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8 alternatives to a 4-year degree

CareerBuilder | October 8, 2021

College graduate

Earning a college degree is an impressive achievement—but it’s not for everyone. Completing a bachelor’s degree isn’t the only way to launch a successful career.

You do not have to go to college to have a good career.

Have you ever read a sentence like that before? It almost feels taboo, like it was designed to send a chill down the spines of academic counselors across the country. But it’s true. College is not the only path to a successful professional life.

Now, don’t get us wrong — a bachelor’s degree can do a lot for you. College can introduce you to new people, new opportunities, new ways of thinking. Traditional education is nothing to sneeze at; people who have earned bachelor’s degrees make more money on average, and a lot of professions simply won’t consider someone without one.

But millions of people without a four-year degree have the skills, talents, and experience to make a big impact in the working world. And with the national student debt crisis towering at a record $1.7 trillion, college is not the right option for everyone.

The good news is there are plenty of opportunities out there for high school graduates. So, if you’re one of the 67.9% of Americans without a bachelor’s degree, what’s your best path after high school?

We’ve put together a list of eight great professions you can dive into without a four-year degree. But first, let’s talk about all the ways you can get an education and learn marketable skills without going the traditional college route.

Vocational school is a great alternative to college

Many jobs offer training to their workers, so make sure to look into job postings in your desired field to see if you could get an education while earning money. But if you’re interested in a trade and don’t yet have the skills and experience to dive straight into work, vocational school could be your ladder up to a lucrative career.

It’s a career path available to a wide variety of skilled workers: hair stylists, welders, electricians, paralegals, plumbers, construction workers — vocational training programs cater to all these professions and more, offering students a chance to learn hands-on, job-specific skills from experts in the field.

How to choose a vocational school

Many vocational schools, also known as trade schools, are rigorous programs of serious learning. But some are misleading or even outright scams. Students should be careful when evaluating vocational schools.

First, check out the program using free online tools like this one. You can find information about how many students on average complete a program, how many of them get hired, and more to help you select the best option.

Ask an admissions counselor for the same information, and make sure it all lines up. Who are the instructors, and what are their qualifications? See if you can sit in on a class or talk to current or former students about their experience with the program. Ask how much the program costs, what financial aid is available to you, and how much debt students tend to graduate with.

Get a certification

Focused primarily on healthcare, engineering, technology, and software, certification programs offer students crash courses in industry-specific skills. Certifications look great on resumes and prove to hiring managers that you’re a proactive learner with a solid skill set. Some of them even offer online courses.

Before you sign up for a certification program, ask all the same questions we recommended about vocational school: What’s the graduation rate? What’s the hire rate for graduates? Who are the instructors and what are their qualifications? What’s the cost, and how much debt do graduates leave with? You can also use online tools to compare certification programs and make sure they are legit.

Consider an apprenticeship

Those halls of higher learning sure look historic, but apprenticeships are perhaps the oldest way to study. And unlike most skills-training programs, apprenticeships usually pay you.

Apprenticeships are similar to internships, but there are a few important differences:

  • Internships are often unpaid, whereas apprenticeships are typically paid opportunities.
  • Internships last a few weeks or a semester of school, while apprenticeships take a year or more.
  • Internships are about observation: you get to see how professionals operate in a workplace.
  • Apprenticeships are about training: you shadow an experienced professional who teaches you how to perform the job.
  • You can search for apprenticeships on CareerBuilder the same way you search for typical jobs. If there is a particular business in your area that you’d like to learn from, consider reaching out, sharing your resume, and asking if they would consider hiring you in an apprentice capacity.

    An associate’s degree from an accredited community college could be right for you

    So, you don’t want to commit the time and money to get a four-year college degree. Lucky for you, there are other ways to get a formal education.

    An associate’s degree from a public college or university will take half the time of a bachelor’s degree while still providing valuable training and skills. Community colleges in particular offer affordable associate’s degree programs. And if you decide you want a bachelor’s degree in the future, the college credits you earned during your associate’s degree will likely transfer. A two-year degree will get you trained and job-ready fast, and still leave the open the possibility of pursuing more education down the road.

    8 great jobs without a four-year degree

    Once you’ve figured out what training you need and how you want to get it, it’s time to look for jobs. We’ve identified eight jobs you can do without a bachelor's degree:

    Medical assistant
    Medical assistants keep healthcare offices running, taking care of administrative and clerical tasks so that paperwork never slows down life-saving work.
    Average salary: $57,000 per year

    Healthcare jobs
    Many healthcare roles do not require higher education. Workers’ billing, home health care and more keep the healthcare industry running smoothly.

  • Average salary for medical billers: $52,500
  • Average salary for home health aides: $44,000
  • Pharmacy technician
    Under the supervision of licensed pharmacists, pharmacy techs dispense prescription medications to patients or health professionals. They may be employed in pharmacies located in hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stores, and drug stores, and they are often required to operate cash registers and check out customers.
    Average salary: $61,500

    Web developer
    A web developer designs and builds websites, taking responsibility for both the appearance and technical aspects.
    Average salary: $104,500

    Field service tech
    Field technicians handle on-site services and repairs for a company's products. Field technicians can work on many different types of products, including computers, heating and cooling systems, security systems, factory machinery, and more. An applicable certificate or associate's degree is generally preferred for this position.
    Average salary: $66,000

    Warehouse jobs
    Warehousing is a booming line of work offering many roles, from material handling to supervisory positions. Overall, warehouse workers move and receive a variety of goods and merchandise.
    Average salary: $40,500

    Maintenance & repair
    If you’re mech-savvy and used to putting in elbow grease, maintenance and repair could be right for you. Vocational school, certifications, or associate’s degrees may be required for certain positions.
    Average salary: $62,500

    Electricians make the juice flow, inspecting, repairing and maintaining a variety of electrical components. You’ll need to go to trade school, complete an apprenticeship and pass a licensing exam to enter this rewarding line of work.
    Average salary: $71,500

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