more than $50K per year.
There is a huge – and growing – demand for skilled tradespeople, especially as more and more aging tradespeople retire and young people flock to colleges.
15. Move Away from Your Hometown
Starting over in a new place and reinventing yourself without the social pressures and expectations of your family and childhood friends is probably one of the most appealing things about college. But the truth is, you don’t need college for any of that.
Moving away and trying things on your own can be a doorway to all kinds of new adventures.
Get out into the world, explore, and figure out who you are when the people who know you aren’t around.
Getting out of your comfort zone is the fastest way to gain some perspective, get to know yourself, and figure out what you want from life. The best part is you can combine this with any of the other college alternatives on this list. You could even move to a college town, get a job, attend a few classes, and go to parties – and enjoy all the benefits of college without any of the downsides.
Travel is a very effective way to force yourself to grow up, fast. Being in unfamiliar places and having to adapt to strange situations, live outside of your comfort zone, overcome language barriers, and interact with strangers will teach you flexibility and problem-solving skills. Perhaps even more importantly, travel will teach you resilience and self-confidence.
You may think that you can’t afford to travel, but you’re mistaken. There are many ways to travel on a budget, especially if you choose destinations where the exchange rate is favorable and the dollar stretches further. Consider options like Couchsurfing, backpacking, homestays, au pairing, workaways, house sitting, teaching English abroad, or crewing on a yacht to make your travels more affordable or help fund them.
Let’s face it, travel is far cheaper than attending college, and there’s really no better time to travel than now, while you’re young and the stakes are low.
17. Work for Free or Volunteer
Here’s a little secret. You can work your way into a career you love by doing something that feels counterintuitive: working for free.
Think about it. If you’d gone to college, you’d have been paying an institution for your time. Now you might be giving it away for free, but you’ll receive something much more valuable in return – buckets of real, on-the-job experience, new skills, portfolio projects, professional contacts, referrals, and even a paying job if you play your cards right.
18. Get Into Marketing
Did you know that you don’t need a degree to be a successful marketer? Whether you simply want to be able to sell your own product or brand more effectively or make marketing your career, it’s never been easier to get into marketing than right now.
There are tons of resources available to help you learn the ropes, and plenty of opportunities to gain experience and build your portfolio, whether you want to work for an agency or company or launch a career as a freelancer. Marketing can be a very lucrative career and the demand for skilled digital marketers is sky-high as more companies realize the importance of having an online presence.
For more information, resources, and tips on how to get started, check out Marketing Career Path: Here’s How to Get into Marketing and How to Get Started in Digital Marketing.
19. Write a Book
Have you always dreamed of writing a book? What’s stopping you? You don’t need a degree or even a writing course to become a writer. The barrier to entry to becoming an author basically boils down to self-discipline. If you sat down and wrote for a couple of hours every day, you could have a first draft ready in a matter of months. The internet is full of tips to help you get published or even self-publish.
Everyone has a story to tell, and putting your thoughts on a blank page is a great way to get to know yourself.
If you don’t know where to start, why not spend some time watching YouTube videos or reading something like Stephen King’s On Writing to get inspired?
20. Build a Career in Fitness
Did you know that you can make a career out of being physically fit? Okay, it’s not quite that easy, but there are a ton of different career options within this space. If you have a passion for fitness and helping other people to achieve their fitness goals, you could become a fitness coach, personal trainer, or create fitness-related content and combine it with some savvy social marketing to become a fitness influencer.
Consider the success of fitness influencers like Kayla Itsines. Kayle Itsines built her “fitspiration” empire starting as a personal trainer at the age of 18. She’s worked for herself since then and at the age of 29, her net worth is estimated at around $486 million.
College dropout Mari Llewellyn built her brand using her Instagram account. What was once a personal project to document her own weightloss journey has become a successful business selling supplements, workout guides, and merch.
The global fitness industry is currently valued at over $100 billion and is expected to keep growing. Why not get your slice of the pie?
21. Earn Money Playing Video Games with Esports
Have you ever absolutely kicked ass at a video game and thought “Man, I wish I could get paid to do this”? Well the good news is, these days, you can. With the massive popularity of Esports, competitive gaming can now be a career in itself, with top gamers earning close to a $1 million.
According to esportsearnings, the top 500 gamers in the industry have all made more than $200,000 by playing games competitive. For more information on eSports and to access news, forums, live matches, and resources, check out esports.com.
Ready to Build Your Dream Career and Embrace Self-directed Learning?
We know, it’s a lot to process. With so many great options out there, how do you even decide where to begin?
It’s okay to feel a little lost, and there’s nothing wrong with needing a little help to figure out the world of possibilities that just opened up.
If you want to take charge of your own life and education and feel like you could use some guidance as you embark on your self-directed learning adventure, consider applying for a program like Praxis, which will help you to build the toolset and habits you need to become a successful lifelong learner.
To get started, hit the Apply button below, or if you’d like to know more, read our Program Guide.
For more information about self-directed learning, read Self-Directed Learning: A Primer for Ambitious Young Adults.