College Isn't the Only Path

College Isn’t the Only Path: Alternatives to a Four-Year Program

While college is the obvious next step for many high school graduates, it isn’t the only one. Today, about 55% of high school grads choose not to attend college or are uncertain if they will ever attend. Whether college seems out of reach financially or you’d prefer to start adulthood in a different way, consider some alternatives to help jump start your career. 

If you’re ready to dive headfirst into the workforce, vocational training, apprenticeships and online degrees can set you on the fast track. If you’d rather take time to explore your interests first, consider a gap year or volunteer work. It’s important to note that college isn’t the only route to a successful career. 

Community College May Be Right for You

Community colleges typically offer 1-2 year programs that earn you a certificate or associate’s degree. Because programs are shorter and students often commute from home, community colleges are generally much more affordable than their four-year counterparts. According to Education Data Initiative, in-district commuter students in North Carolina can expect to pay just over $4,100 annually. Some more lucrative professions may require a two-year degree rather than a four-year program, including dental hygienists, paralegals, vet techs and air traffic controllers.
Community college can also be an affordable way to fulfill general education requirements. Many four-year programs and community colleges require some of the same introductory classes. If you’re looking for a more affordable way to earn those credits before taking classes within your intended major, consider spending a year or two at a community college and transferring to another college or university. Just be sure to do your homework and ensure those credits will count.
Community colleges in North Carolina include Alamance Community College, Wilson Community College, Central Carolina Community College and Cape Fear Community College, among others. 

Online Colleges & Programs Are Popular

Online programs, or distance learning, are gaining popularity for undergraduate and graduate students alike. These programs, which tend to be more affordable and flexible than typical four-year colleges and even some community college programs, can be beneficial to working students and those raising families. They’re best for self-motivated individuals who like to learn at their own pace and can use that flexibility to their advantage. 
Online programs offer a range of certificates and degrees, from associate’s to master’s degrees. Some schools only offer online classes, while others offer a mix of both online and in-person, a trend that may become more common as social distancing practices continue. As with community colleges, you may be able to transfer credits from an online program to a traditional four-year institution, but be aware of accreditation requirements. College accreditation is often regional and designed to ensure programs meet certain educational standards. Accredited institutions typically will not accept college credits from unaccredited programs. Be sure to choose your online program carefully if you expect to transfer to a four-year college or university down the road.

Exploring Vocational Programs or Technical Colleges 

Vocational training, technical colleges and trade schools are career-oriented programs that teach practical skills you’ll need in the workplace. In a vocational program, you’ll only take classes that pertain to your field of choice. These are ideal for students who have a clear career path in mind, particularly those who aren’t interested in desk jobs and would prefer to work with their hands, such as welders, HVAC technicians and auto mechanics. These types of professions can come with a lot of job security—there’s a growing demand for trade workers, as these industries tend to skew older and will have vacancies when current workers retire.
In 2022, a two-year vocational program cost an average of $33,000, but many students can complete their training in less time. In North Carolina, trade schools include Forsyth Tech, McDowell Tech and Pitt Community College. Many vocational schools are private and for profit, making tuition more costly, so be sure to shop around and look for programs that offer federal financial aid packages.

Landing Apprenticeships

Start earning money immediately with paid career-training programs, known as apprenticeships. Apprenticeships can range from 1-6 years long. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are currently about 600,000 apprentices in the country
These programs combine on-the-job training with classroom instruction, and some begin accepting students as young as 16 years old. An apprenticeship could be a good solution for you if you’re interested in becoming an electrician, carpenter, construction worker or truck driver, for example. A number of other fields may also offer apprenticeships, including hospitality, healthcare, manufacturing, transportation and telecommunications. 
Starting wages for apprentices in North Carolina are about $19 an hour on average. Note that apprenticeships can be highly competitive and have waitlists, so start your planning process early. Online resources like can help you find opportunities near you.

Coding School

If you’re interested in computer coding, website development or app development, consider a “coding bootcamp.” These short, intensive programs typically run less than four months, and graduates earn a certificate. Coding schools can be online or in person.
According to Course Report, there are over 600 coding bootcamps worldwide, including more than 100 in the U.S. and Canada. While tuition may vary, the average bootcamp costs about $14,000. Many bootcamps help their students prepare resumes, build portfolios and find job opportunities, with 83% of alumni working in relevant fields, according to Course Report. Graduates earn starting salaries of around $69,000 annually.
Because these programs are private and have no government oversight, they’re not accredited for federal student aid. If you’re interested in attending, research programs thoroughly to ensure they’re reputable and will meet your needs.

Other Options

If higher education isn’t the answer for you, or if you’re not ready to dive into an undergraduate program, there are other ways to get ahead in the workforce.

  • Take a Gap Year: A gap year can be a great option if you need a little time to figure out your next step. You may choose to travel, give back to the community or pick up an entry-level job to see if you enjoy working in the field. Taking extra time to identify your passions and desired career path can help you make the most of your education down the road.
  • Join the Military: The military can provide a competitive salary, free healthcare and a low cost of living. If you’re interested in pursuing a degree, tuition will be covered while you’re on active duty, and the GI Bill will help fund your education after your service ends. If lifelong military service is the path for you, you can retire with benefits after 20 years.
  • Start a Business: Are you a talented photographer? Have you always dreamed of owning a restaurant? Consider starting your own business or becoming a franchisee. Entrepreneurship can provide added flexibility and help you develop a business sense and management skills. Start-up and operating costs vary by industry, and your earnings depend largely on the success of your business. The SBA offers a number of resources to help you get your business underway.
  • Consider a Fellowship: Fellowships are a great way to fund your business idea. While programs are competitive and often accept a limited number of applicants, funding can be generous. The Thiel Fellowship, named after PayPal founder Peter Thiel, offers fellows $100,000 to pursue their business ideas under the mentorship of scientists, researchers or industry leaders. Programs like ProFellow can help you find and apply for opportunities. Some universities also offer fellowships. 
  • Do Volunteer Work: Volunteering is about more than giving back to the community. It can teach you valuable interpersonal, leadership and teambuilding skills that will serve you well no matter your career path. Just be sure you are financially secure enough to give back while meeting your own basic needs.

Everyone’s path is different, and it’s wise to weigh your options. If higher education isn’t the answer and you’re ready to dive into the workforce, we can help you manage your personal banking with savings accounts, checking accounts and other financial products and services. Contact us today or visit one of our North Carolina branches to learn more.

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