Alternatives to a Traditional Four Year College Degree

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While in the past there were only a few options for those seeking a college degree, there are now a multitude of pathways to an education. There are more degree types and focus areas than ever before, and students are entering academia from a wide range of backgrounds, with an even wider range of plans for the future. So, let’s look at the various paths these degree seekers can follow to earn their hoped-for goal.

Degrees & Career Paths


The Traditional Path


The traditional route to a college degree is a story many of us were raised with. That is: you work hard to attain the best possible grades in high school, formulate some general idea of what you want for a career, then apply to the best and most affordable colleges. Some visit their first-choice schools, take a tour, and even spend a weekend getting to know the potential school.

After the acceptance letters come in, you choose the best of the bunch and enroll. Once the financing is squared away, you venture off to campus, study hard, and graduate four years later. Along the way, you might spend a semester or a year studying abroad, or you might opt for other alternatives to traditional campus life.

Not the Only Way


One of the only constants in life is change. The traditional route to a college degree certainly is one standard narrative that is experiencing dramatic upheavals. These days there are many ways to approach a college degree and your path to a successful career.

One huge shift in the way we approach college has resulted from online education. These days, you could easily attend a campus on the opposite side of the continent on which you live, or even the opposite side of the world. Online education allows you to choose specific programs and degree types that were previously out of reach.

There are also other alternative routes to a college education. Some take a "gap year" or two during which they travel or maybe take a job to learn more about the world of work. Others join the military so that they can use the GI Bill to help with tuition once they discharge. It's also common for students to attend community college for two years so that they can take care of their core courses at a reduced rate prior to attending a four-year institution to get a college degree.

Earning a GED


One non-traditional route to an education might entail an alternative completion of your high school years. You could leave high school prior to graduation and then still pass a standardized exam in order to attain a General Equivalency Degree (GED). Though dropping out of high school is often considered a path that takes you away from the option of college altogether but that is not always the case. You might opt for a GED if you have medical issues, for instance. Some students find that high school is not challenging enough and so take their GED exam and then apply to college before beginning their senior year. And even if you do drop out of high school, thinking college isn’t for you, you can always study for the GED and pass it if you decide you want another shot at college.

If you decide to leave high school and attain a GED, you also need to take the SAT or ACT and then start applying to colleges. It will work to your favor if you become involved in community service projects or save money to take an enlightening trip abroad. After all, colleges are looking for self-motivated students who they can point to educational experiences. If you want to stand out in the application pool, the GED route can afford opportunities that your traditional peers cannot access.

Earn College Credit in High School


Many high schools provide options for Junior and Senior students to begin experiencing life in higher education. Students who have an acceptable GPA might be allowed to start taking courses at a nearby community college. The entire college curriculum might not be available to high school students and they might only receive high school credit, but these programs come in many different configurations, depending on the schools involved. Some provide college and high school credit to high schoolers who complete college courses.

Often, community colleges will open up a select group of courses for high school students. In some circumstances, exceptional students might be able to take higher-level courses and earn full college credit. This is a great benefit to advanced students in small schools that may not have many options for Advanced Placement courses, for example. You should be aware that if your local community college has not yet converted to free tuition, there may be fees involved.

These days, students might be able to opt for online courses so that they don't have to commute to a college campus. If you are considering taking advantage of such an opportunity, you might find that there are even remote colleges that will allow you to take their courses online. Discuss these options with your high school advisors as they will know which opportunities are available in your area.

Community College First


One great alternative to the traditional educational route will first take you through a community college program. With a two-year degree under your belt, you will have not only completed the core curriculum that most colleges require but you will also have the opportunity to take coursework in your chosen field of concentration.

You might even be able to apply your two-year associates degree to the working world. For example, if you have an Associate of Science in Accounting, you could start working as a bookkeeper or maybe find a position with an accounting firm. Hiring managers will appreciate that you have completed a degree program and they will be all the more receptive if you indicate your intentions to complete an undergraduate degree at a later date. Some employers may even offer tuition assistance when you decide to work toward your bachelor’s degree.

