Attending college can be a helpful starting point for some people, 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.
It’s becoming increasingly common for companies to ease or eliminate their education requirements for job candidates, particularly in the high-paying tech industry. Now, many jobs, like web developer or project coordinator, don’t require a college degree. You may already qualify for entry-level positions and beyond if you demonstrate that you have the right job skills.
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.
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:
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Apprenticeships and internships 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.
Apprenticeships tend to be paid programs that last between one and three years, sometimes resulting in an industry credential. Internships may be paid or unpaid and typically last a few months. 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 . Industries that commonly offer apprenticeships include construction, cybersecurity, energy, health care, hospitality, manufacturing, and transportation.
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.
Certificate programs are courses designed to build and enhance specific job skills. Often, these programs will funnel participants toward a career path, such as data analyst or UX designer, with options for people seeking entry-level positions and career advancement.
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 with up to 10 hours of weekly dedicated study. These professional certificates tend to be well suited for people who want flexible scheduling options, such as virtual learning and asynchronous coursework. People working toward a professional certificate can often schedule their learning around their 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.
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
Trade or vocational school also prepares students for a specific career path. However, these programs may take closer to a year (sometimes 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.
Trade school tends to cost more money than a professional certificate program or a bootcamp, but about one-fourth of the cost of pursuing a bachelor’s degree at a private university, with a total cost of around $33,000. Because of the time and financial commitment, trade school is best for people who intend to pursue a career in a skilled trade.
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.
Like community college, online college isn’t an alternative to college, but it is an alternative way to pursue your degree. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Apprenticeship USA. "Did You Know?, https://www.apprenticeship.gov/." Accessed November 28, 2022.
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