Alternatives to college

Alternatives to College

When a student approaches the end of high school, it’s important to keep in mind that a traditional 4-year college degree is not always the key to success. Success can be found down many different paths — directly to a career, career certificates, apprenticeships, technical schools, 2-year college degrees, military, etc. The path you take depends on the destination you desire and what’s the best next move right after high school. What are some alternatives to college?

But first–career exploration

Those exploring alternatives to college need to think about their personal path and their goals for the future. You’ll need to understand the careers available, how they fit you, and how to acquire the knowledge/skills to achieve them.

O*Net Online and the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) are two helpful resources to research careers and see what amount of education is required, what common job tasks entail, what the job may pay, etc.

Struggling to connect your strengths and interests to potential careers? Learn more about Guided Self Assessment.

A lifetime of learning

In today’s world, education is not something you do once and never return to formal learning again. Experts predict that teens will experience a series of steps in their education, followed by work experience, followed by more education – like getting on and off the education train to pick up new skills when needed.

For example, nurses can start with a nurse aide certificate (STNA) program that takes 4-8 weeks, which can lead to an LPN program which takes 1 or 2 years, followed by a RN degree which takes another 2 or 3 years. Work can continue throughout the educational steps. This method can be appealing for many reasons!

A word about costs

Some of the options we will talk about below come with a cost. Just like when you are pursuing a 4-year college degree, cost still must be a consideration in planning for any career/education alternative. Carefully research the costs involved with any program of interest. Check out financial assistance that may be available, and be sure you understand the job opportunities open to you after completing the program.

Some programs (example for-profit and some online schools) make great promises with a full-court marketing press, knowing that you’ll take out student loans to pay for it. The college gets paid (by the loans), and you are left in debt, and you might not leave with what you really need to be successful. And you may have overpaid and find it hard to see the return on your investment. Don’t forget to use the OOH to understand the demand for the career you choose as well as the potential future earnings.

Associate (2-year) degrees and certificates

Community colleges are public institutions that award an associate degree intended to take two years to complete. They also can offer certificate programs that can be achieved in shorter periods of time.

These “condensed” programs focus more closely on the skills needed in a career field. As an example, check out the offerings from Columbus State Community College which include business, health sciences, engineering and manufacturing, computers, education, as well as arts, humanities, and social sciences. Here is a list of community colleges in Ohio.

Because most community colleges are open admission and accept everyone with a high school diploma or GED, they are a great way to transition into post-secondary learning. (Some programs within a community college may require certain admission criteria.) These schools have many benefits like small class sizes, relationships with professors, course flexibility (evening classes, etc.) and cutting-edge programs, just to name a few. Be sure to read our blog about community college and online schools if you want to learn more.

Community colleges may also offer short-term certificates in a variety of programs like HVAC, IT, manufacturing, real estate, supply chain logistics, American Sign Language (ASL), welding, automotive fields, and more. Here is the list of programs at Columbus State.

To meet the growing need for software/hardware professionals with leading edge skills, large technology companies like Amazon, Google, IBM, and Facebook are offering certification programs. We do not have personal experience with these programs so careful research about costs and outcomes is suggested.

Career technical education for adult learners

Career technical education is for adults, too! These vocational training schools offer programs that can take anywhere from 3 to 18 months to complete. Here is a list of schools in Ohio.

Examples of programs include healthcare (medical assisting, nursing, billing and coding, phlebotomy), welding, HVAC, public safety (police, security, firefighter, paramedic, EMT), commercial drivers, computers (cybersecurity, software training), culinary, automation/robotics maintenance, etc.

Delaware Area Career Center, Apollo Career Center, Butler Tech, Great Oaks, and Tolles are examples of schools offering programs like this to adult learners. Unlike the high school side of career tech, adults aren’t restricted to only the career center in their county. They are free to apply to any program in Ohio.


How about this stat? “94% of apprentices who complete an apprenticeship program retain employment, with an average salary of $80,000.

For those students who want to learn a trade without student loan debt, consider apprenticeships. Apprenticeships combine on-the-job training and classroom training that leads to a career credential. The bonus is that apprentices earn money while learning. They are full-time employees. ApprenticeOhio has helpful information about resources in Ohio—including a list of apprenticeship opportunities (click the red button).

Apprenticeships are offered through an employer or through a sponsorship program. This page from the US Department of Labor can help you learn more and find an opportunity. Career fields include IT, healthcare, hospitality, cybersecurity, energy, manufacturing, engineering, transportation, construction, and financial services.

Entering the workforce

When we see area high schools celebrating those students entering the workforce directly upon graduation, we cheer. These students deserve as much recognition as those going directly into college.

Ohio offers some employment programs for adults needing training, experience and connections. For young adults (age 16-24) who meet certain income requirements, Job Corps can help train you for careers in a variety of fields like homeland security, manufacturing, automotive fields, finance and business, health care, construction, transportation, hospitality, information technology, renewable resources and energy.

Did you notice the trend?

Many of the opportunities we listed above lead to similar career fields like healthcare, manufacturing, construction, computers, and more. These career sectors are all in demand for employers. Check out Ohio’s Top Jobs List. Because they are in demand, they are the focus of the training programs available.

Want to learn more about researching careers? Tune in to our “Why go to college?” webinar which has great information even if college is not your destination.


The Today’s Military website leads with this phrase: “The path to purpose begins here.” And that is certainly true. Military members pursue meaningful careers which impact individuals, a nation, and the world. The military offers many paths and service commitments. We highly recommend you explore this website thoroughly. They have a section for parents that will answer your questions and provide information about what to expect.

Joining the military has many benefits like free college, travel, free housing and other financial benefits, and a stable career. It also can lead to career opportunities after service because of the skills you learn while serving.

Students need to carefully consider if the military is right for them. Reasons you might not want to join the military include if you don’t thrive in a structured environment or do not want to go far from your family. You must be ready for a multi-year commitment.

If you are considering applying to a US military academy, you can read more about that in our blog.

Taking a gap year

If you still are not sure what to do after high school, a gap year can be a good choice to explore your options, and more importantly, yourself. A gap year is typically the year between high school graduation and the start of more formalized education. You can read more about them in our blog.

Good gap year programs are carefully planned. They should not be simply a chance for a student to play video games and sleep in. Formalized gap years (which can be expensive) often include travel and allow students to explore a passion or serve humanitarian causes. Unstructured gap years can be useful too, allowing a student to explore their career interests through employment or volunteering.

A successful step after high school does not necessarily mean going straight to college.

High school students should explore many different alternatives to college. Always keep in mind your interests, skills, and goals and remember that not going straight to college does not mean you will never go to college. We each travel a path through education and work experience through our lifetime of learning.

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