Not everyone is academically inclined — and there’s nothing wrong with that. Preparing your kids for whatever their future brings is an act of mutuality, and one of the ways we look out for those we love. Maybe that will be college, but maybe it will be something less traditional.
Almost two-thirds of high school graduates go on to college, and a lot of financial resources and planning go into preparing for it. But there can be logical and compelling reasons to postpone college or skip it altogether. These can range from personal preference and inclination to individual circumstances and resources.
After all, a bachelor’s degree is a huge commitment: It requires three to five years of full-time study and costs anywhere from $37,000 (living at home and attending an in-state school) to $184,000 (attending a private school and paying for room and board), according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Managing the cost can be difficult, especially if there was no early planning.
It’s difficult to earn more than pocket change during those years because of how time-consuming school is and how limited a student’s skills and experience are. Taking on debt can also be daunting. There are also no job guarantees after graduation (especially for liberal arts majors), and many 18-year-olds are unclear on what they’d enjoy doing for a career.
However, there are other alternatives to college, each with its own level of commitment, risk, and reward.
Trade school and skilled jobs
A trade is a job that requires manual skills and specialized training. Typically, such training takes place over a one- to two-year period at a trade school, also called a technical school or vocational school, or at a community college offering trade certifications. In other cases, a worker can learn the skills through on-the-job training or an apprenticeship. Some trades require a combination of technical school and hands-on training.
There are a wide range of trade occupations. They can include dental hygienist, construction worker, plumber, radiation therapist, wind turbine technician, computer support specialist, MRI technologist, paralegal, pilot, machinist, electrician, HVAC contractor, welder, mechanic, drywall installer, and roofer. Some of these jobs require an associate’s degree or professional certificate, and many require a license.
Pay scales vary among different skilled occupations, but some can be quite lucrative, depending on workload and location. For example, there are reported instances of plumbers making more than $200,000 a year. Trade school costs an average of $33,000 to complete, according to figures from one educational cost researcher. That’s well below the cost of many four-year degrees.
More savings can be had by earning a trade certification at a community college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of tuition and fees at a two-year college for in-state students was just $3,377 per year, or a little over $6,000 to complete.
A two-year degree, or an associate’s degree, is the equivalent of a freshman and sophomore education at a four-year school, which makes completing a four-year degree later a possibility. It is also an option to pursue an associate’s degree at the same time as earning a trade certification, potentially opening up more career options later on. And job placement programs at these schools can be better than the ones found at colleges and universities, which often cater mainly to business and engineering students.
Jobs in the trades typically are in demand and usually can’t be outsourced overseas — you can’t hire someone to remotely replace your roof or fix your air conditioner. While the average tradesperson earns $11,000 less per year than someone with a bachelor’s degree, it will take the degree holder a number of years, an average of 12 years by some estimates, to catch up to the tradesperson’s cumulative earnings because of the cost of school and student loans and the opportunity cost of entering the workforce later.
And the trades are not dead-end jobs: Growth opportunities include becoming a manager, starting one’s own business and hiring employees, and just becoming self-employed. (Related: Why entrepreneurs need insurance)
Andrew G. Swapp, a wind energy instructor and academic counselor at Mesalands Community College, a small school in New Mexico, said he has several occupational students who attended for one semester and are now out working in a skilled trade making a good, livable wage. Swapp himself is a former infantry sergeant who has mostly learned on the job.
In an interview, he said there are several advantages to getting even a brief education in a trade someone is considering. Learning the basics, some relevant vocabulary, and safety procedures provides great confidence to apply for jobs and meet day-to-day challenges. A one-semester course provides a good opportunity to see if a particular career path is a fit, and a lot of industry partners like seeing that an individual has invested some time and effort.
“Take, for instance, the wind industry. There are some companies that will hire someone with an electrical or mechanical background, but when they get the job, they find out that they cannot work at heights,” Swapp explained. “A one-semester course would allow that person to climb a tower a couple times or more and both the individual and the company know that the work can be completed without any hang-ups of fear of heights.”
It’s worth noting that some trade jobs come with a risk of significant injury that wouldn’t be incurred in an office setting, making it extra important to consider securing disability income insurance before entering the workforce. But many such jobs also allow workers to stay physically active, which can be healthier than sitting at a desk all day.
The coding boom
Plenty of online services will teach coding for free or for much less than the price of a college degree. Examples include FreeCodeCamp.org, Khan Academy, Codecademy, MIT OpenCourseware , the Odin Project, Coursera, Upskill, Lynda , Pluralsight, and edX. There are also inexpensive coding schools and coding boot camps that can be completed in as little as six months.
Computer programmers (also called software engineers, software developers, or devs) are usually in high demand, and future job prospects are forecasted to be strong. Programmers can earn comfortable salaries, often six figures, and it typically doesn’t take many years to work up to this level. U.S. News and World Report named software developer as one of the best jobs of 2022 using a methodology based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data covering median salary, employment rate, 10-year job growth, stress level, and work-life balance.
