Exploring Alternatives to College: 22 Realistic Options Other Than College

Graduating high school is an exciting time, but it’s also a time filled with decisions! The last 18 years have been fairly laid out for you, but now YOU get to choose what you’ll do with the next portion of your life.

Unfortunately, there are people who will tell you that there’s only one way to do things (this “only way” often involves a four-year degree and working at the same company for thirty years). In reality, there are many options other than college and a single career track. University immediately after high school — while a great choice for many — is not the best choice for everyone.

There’s alternative schooling with a lower tuition price tag. Starting an online business. Taking a gap year. A variety of productive options besides college have sprung up in the internet age, many of which can provide you with better opportunities than the traditional straight-to-college pattern. Global Citizen Year has always addressed this with our top tier gap years, but starting in fall semester 2020 we’ve added the Global Citizen Academy, iterating and improving on the patterns developed by other alternatives to college.

We know you have a lot to gain by taking advantage of this time in your life, and we want to show you 21 things to do instead of college that may be a perfect fit for you.

Principles for Getting the Most Out of Your Young Adult Years

While you are free to do whatever you want with your young adult years, there are a few principles that will make this time as productive as possible. Following these principles will set you up for success no matter your pursuit:

  1. Discover yourself
  2. Build your skills
  3. Network/build relationships

Discover Yourself

Not everybody is born with a clear sense of where they want to go and what they want to be (in fact, hardly anybody is). Now that you have more autonomy, you need to learn about yourself! Try new things, get a wide variety of experience — become a student of life no matter what you do. Year by year, you’ll learn things about yourself that you didn’t know in high school, and it will give you a strong sense of direction as you move forward in life.

Build Your Skills

Even if you aren’t in school, be a student. Learn career skills, get experience, and increase your ability to make a valuable impact on the world. Note that this doesn’t just mean being valuable to a future employer — if you want to volunteer or to start your own business or organization, you can acquire the set of skills that will make you valuable to others and to yourself. YOU are your greatest asset, and during the years after high school you should be about investing in yourself, no matter how you choose to do that.

Network and Build Relationships

Networking gets talked about a lot. You’ll hear “the value of networking” and statistics that show its importance in getting a good job — but what is it exactly? High school teachers might say it involves business cards and handshakes, but when it comes down to it, networking is just another word for relationship-building. When you’re looking at options besides college, networking takes on a new level of importance.

For example, if you want to work for yourself, networking is just as (probably more) important. Finding funding for a business, good partners to run it with you, employees, sales deals, business clients — every single one of these crucial business activities has its roots in networking.

Regardless of college attendance, make sure you are meeting new people and developing relationships. Aim to meet the people who are doing what you want to do or connected to things you are interested in. This network of friends and acquaintances can do as much for your career as a degree can.

The College Value Proposition

It’s easy to see why college is so valuable: a wide variety of general classes and opportunities to discover oneself, a degree and skillset that increases your value in the eyes of employers, and a built-in network of like-minded peers and experienced professors. Add in extracurriculars, internships, campus amenities, and recruiting activities and you can quickly see the value that college offers to young adults.

However. College is not the only path to self-discovery and increased value. It’s certainly not the only way to a strong network. And for a price tag that frequently exceeds $100k? The cost can often outweigh the benefits.

Programs like Global Citizen Academy starting — fall semester 2020 — can be a smarter investment for you to increase your value and build a powerful network while discovering whether you want to pursue the university route or not. Following is a list of things to do instead of college, when you think the traditional straight to college route may not be the right path for you.

These alternatives to college will help you discover yourself, build your skills, and make connections with valuable people — without the four-year degree price tag.

22 Powerful Alternatives to College

Explore Yourself


These alternatives to college are meant to let you explore yourself and discover what you’re passionate about. Remember, there is no perfect career path, but it certainly helps to feel fulfilled by what you do.

1. Volunteer Service opportunities are a fantastic way to get diverse skills and training while discovering what you’re passionate about. Taking some time to volunteer can yield benefits for your community — and also yourself. At Global Citizen Academy, students have the opportunity to volunteer with one of our many impact partners that are working on climate change, racial justice, voters’ rights, and more.

2. Gap Year At Global Citizen Year, we believe that taking a gap year is a fantastic way to get ready for whatever life throws at you, be it college or career. Travel the world, learn about yourself, develop skills, and make lasting connections. It’s a great option besides college if you aren’t sure what path to take!

3. Travel Whether or not you participate in a gap year program, taking a year or two to travel can have real benefits. Self-discovery, learning about the world, picking up a new language, experience with different people and cultures — these are things that college alone won’t always give you. These are the perfect years to get a world education, before you get into a career proper and have more stable responsibilities.

4. Take Action for a Cause You Care About Is there a cause you are passionate about? A local issue that is specific to your community? Starting a non-profit or volunteer initiative may be easier than you think. Not only will it give you a sense of satisfaction from service, you’ll also get valuable experience and an incredible resume builder. With no degree required, these volunteer and non-profit activities make fantastic alternatives to college while you explore yourself.

Entrepreneurial Pursuits


Are you a natural born entrepreneur? Does the thought of working for yourself sound like a dream come true? Consider these realistic ways of becoming your own boss.

5. Hobby -> Cash Do you love sewing bags? Have you perfected the chocolate chip cookie? Many high school students don’t realize that their hobbies have given them the skills to make money. Whether it’s on Etsy or through neighborhood bake sales, you can find a way to make cash with what you enjoy.

