7 Alternatives to the Traditional Four Year College

As my oldest child starts high school this year, I find myself thinking more and more about what her life will look like after she graduates. Of course she will have a big say in what she does after high school, but as her mom, it’s my job to give her lots of guidance. One thing that concerns me about a four year college is the cost. Some say college tuition is the next bubble that will burst, because college is so unaffordable these days. But who knows if or when that will happen. The one thing I do know is that I don’t want any of my children saddled with thousands of dollars in student loan debt upon graduation.

graduation caps

Of course, whether my children attend a four year college or not may depend greatly on their career aspirations. But for a child who is unsure of what she wants to do, like my daughter, I came up with a list of alternatives to the traditional four year college plan.

7 Alternatives to the Traditional Four Year College Plan

Gap Year

One alternative is taking a gap year after high school. A gap year is when a young adult takes a year off from school to work or travel. Taking a year off from school gives a high school graduate a chance to mature and become more sure of her future plans before entering college.

For a student that chooses to work during this year, it also gives her a chance to save much needed money for college.

Junior College

Another option for a student who isn’t sure what she wants to do is junior college. Again, by taking two years to work on general education requirements before heading off to a more expensive college gives a student time to mature and figure out what she wants to do.

I certainly don’t want my child to take out student loans for an expensive college, and then take forever to graduate because she changes her major three times. I’d rather the self discovery happen without the price tag of an expensive college.

Online College

It used to be that online colleges were just diploma mills. Graduating from an online college didn’t mean much. However, with the internet becoming more and more powerful, schooling online is a more viable option. You can get a four year degree from the comfort of your own (or your parent’s) home.

No dorm costs, no commuting costs, and no cafeteria ticket to buy. Online colleges are more affordable than their brick and mortar counterparts. If your child is interested in a field that can be studied online, online colleges are a great option.

Vocational School

While many careers require a four year education and degree, many others do not. If your student wants to become a cosmetologist, an auto mechanic, a paralegal, or some other skilled tradesman, a vocational school may be all he needs. Training doesn’t take four years, and as a result, the cost is much less than a four year college.


An obvious alternative to college is joining the military. If your student gives four years of his life to the armed forces, he will be entitled to money for college through the G.I. bill. The upside is that college will be paid for. The downside is that he may be deployed to a combat zone.


Another obvious alternative to a four year college is going straight to work. In the past, this was seen as career suicide. All worthwhile careers required a four year degree. However, with the internet, all things are possible (or so it seems). If your student wants to be a web developer, a photographer, a freelance writer, or a plethora of other things, she may just need some self-education. There’s a lot of information on the internet, and your student may be able to learn everything she needs just by doing a Google search.

If you’re curious, here are some jobs that do not require a college degree:


Finally, doing volunteer and missions work is a great way for a student to mature while figuring out what he wants to do in life. By serving those in need, a young adult (or anyone, really) can gain a good perspective on what is important in life. Service to others usually teaches valuable lessons, even if those lessons aren’t career related.

While I’m not sure what my daughter will do in four years when she graduates from high school, it’s good to know there are plenty of options out there: options that won’t put her deep in debt before she really starts living her life.

Photo by shiladsen.


By , on Jun 27, 2012
Lynnae McCoy I'm Lynnae, wife of one and stay-at-home mom of two. I'm committed to getting out of debt by being frugal with my choices in life.


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  1. Priscilla:

    check out CollegePlus, college doesn’t have to be so expensive and you can get a headstart on college, while still in high school.

  2. I’ll go with the first one. Take a gap of an year and work and travel, which will give you more opportunities to explore before you start college. It will help to look at things differently. However I do stress that 4 year college education is necessory for the development of skills. Hardly few can do well without a 4 years of college educatioin

  3. Lynnae McCoy:

    Thanks for the great ideas, Lisa! I’ve looked into options outside the country a little, just to give my daughter some options. I’ll admit I haven’t looked deep enough yet.

    And if she decides to go to a four year college, we’ll definitely be checking out scholarship options. She’s a pretty talented musician, so maybe that will get her somewhere.

  4. There are a few other options, as well. I know of a couple of small colleges here in the US that offer 2 and 4-year degrees that have very low tuition costs and a work-study program that will pay for a good portion of the costs. These are denomination specific, so they wouldn’t be an option for everyone, but I’m sure there are others like them. They are usually very limited in their choice of courses, but in the case of the two I am familiar with, they are mostly for training people who plan to go into some kind of ministry. Since these kinds of careers do not pay well, having little or no debt is a good thing!

    Then there is the option of studying in a foreign country. Our church has a graduate school in the Philippines that is very inexpensive–I think it was around $3,000 a semester or quarter about 5 years ago. A friend of mine was studying online with them and went there to finish his degree in public health. It was cheaper to move his family of almost 5 (his wife was pregnant) than to study here! There are many countries where English is spoken, and then there are those who want to learn a foreign language and therefore study in another country. I stayed at a college in Peru on a mission trip and met Chinese students who had come there to study and learn Spanish!

    So those are a couple more options to consider. Of course, degrees might be limited.

    And don’t forget scholarships. My husband has been able to pay for all graduate studies so far with scholarships, including books, gas, and some meals (when I’ve been too tired with the third treated of pregnancy to get up early and fix him a lunch). Granted, he is a minority (Hispanic), which does give him access to some scholarships the average American can’t get, but I read in Dave Ramsey’s book, I think it was, about a girl who got a computer program that helped her search for scholarships and she spent all summer submitting essays, and got enough to pay for college. So there’s always that too!

  5. Pat:

    I totally agree. My youngest will be senior this year. She is extremely frugal and very cost-conscience. She has seen her older sister graduate with a college degree, student loan debt, and sees her underemployed and scrapping by to make those loan payments.

  6. Sheila:

    You make a lot of very good points. My husband works for a community college and our kids can get free tuition so we definitely hope they choose that. You mentioned web developer without a degree. I am a web developer and just want to say that most positions are going to require a 4 year degree and often like more edication than that. Positions without a degree will be lower paying and often take a long time to catch up with what you get with a degree. That’s not to say it isn’t the right path for someone, but I also think it’s always best to make an informed choice. I really wish more people would consider all the options as you are pointing out instead of thinking 4 year college or nothing. Good post!

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