Someone good at problem solving, who enjoys strategy games, loves technology, likes to create things, notices small details, adapts to constant change, and thinks in a logical, structured way, might have good prospects in programming. This career path may also offer location flexibility, since developers are needed everywhere and can often work remotely.
Roosevelt Purification, founder and CEO of Roosevelt Games and senior software engineer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center outside Washington, D.C., said he has been doing computer programming and web development for nearly 10 years without a college degree and has an “incredible career.” He said in an interview that the industry changes so quickly that anything learned in college soon becomes outdated; what matters most is up-to-date knowledge of the technologies used in the workplace.
Purification said that the best path to a programming career is to learn the basics, which will take at least six months, then start freelancing right away. Like so many businesses, information technology (IT) work requires not just technical skills, but also people, communication, and networking skills, all of which are better to learn sooner rather than later. (Related: A freelancer’s benefit checklist)
Developers can demand a higher-than-average salary even without a college degree based on their technical skills and years of experience. He said that at this point in the industry, a newcomer could possibly expect a starting salary of $50,000 as an employee, with significant increases after a year or two — especially through changing companies and having the confidence to ask for more — or up to $100,000 as a freelancer. Currently, rapid changes and improvements in technology are increasing the need for coders, allowing them to ask for higher compensation and to find stable jobs relatively quickly.
“For example, when I had my first job, I was making only $40,000 per year. However, the following year, my salary was bumped to $53,000. That's a 32.5 percent increase in pay,” he said. “After one more year, I switched jobs, and my salary was $75,000, which is a 41.5 percent increase from $53,000.”
There are eligibility requirements for joining the military. To enlist, one needs to have graduated from high school, be a U.S. citizen or resident alien, be at least 17 years of age, and be in good health. Candidates also need to pass the vocational aptitude test for the branch they want to join: Coast Guard, Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines. The military might be a good fit for those who are self-motivated, self-disciplined, physically fit, and cooperative with authority figures.
But those considering the military need to be flexible about their career path, since the military places people in jobs and locations based on its own needs and priorities. Also, there are the obvious dangers of war and armed conflict to consider.
Service members, who essentially work under contract, earn a guaranteed income in the form of basic military pay. Salaries differ by service and rank. (Check out pay rates here)
In addition, recruits get a housing allowance, food allowance, health care (including health insurance for spouses and children), sick pay, tax benefits, and a retirement plan that blends a traditional pension with a Thrift Savings Plan.
On top of basic pay and allowances, service members can earn extra for special duties and skills that entail more risk or responsibility, enlistment bonuses for jobs in high demand, and quick-ship bonuses if training within 30 to 60 days of enlistment.
Service members get the opportunity to travel the world, money to pay for school, the opportunity to mature and lead others, and the privilege of serving the country.
The military provides training. There’s basic training (boot camp), a 7- to 12-week program of physical and mental fitness, followed by advanced individual training specific to the designated career field. The military is a serious commitment, typically several years, and not to be taken lightly.
After serving, job opportunities for veterans depend on what they did while in the military. Possibilities include federal jobs that require a security clearance, such as intelligence analyst or FBI agent, police officer, management consultant, logistics analyst for supply chain management, defense-industry jobs, aviation or aerospace program manager, or airline pilot. Other potentially available jobs include systems analyst, systems training and development specialist, security manager, policy analyst, operations manager, computer information systems manager, mechanic, computer systems analyst, electrician, operations supervisor, and welder. (Related: Transitioning from the military)
The government’s Troops to Teachers program also helps veterans get placed as teachers in public and charter schools. And, the military provides the opportunity to get undergraduate and graduate degrees and earn professional certificates while serving. Earning a four-year college degree opens up the possibility of becoming an officer, which entails greater responsibility, but also higher pay and more benefits.
Altina Kamara joined the military when she had to leave college after three years, but said she wishes she had joined right after high school.
“Sometimes, kids right out of high school don't know what they want and end up going to college and not doing well. That's what happened to me,” Kamara said in an interview. “My grades suffered, and I knew I had to make a change.”
When she left college, Kamara said, she was back at her parents’ house with no car, no job, and no money. “I felt worthless. After joining the Army, I was getting a guaranteed paycheck biweekly, and every year when I got promoted, my pay went up.”
“After leaving the military, I had plenty of job options in the civilian world,” said Kamara, who is currently working in public relations. “Even if a service member has a job that does not directly transfer to the civilian world, such as infantry, simply being a veteran opens up doors to many opportunities. There is a vast array of military-friendly businesses that are always looking to hire veterans.”
These are just a few alternatives to college. Obviously, there are many more, like becoming an artist or joining volunteer programs, like the Peace Corps.
Whatever the path, knowing the commitments, risks, and possible outcomes is essential to figuring out which path to take.
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This article was originally published in July 2018. It has been updated.