When you take a year or two to apply what you've learned in your associates degree, you can gain a better idea of how to proceed when you return to school. This includes first-hand knowledge of careers that were once only ideas. Your experience might steer you towards certain specialty areas that you didn't know about previously and you may have the chance to accrue some experience in those areas.

Yet another advantage to this alternative route to college education is that, when you apply to a four-year institution, your application will stand out from the rest. Not only will you already have a degree, but you will also have experience working in your field. Admissions counselors love finding students who have experience to bring into the classroom.

Online Education


Online education is still a relatively new phenomenon in higher education. Since it began to gain prominence in the public mind, there have been a number of questionable players in this new field. However, there have also been a number of phenomenal success stories. For-profit online institutions have begun to acclimate to a more standard approach to academia and students are the ones who are benefiting. Now, online institutions are gaining accreditation and their reputations are growing as well.

In fact, online platforms are growing all across academia. These days it’s hard to imagine a physical classroom that doesn't have some degree of online presence. Instructors post materials to their websites and students correspond with one another, and their instructor, via email or other communication media. Certain classes might even administer tests via the virtual portion of the classroom.

Indeed, most colleges and universities are offering courses online. Some require that students take a certain number of online classes, or only offer certain core courses via the internet. Thus, online education is gaining traction as a standard part of higher education. Though you might not be able to complete every major a university offers from your laptop, every year finds more advances in the virtual realm.

It's even been found that, when researchers compare online students and their traditional campus peers, outcomes are nearly the same. Given that online education offers many advantages over the traditional campus approach, one day we may see online courses eclipsing brick-and-mortar classes in terms of both quantity and quality. If you are good at time management and can set aside the appropriate amount of time for studying, an online degree might be just the thing for you.

The Life Experience Route


In years past, college students were generally between the ages of 17 and 23. Students with grey hair were outliers and were often viewed with suspicion. However, non-traditional students who bring years of life experience to the classroom can be a benefit to everyone. These students might be in the process of changing careers, seeking a degree for the purposes of taking their career to the next level, or simply bucket-listers who are seeking a degree for the satisfaction of completing the task. Their broader experiences lend a depth and richness to their in-class questions and discussions.

Non-traditional students have many advantages over traditional-age students. They have had a lot of time in the working world to gain experiences, to test ideas, and to learn about things younger students have not yet been exposed to. If college is an institution and experience that teaches students how to think and learn, then non-traditional students are well ahead of the game.

Other non-traditional students include those who are currently working in a professional capacity and attending college part-time. They might be a bit stressed from the experience of juggling both a professional and academic schedule, but their numbers are on the rise. That's perhaps due to the increase in educational costs that make work a necessity for many students. In fact, this is such a pervasive issue that part-time students are far more common these days than in the past. Again, the notion of what a traditional student looks like has changed dramatically.

Vocational, Trade and Technical Schools


Vocational and trade schools are gaining in stature these days. Since college tuition is on the rise, students seek formal training that will directly apply to the working world, without the liberal arts title that adds time and money requirements. Further, students are looking for training in fields for which there is a steady demand. Ultimately, younger (and older) students want to graduate with minimal debt and maximum earning potential.

Depending on the field you pursue, a vocational degree can help you re-enter college for an academic degree at a later date. For instance, if you study a field like Information Technology in a technical college, you can begin work in an IT department. There, you can gain training in programming languages, software development, and more. Thus, you can apply your knowledge and experience later if you decide that you need an undergraduate degree to develop your career.

There are many fields that are perfect for this approach. For instance, you can become a CAD technician and work alongside engineers or architects. Your CAD expertise will be of immense help to your employer but you'll also learn a lot about what that firm does, both from a business and technical standpoint. That sort of experience will count for much when you apply to an architectural or engineering program. Not only will it help you gain admission, but you are more likely to end up with a career that is best suited to you and in which you will find success.

Thus, if you opt for trade school rather than a traditional four-year college or university, you will not only be able to complete your program before your traditional peers, but you will start accruing invaluable experience while they are still taking core courses.