12 Alternatives to College for High School Grads To Consider

After graduating from high school, the next step seems obvious to some: go to college. But college is expensive and many recent grads may not know what they want to do next. Instead of jumping headfirst into the pursuit of a bachelor's degree, there are tons of alternatives to college one can opt for.

Not everybody seeks a job as a nurse, doctor, lawyer or teacher, and it can feel overwhelming to think about your long-term career goals and what you want to study. Accordingly, there are more suitable options out there for high school graduates who fall into this boat.

Perhaps you have a passion for cutting and styling hair or auto repair. Or maybe you've had a side hustle going that you're ready to take off the ground. You could be looking to further your education through certifications, courses or even community college. No matter what you're seeking, there are plenty of options available. Here are 12 college alternatives you may want to consider.

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12 Alternatives to College

1. Trade Schools

Trade schools offer a compelling alternative to a traditional college education, and are likely the top choice for those seeking further education in a more specialized skill. These institutions are all about getting hands-on with practical skills that set you up for specific industries. We're talking about careers like plumbing, fixing up cars, cooking, cosmetology and way more. With trade schools, students have the opportunity to learn from highly experienced professors and mentors with the real-world expertise they’re seeking. Plus, there are ample opportunities for professional networking.

2. Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are a highly-esteemed alternative to college, offering a structured and equally immersive learning experience. Through apprenticeship programs, individuals have the unique opportunity to learn from seasoned professionals in a real-world setting, honing their skills and gaining firsthand industry insights. These programs span a variety of fields, ranging from technology and healthcare to construction, tattooing and far beyond. Opting for an apprenticeship as an alternative to college sets them on a trajectory toward rewarding and meaningful careers with a big resume booster. Not to mention, many apprentices are hired after some time, if successful.

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3. Community College

Enrolling in a local community college provides an affordable and accessible alternative to a four-year college. Not to mention, many community colleges offer direct connect programs to major universities and colleges. If you're a fresh high school graduate and have a ton of general education courses to complete, opting for community college is a smart option. They have been long praised for their affordability and flexibility, allowing students to earn associate degrees, certificates or complete transferable credits to continue their education at a four-year institution—no matter their age or background. Smaller class sizes also foster more positive learning experiences for many as they get accustomed to higher education settings.

4. Travel

As the quote goes, "Not all those who wander are lost," and you certainly don't have to be lost in order to travel as an alternative to college. Some would even argue that traveling provides you with the richest education you could possibly receive. Traveling is an immersive learning experience that cultivates adaptability and open-mindedness. Aside from that, being thrust into new environments and engaging with different cultures sparks personal growth and self-awareness through unfamiliar situations. Travelers also gain insights into history, art, cuisine and local customs.

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5. Gap Year

Parents and guardians may not be thrilled to hear it, but taking a gap year offers a valuable alternative to college. There’s power in taking an intentional break. After going to school for so many consecutive years, taking a gap year can provide graduates with an opportunity for self-discovery, personal growth and the exploration of interests outside the classroom. There are tons of activities to do, between volunteering, internships and hobbies and this time away from academics allows for the development of one's passions and aspirations.

6. Social Media

It should come as no surprise that individuals of all ages are presently earning a living off of social media. If you already have a following on social media, you can take it to the next level and monetize your content. Through sponsorships, digital products, affiliate links and physical products, there are several avenues for earning an income with social media. If you're not ready for college and have already been creating content, consider going down the social media route as an alternative.

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7. Military

Serving in the armed forces provides individuals with unparalleled opportunities for personal growth and skill development. The military offers comprehensive training in a variety of fields, from technical and medical to leadership and strategic planning. Beyond acquiring specialized skills, military service fosters valuable qualities of discipline, teamwork, resilience and adaptability. Additionally, the military provides opportunities for further education by offering tuition assistance, scholarships and vocational training programs that can further enhance one's expertise and qualifications.

8. Entrepreneurship

There's an increasing number of young folks diving into online entrepreneurship. Today, it's more accessible than ever to build your own business. If you aren't ready for college and don't want to work for a boss, why not start your own business? Entrepreneurship helps people become more innovative, creative and risk-taking. Plus, there's the possibility to earn more from your own business than you ever would working for a company. Freelance writing, copywriting, social media marketing, website design and selling products are all great places to start.

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9. Internship or Fellowship

Taking an internship provides a direct gateway to the professional world, allowing individuals to gain experience, industry insights and valuable connections early in their careers. Internships are typically unpaid or low-paying, while fellowships span for a certain period of time and often provide a stipend. Internships and fellowships span across various sectors, offering a chance to solve real-world challenges. These experiences foster rapid skill development and often bridge the gap between academics and work. Plus, they can provide you with early insight as to whether this is the career path you want to commit to long-term.

10. Licenses and Certifications

Pursuing specialized licenses or certifications provides a focused and efficient alternative to college. These credentials offer a streamlined pathway to enter specific industries with well-defined skill sets and the required qualifications. Whether you’re obtaining a real estate license or becoming a certified personal trainer, these credentials showcase your expertise to future employers and clients. The training for licenses and certifications is often self-paced and on your own, combining theoretical knowledge with practical application. Opting for this route allows for flexibility with a fast track into the workforce.

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11. First Responder

If you’ve known that you want to embark on a career as a first responder—whether as a police officer, firefighter or paramedic—there are specific procedures for embarking on these careers. For example, to become a police officer, you’ll need to successfully complete training with the police academy. First responder roles provide a significant sense of duty, as individuals are forced to step into situations that demand quick thinking and unwavering dedication to public safety. The training for these professions is rigorous and specialized, but allows for a hands-on learning experience.

12. Work

Diving straight into the workforce after high school certainly offers a pragmatic alternative to college. Many companies hire individuals without college degrees, so it can be the ideal opportunity for fresh graduates to build a foundation for their careers. Not to mention, there is a level of financial security from a young age that can allow for greater independence and opportunities. Whether you’re heading to work for the family business or applying to work with a reputable company, getting a job provides the opportunity to learn through the direct application of skills.

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