6. Get Creative Having a knack for photography, drawing, or graphic design can quickly lead to a full-time career. College art programs have a lot to offer, but with most artistic skills you can get low-cost or free training online. In the digital age, you can show your talents on social media, and apply for jobs. Every company needs quality content. Show that you can create it, and people will be more concerned with your work than your degree.

7. Start a Business Starting an honest-to-goodness business can sound intimidating. You may feel like you need a perfect idea or have to understand complex accounting; that’s not true! Even businesses like renting bicycles, or tubes to float a river can bring in enough cash to live on. Start a snowcone shack or a drink stand, and for a little capital investment, you can start earning money and learning through experience.

8. Build an Audience If you can get a strong following, you can monetize it. This is true of social media, websites, blogs, email lists, even things like e-books and podcasts. Create quality content that people enjoy, and you may be able to turn it into a full-time career. The digital age has given plenty of alternatives to college.

9. Author a Book Many high school students think they’re not experienced enough to write a book, but everyone has a unique perspective. If you are a talented writer, consider writing as a potential career path that requires no college.

Alternative Schooling

alternative school

Sometimes it’s simply cost or location that keeps us from a traditional degree. You may want education, but know that college isn’t for you. Here’s a set of great options besides traditional college that can get you ahead.

10. Online College Online colleges offer many of the benefits of traditional college — but simply less expensive. Many quality options are cropping up if you want to attend college but are limited by location or ability to attend classes in person.

11. Work Colleges Work colleges are a great concept — essentially you work through the school to graduate without accruing crushing debt. If money is the issue, give these classroom/real-world combinations some consideration.

12. Community College Community colleges are often high quality, inexpensive ways of getting your first two years of education under your belt. You can then decide if you want to get a job and start your career or continue the student life and keep on with the education.

13. Vocational School: Technical College vs Trade School Want education for your job, but don’t want to sit through 12 credits of humanities and history and other topics that don’t relate to your interest? Consider vocational school as an alternative to college. Technical colleges are a type of vocational school that typically has a little more classroom focus — but it’s all related to the job you want to get. (think IT, nursing, health science, or automotive technician.) Trade school is a type of vocational school that is much more hands on. Trade schools commonly have degrees for things like electrician, cosmetologist, welder, etc.

14. Job Training Program Some jobs have specialized skills that don’t require a year plus of education. These careers usually just require a high school diploma and certification through a job training program that may just take a few weeks or months to complete. Jobs in this category include EMTs, wind turbine technicians, commercial drivers, or bricklayers. After a short training program, you’ll be able to start work with a livable salary, making these training programs great options besides college for the time-conscious student.

15. Apprenticeship or Fellowship Apprenticeships and fellowships are great ways to get skills in trades. For some careers (like electrical work) they are required. You’ll learn under the hand of a master craftsman while you become successful in your chosen industry or skill.

16. Coding (or other) Bootcamps Bootcamps are one of the latest alternatives to college. These 2-12 week courses offer intensive training for a short period of time, then give assistance in canvassing the job market and starting your career. Coding bootcamps are a very popular option for those interested in programming, but there are bootcamps for all kinds of industries.

17. Online Courses If you know what you want to learn about, you may be able to find the education online through a free or low-cost course. In our times, you can pretty much learn anything you want if you have the dedication to apply yourself.

Get a Job


You don’t need a degree to get started. Follow your interest and get some hands-on experience — if you decide you still want to go to school, you’ll be the better for having some real-life time.

18. Apply for Entry-level Positions Looking for an alternative to college? Find an industry you have some interest in and start applying. Getting an entry-level position will teach you a lot about yourself and whether you want to work your way up or switch careers entirely.

19. Internships Getting an internship has the same benefits as an entry level job, but is often shorter and lower commitment. You can bounce around and do 4 internships in 6 months, giving you valuable experience while you discover what might be a good fit.

20. Get your Realtor License Realty can be an extremely lucrative career that requires no college. A short training program, a certification, and you can be in a career that doesn’t uncommonly make people millionaires.

21. Start Coaching a Team Track star in high school? Soccer prodigy? Skill in sports can give you the opportunity to start a coaching career early, an option besides college athletics that can keep you doing what you love.

22. Military Military service is a very respectable alternative to college. Get real-life training, travel, do hard things, serve your community, and get your education paid for. It’s obviously a difficult path to follow, but can be well worth it.



Networking is something you’ll need to actively do no matter what path you decide to take — even if you go to college! Some ways to create networking opportunities are:

  • Find people in positions or industries you want to be in. Follow them on social media, interact with their posts, and build a relationship at a distance.

  • Join online communities with like-minded people. Add value to the community, and they will add value to you. (great places to look for these are Reddit, Linkedin, Facebook, and Discord.)

  • Ask a hero of yours out to lunch. Interview them appropriately about how they got to where they are.

  • Contact hiring managers and ask them to do a mock interview with you. These mock interviews should be considered practice only (don’t bother them about getting the job afterward) but the relationship with the person should be considered real. Later when you’re more qualified these connections will benefit you.

  • Talk to people! Simply making friends and getting to know people will lead you to different ways of thinking, and surprise you with the number of opportunities it creates.

College isn’t the only way for you to set yourself up for success. With focus and dedication, you can discover yourself, become even more valuable, and build a strong network of friends. The best part? You can have fun doing it, while following your own path.