Alternatives to College: List & Guidelines

Traditional four-year college is only one option. Here’s how to inform your decision.

Prisma Staff
December 15, 2022

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community

The professional landscape is changing at warp speed. Once taken for granted as a requirement for success, higher education is no longer the default next step for many high school students. Presented with the skyrocketing costs of a college education and the growing number of alternatives, young people (and their families) are asking themselves whether traditional college makes sense.

The pandemic also contributed to this shift: When in-person classes moved online, it became harder for many to justify the cost of a four-year degree program(especially for those with student loans).

When approaching such a decision, some people turn to employment and earnings statistics for those with a Bachelor’s degree compared to other segments of the population who have earned associate’s degrees, gone to vocational school or chosen other educational paths. Others will look to examples of famous college dropouts who obtained stratospheric success.


While that kind of context can help put your choices in perspective, really, no statistics or  inspirational story will forecast your future. The decision of what to do after high school comes down to understanding your goals and needs, keeping in mind that it’s not irrevocable; you always can change course.

To help orient you, here are some things to think about.

Why do you want a college degree?

For many young adults, the only question is where they’ll go to college, not if. But it never hurts to dig deeper and ask yourself why you want to go in the first place.

One way to start your exploration is to consider your career options. What degree or certification is required for an entry-level job in that field? While certain careers require a Bachelor’s degree and more (law, medicine, teaching), trade school is the normal route for others (electricians, HVAC techs, plumbers).

For other jobs, like web developers and graphic designers, it’s more important to have certain skills than where you got them. And if you’re interested in entrepreneurship, all bets are off; there’s no straight career path, just a lot of experimentation.

Another factor to consider is your time-frame: Why do you want a college degree now? And how quickly do you need it?

Depending on where you land on these issues, you might explore different options: If the on-campus experience isn’t important to you but a degree is, many universities offer hybrid opportunities: rather than full time enrollment, you can split online classes and hands-on job training.

Beyond the specific career, there are also lifestyle considerations, such as:

  1. What do you want your life to look like after high school graduation?
  2. Do you envision an on-campus experience? If you’re interested in living away from home, do you want a dorm specifically, another geographic location, or a change of scenery (urban, suburban, rural, international)?
  3. If changing your location is a core value, there are plenty of ways to pack up your bags and go somewhere else: the Peace Corps, WWOOFing, Teach for America, or simply finding a job in another city or state.
  4. Do you know what you want out of college? Or do you need more time to figure out what comes next? If you’re not ready to decide now, a gap year is always an option.

What appeals to you about college alternatives?

If there’s a nagging thought in your head that you don’t want to go to college immediately after high school, think about what you envision yourself doing more specifically. This can be a great way to learn more about yourself by exploring your values.

  1. Are you interested in hands-on experience?
  2. Do you have an itch to travel?
  3. Are you eager to join the workforce as soon as possible? Why?
  4. Are you motivated to get started solving a problem?

This kind of questioning is always worth it — and it can help to sit down with trusted family members, mentors, and friends to get various perspectives as you come to an answer. Even if you confirm a long-held belief that you want a college degree, at the very least, it will help you narrow your choices of where you want to apply or what you want to do once you’re there.

How can you get more information?

If you’re unclear whether your path should lead you to a traditional college experience or to one of the many alternatives to college, the best approach is to get up close and personal with the various options. That way you can make your decision with lived experience under your belt.

Here are some options we recommend:

  1. Get part-time work experience. If school is all you’ve ever known, it’s logical to keep defaulting to that option. Whether you intern at a non-profit or shadow a real estate agent, real-world experience will help you discover what you want to do, rather than picking a major at random. As a graduation requirement, all Prisma high school learners complete an internship related to their goals with an outside organization — for as much as 10-20 hours per week during their 12th-grade year.
  2. Try a certification or training program. While some programs have age requirements, there are plenty of paid and free online courses for young people to try, such as a coding boot camp or design classes. We encourage Prisma learners to enroll in these kinds of programs as part of their high school electives.
  3. Get college credit. If you want to know what college is like, try a course at community college or an online class from the University of your choice. (Many top universities offer MOOCs — massive open online courses — in popular topics, with no prerequisites.) This experience may help inform what kind of major you pick and what kind of learning environment you thrive in.
  4. Start your own business. If you feel that entrepreneurial itch, scratch it — now. There’s no age requirement to become an entrepreneur. Whatever the outcome, if you approach your business with a growth mindset, it’s an amazing way to learn about yourself, your strengths, your passions and your in-progress areas.

The college decision is major, no doubt. The more hands-on experiences you have, the better you’ll be able to make an informed choice. At the same time, you’ll also be building a portfolio of accomplishments that will help you in whatever avenue you pursue, now, or at the next fork in the road. This kind of record of achievement — which is part of every Prisma learner’s journey whether they choose to use it for college admissions or any other path — is a great way to identify your interests and goals, while building a resume that shows them off.

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