Practical Skill-Building Alternatives to Getting a College Education

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Given the rising cost of undergraduate tuition, it’s becoming less tenable for many to consider going to college. In the United States specifically, college tuition is so expensive that the majority of students take on debt to afford it. In fact, about 50% of all college students in the country owe at least $30,000 in student loans. Because of this, many are starting to question whether the investment is worth it.

Fortunately, there are many affordable ways students can build professional skills without attending college. From learning material through less expensive online courses to building experience through gigs and apprenticeships, the modern world offers many new paths to professional success.

Below, we’ve listed some of the different ways students can prepare for the workforce without going to college.

Try Online College Courses

If the career you’re aiming for requires a degree, you might be able to find a more affordable program online. These charge less because students aren’t making use of physical facilities, and instructors are able to reach more students at once. Additionally, students studying through online universities tend to save on transportation and living expenses.

These factors are likely to result in you getting more value for your money. In a survey about online learning, in fact, a whopping 86% of participants agreed that the value they gained from pursuing their degrees online exceeds or equals the amount they paid to acquire it. And in America, 52% of all students say they prefer online learning over traditional classroom settings.

Enroll In A Vocational School

Most college degrees place an emphasis on knowledge building. As a result, college students are required to hone their skills in research, problem-solving, and analytical thinking. However, many careers have more to do with practical experience. Paramedics, nurses, mechanics, and construction workers, for example, all need hands-on training to succeed at their jobs.

Students aspiring to fill jobs in professions like these can benefit from attending trade or vocational schools. These are schools that train students in hands-on skills specific to certain industries, such as transportation, healthcare, and construction. This makes them intriguing to many –– though you should also ensure that your education meets minimum academic standards by checking whether or not a vocational school you may enroll in is accredited by a government-approved organization.

Take Freelance Jobs

Thanks to various internet developments in recent years, it’s now a lot easier to find short, temporary jobs –– commonly known as gigs. In the United States, it’s estimated that 60 million workers, or 25% of the workforce, now participate in the gig economy –– with some finding it quite lucrative. The biggest selling point of earning gig-based income is the freedom it provides. Gig workers aren’t bound to the “9-to-5,” or even to a single role or type of job. They can be anything from entrepreneurs, to school tutors, to DJs.

Through freelancing, you have the freedom to gradually determine what kind of work you like (and what kind you’re good at). The projects you take on will help you develop your skills, which can in turn lead you to long-term work. Graphic designers, for instance, might be able to use the portfolios they’ve built through freelance projects to sell their skills to long-term clients or employers.

Do an Apprenticeship

If you want to learn through hands-on work, but still need guidance from someone with more experience, try looking for apprenticeship programs. In these programs, students participate in their trade of choice while receiving mentorship from older employees. Apprentices typically receive pay equivalent to 40% to 50% of their trained counterparts. As such, the programs make for great options for students who want to earn as they learn.

Though graduating from college can still open many doors for young professionals, the option is becoming pricier with each passing year. Fortunately, students can still find successful careers after pursuing practical college alternatives, such as online courses, vocational schools, freelance work, and apprenticeships.

Helen Vlasova
Helen is the co-founder of, a career guidance website for students and young professionals. She has a degree in English from the University of Michigan. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends, reading, and traveling.

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