8 alternatives to a 4-year degree

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.

Earning a college degree is an impressive achievement—but it's not for everyone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just 33 percent of adults 25 and older have a bachelor's degree or higher.

If you're a member of the 67 percent without a four-year degree, don't worry. Completing a bachelor's degree isn't the only way to launch a successful career.

If a traditional four-year college isn't the right path for you, check out these eight alternatives:

1. Start a business.

There are 27.9 million small business owners in the U.S. And the barriers to starting your own business have never been lower. A storefront—with expensive rent, utilities and employees—is no longer necessary to sell goods or provide a service. A computer and an internet connection are all you need to start a business from home.

2. Attend community college.

Community college is emerging as not only a good value, but also a promising way to land a job. The programs offered are often a direct response to the needs of the current job market. In just two years' time, students can earn an associate degree or a certification as a veterinary technician, a dental hygienist, web designer or even a winemaker.

Community college also affords you the option of transferring to a four-year college after receiving your associate degree. The first two years of most bachelor's degree programs are comprised of the same set of classes—including entry level English, math and science courses—but often at a fraction of the price.

3. Enroll in technical college.

Technical colleges specialize in career-driven courses that teach skills that apply to specific careers, such as carpentry or electrical work. Unlike a four-year college, you aren't required to take classes that aren't related to your career focus. This option is great if you already have a career in mind and want to go directly into it.

In addition, there is a growing domestic demand for high-precision skills. Skilled trade workers are a disproportionately older population. As they begin to retire, there will be a large number of jobs to fill. Technical college will prepare you to take on those roles.

4. Try an apprenticeship or fellowship.


Apprenticeships offer the opportunity to learn a trade in an in-demand field. And unlike many internships, you get paid. Programs offer on-the-job training from experienced professionals. If you go this route, you'll likely be working with your hands. The construction industry currently makes up two-thirds of apprenticeship programs in the U.S.

If you have a great idea but don't want to wait four years to execute it, consider applying for a fellowship. For example, the Thiel Fellowship—launched by PayPal founder Peter Thiel—offers $100,000 to skip college and pursue a business idea while being mentored by the world's top scientists, researchers and business leaders.

The program is competitive, though. Only 20 candidates are selected each year. If you don't get in, there are several other programs to pursue, including Echoing Green, Enstitute and UnCollege Gap Year.

5. Join the military.

There are many practical benefits to joining a branch of the military. In addition to a competitive salary, free health care and little-to-no living costs, the military will pay your tuition while in service. Soldiers have access to a variety of online learning options and there are satellite classrooms on many bases. Once your service is complete, you can also use the GI Bill to pay for part of your tuition. The military also offers retirement with benefits after 20 years of service.

6. Volunteer.

Volunteering isn't just a way to give back. It builds character and gives you access to experiences outside of a formal educational setting that will be useful when you enter the workforce.

The Corporation for National and Community Service is a great option for high school graduates looking to stay within the U.S. The federal agency works to strengthen America's nonprofit sector and addresses the nation's challenges through service. The Conservation Corps—an initiative descended from the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corp—provides conservation, infrastructure improvement and human service projects identified as important by communities across the U.S.

7. Apply for RightSkill.

If you're looking to develop skills to pursue a certain type of job, consider enrolling in RightSkill, a partnership between CareerBuilder and Capella Learning Solutions. The program helps job seekers gain in-demand skills through non-degree learning courses, then helps facilitate job interviews with local employers that are actively hiring.

Career paths include assistant restaurant manager, recruiter and front-end web developer. Choose your career, learn and practice the skills it will require and prepare for interviews. And everything is done online.

8. Consider a gap year.

You don't have to make a decision about your future right away. Consider traveling and dedicating yourself to finding your passion. Making a career choice is a big decision. It doesn't have to be rushed.

Check out these best-paying jobs that don't require a college degree.