Crush Your Career Goals

8 Alternatives to College That Won’t Leave You Drowning in Debt

Updated on February 22, 2020 Updated on February 22, 2020
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Table of Contents  
  1. How to Be Successful without Going to College
  2. The Verdict

    In the United States, student loans are setting many young people up for a lifetime of student debt before they’re even old enough to buy a drink. This post details eight alternatives to college that will make you think twice about paying sky-high tuition. If you’re asking yourself whether higher education is the right move, this post is for you.

    For a lot of people, going to college is the surest way to a stable financial future. But is it necessary? There’s no question that many people have found success in life with just a high school education.

    We know it’s not impossible to reach great financial success without a traditional four-year college degree, but is it realistic?

    So, what’s the real scoop? Will forgoing college leave you doing low-paying entry-level jobs for the rest of your life? Without a bachelor’s degree will you be stuck barely making ends meet even with a full-time job?

    Honestly, you don’t have to attend college to be successful. College does provide a ton of benefits, and I’m really happy that I went.

    However, I went to community college first, lived in my truck to save money, and worked the night shift at a gas station, all to avoid being crushed by student loan debt. A lot of my friends who didn’t take these steps are planning on paying off their student loan bills for several more decades.

    A lot of my friends racked up huge student loan bills only to end up working blue-collar jobs that don't require a degree. Really makes you think.

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    How to Be Successful without Going to College

    So you’re trying to decide if paying student loans until you’re an eighty-five-year-old bingo aficionado is for you. What are some ways you can not only survive, but thrive without a college degree?

  1. Take Free Online Courses
  2. The internet is a beautiful and terrifying place. Despite what a lot of people think, there are a bunch of websites that have nothing to do with social media.

    Today you can learn almost everything you’d learn by getting a four-year degree from the comfort of your mom’s basement couch.

    Through Harvard’s edX program you can take a huge list of Harvard and MIT courses for free. Many employers care less and less that you have a degree, they just want to know that you can competently do the job.

    Getting your education through online courses at Coursera (or for a fraction of the cost at sites like Udemy) can give you the skillset needed to thrive in any occupational environment.

    The downside: Although employers are starting to care less and less about having a college degree, some still do. You’ll be limited by your potential employer’s preconceived idea that good employees have college degrees.

    The upside: If you’re interested in learning, and not the certificate, you can acquire the same knowledge base without owing student loans.

    Taking online classes is an especially smart move if you plan to…

  3. Own your Own Business
  4. Starting your own business has a lot of drawbacks but it also has a lot of advantages. When you’re your own boss then it doesn’t matter whether or not you have a traditional college degree.

    All that matters is that your business is successful. Using online classes to help you run your own business is a huge advantage for people who are willing to put in the work.

    If you’ve ever been interested in starting an online business, Fizzle is a great resource. They help coach you through the whole process and provide tons of content and training videos to make sure your business doesn’t, well, fizzle out. You can test out there product for as little as one dollar for the first month.

    The downside: It’s all up to you. All the pressure of whether your business sinks or swims is on your shoulders.

    The upside: You don’t have a boss. Nobody owns your time. A lot of people have found they’d gladly work 80 hours for themselves if it means not working 40 hours for someone else.

  5. Go to a Trade School
  6. college

    Maybe you’ve decided running your own business comes with a lot of headaches you’d rather avoid. If you like being active and working with your hands then trade school might be the ticket for you. You can earn a very comfortable middle-class lifestyle by learning a skilled trade.

    I’ve worked in the building industry as a project manager for the last five years and most of the people working on my job sites were making between $50-80,000. Very few had college degrees.

    Plumbers and electricians each have their own vocational schools where you complete training programs designed to make you proficient for that specific job. These programs don’t require a traditional college education.

    I know a lot of college graduates who spent thousands of dollars getting a degree only to find out they could make better money working in a trade.

    The downside: Most skilled trade jobs require working in all conditions. You might be outside up on a ladder in the rain or hooking up plumbing pipes in a crawlspace. It’s not always glamorous.

    The upside: A lot of skilled trade positions use a combination of skills. Not only do you have to work with your hands, but you have to be able to problem-solve and think on your feet. If you get bored doing the same repetitive thing and want a mixture of thinking and doing then a skilled trade is a great option.

  7. Enroll in a Job Training Program
  8. There are training programs available for hundreds of different jobs. A quick google search can give you a list of potential career paths and training programs in your area.

    Whether you want to be an EMT, a bricklayer or get a job in tech, finding a training program is often the fastest way to the training you need for a new career.

