10 Alternatives to the Traditional 4-Year College Degree

Is college worth the money? There is no shortage of opinions about that question. The blogosphere and corporate media outlets provide a long list of posts and columns about the subject. In the end, the answer will not come from a persuasive essay. It comes every day in the form of people’s decision about whether or not to pursue a traditional 4-year college degree, and we already know that it is not that traditional. The 4-year residential degree is already not the norm in the United States.

While the traditional degree plays a valued role in society, I contend that it is important to recognize the broader spectrum of paths that people take. For some, the traditional residential 4-year degree was never a strong consideration. However, the variety of options has never been greater for such people.

When I was in high school, I only remember hearing about three options: go to college, join the military, or get a full-time job that is open to people with a high school diploma. Those options remain, but there are plenty of others, some of which are relatively new while others have been around for decades…even centuries. As we look at the current landscape, who are the competitors to the traditional 4-year college degree? Or, put another way, what are the other alternatives available to people? Here are ten of them.

1. Self-Study and the Uncollege Experience – People like Dale Stephens (Hacking Your Education), Charles Hayes (Proving You’re Qualified), Blake Boles (Better Than College), Professor X (In the Basement of the Ivory Tower), and James Altucher (40 Alternatives to College) each give ideas about alternatives to the traditional college experience. While there are some professional tracks that don’t leave you much of an option but the 4-hour degree, self-study still works for certain people.

2. Trade School / Vocational School / Technical School – This is a long-standing option for those wanting a faster route into a specific career as well as those who want an inexpensive way to earn college credit before transferring to a 4-year program. In the end, it means fewer “credits sold” for schools that focus on the 4-year college degree.

3. Dual Credit and AP Courses – This is a fast growing area. For many, college starts in high school, and this also means that even those students planning on going to most 4-year colleges will need to take fewer classes while there.

4. The Nano Degree and Other Similar Models – These are inexpensive shorter certificate programs that lead to a potential opening at specific companies. Expect to see more such program appear, programs where companies can create an entirely new pool of potential employees, and the companies are active in establishing part of all the curriculum, evening being involved in the teaching and assessment. The difference with these new models is that the education is focused more upon what a specific company wants in an employee. I don’t expect this to replace the 4-year degree for most, but we may see at least a small number of people trying this track out first. We should see if it gains traction over the next 3-5 years.

5. The 3-Year Degree – This includes programs like Southern New Hampshire’s largely promoted route to a bachelor’s degree. It is still bachelor’s degree, but in a condensed format.

6. Competency-based Programs – At Western Governor’s and other emerging competency-based programs, students don’t progress by years or credits. Some might even be able to finish a bachelor’s degree in half the regular time. Keep in mind that 85% of those seeking college degree are already not traditional residency-based students, so this option might appeal to some of this 85%. In fact, based upon the enrollments in some of the early competency-based programs, we know that there is interest.

7. Online Degrees – Of course, some of the programs already mentioned are online, but online learning has a decade of consistent growth in enrollment. Add that to predictions that half of high school courses will be online by 2019 and we get a coming generation that is increasingly comfortable with blended and online learning. How might that impact their choices regarding higher education?

8. Professional Certifications – There are many certifications that are in high demand in the workplace. Getting those, even without a college degree, provides increased opportunity for new jobs or promotions in existing ones. Cisco and Microsoft certifications, for example, are largely well-regarded credentials.

9. Apprenticeships – While some sources suggest that they are in decline, there are still quite a few options available to industrious people. This article outlines some of the resources available.

10. Entrepreneurs and Artists – This is certainly not for most, but some set aside traditional college to feed their creative side, whether it is in music, acting, other performing arts, or a new business venture. These are not always mutually exclusive to the 4-year degree, but it remains a viable option for some. Browsing the web, there are a growing number of articles offering advice on how to start your first business in high school (or earlier). That means that some young people get a chance to try it out, while maintaining the option of heading off to college if things don’t work out (or if they do).