    Through General Assembly, you can enroll in dozens of courses including coding boot camps, digital marketing, and visual design either online or at their campus. All of their courses are led by real experts in the field that you’re interested in.

  9. Go to Community College
  10. Community college is a tremendous option that not enough people take advantage of. You can essentially get the first two years of college out of the way for a fraction of the price.

    The average credit hour at a four-year college is around $300. That same credit hour at a community college only sets you back $60.

    Going to a community college for the first two years will lower your overall student loan burden tremendously. A lot of jobs only require an associate’s degree that can be earned through your local community college.


    Whether you want to eventually get a four-year degree, or just need to take a few classes, going to a community college is a great financial hack.

    I went to a community college for the first two years of my degree program and my student loans were tens of thousands less than my friends who didn’t.

    The downside: People worry they’ll miss out on the ‘college experience’ if they spend the first two years at a community college.

    The upside: Community college will cost you a fraction of a traditional four-year university. I can’t relate to you enough how happy I am that I chose to save the money and attend community college.

  11. Become a Real Estate Agent
  12. A career in real estate is a great option for a lot of people. If you’re personable and willing to put in the hours you can make a great living with a career in real estate. The hours can be flexible and you can earn a lot of money without ever stepping foot on a college campus.

    In order to be a real estate agent, you’ll have to do some pre-license education as well as pass your state’s real estate license exam. The total investment to become a licensed real estate agent is typically around a thousand dollars and a couple of months of time spent studying.

    As a real estate agent, the sky is the limit on your income potential.

    The downside: This job is market dependent. In a recession, people are less inclined to buy and sell. It can also be a feast or famine job. One month you might sell a few homes and make a large commission and the next month you don’t sell anything. With real estate, you don’t get paid simply for showing up.

    The upside: You get paid a percentage of the value of the house. If you stand out as a good real estate agent you can write your own ticket.

  13. Join the Military
  14. You don’t need a college degree to join the military. In fact, if you do join the military you can get your college paid for through a number of government programs.

    By joining the military you’re giving back to your country and you’ll have a stable job for the first few years out of high school. Plus, they offer on the job training for a number of potential career fields you can transition to after your service ends.

    college military

    Through the military, you can retire with a pension after twenty years of service.

    The downside: Joining the military isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. It’s a dangerous occupation. In the military, you aren’t in control of your time. Someone else dictates what you do and when you do it until your service is up.

    The upside: Your time in the service will undoubtedly be the most impactful of your life. You’ll make lifelong friends and forever view the world differently. You might be just an insecure kid when you leave for Bootcamp, but by the time your service has ended, you’ll be a mature and confident adult.

  15. Take a Gap Year
  16. A lot of high school graduates aren’t sure what they’ll want to do for the rest of their lives. A very underrated option is the gap year. Instead of running off to college, with no idea what to major in, take a year to live and work in a regular job.

    You could volunteer for a non-profit doing something you’re passionate about or even join the peace corps. Give your head the time and space to figure out what you really want your life to look like.

    You might spend a year working a blue-collar job and find out you really like it. Conversely, you might find out you hate working with your hands and that solidifies your desire to go to college and get a four-year degree.

    The downside: You want to make sure you don’t get stuck. It can be fun to take a year or two after high school to find yourself, just make sure you’re not still looking ten years later.

    The upside: It seems like at least half of my friends changed their majors after the first year. What they thought they wanted to do with their lives wasn’t actually what they wanted at all after they had time to actually sit and think about it. Taking a gap year could have saved them thousands of dollars in wasted tuition.

    The Verdict

    The days of having no options without a college degree are over. If you’re someone who wants a career in the STEM fields or just someone who knows exactly what you want to do, college can be a great choice.

    For a lot of us, we could have saved a ton of money if we’d read this article when we were trying to make this decision.

    College teaches you a lot of intangible skills that you’ll take with you for the rest of your life. But, there are a ton of ways to acquire those same skills.

    You’ll also meet lifelong friends at college and just generally have a pretty great time. Still, you have to ask yourself if the student loan burden will be worth it.

    I’m happy I got my bachelor’s degree. But, I’m not sure it was completely necessary for where life took me. If you do plan on going to college take some time to learn about lowering your student loan burden and how to pick the correct major. It’s definitely possible to be successful without going to college.

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David Lautaret - Contributor David Lautaret is a thirty-something writer based in Portland, OR. His passion for financial independence stems from unrelenting, low-grade anxiety that he doesn't know enough which explains why he can't stop educating himself on the subject. He has a degree in Business but prefers to use cartoons and humor to make his points. He's a husband to a beautiful wife and a tremendous father to a super cute baby girl.
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