Alternatives to a 4-Year College: What to Know

Worthwhile alternatives to a bachelor’s degree include associate degrees, certificates and apprenticeships.


AS THE CORONAVIRUS pandemic rages, battering an already weakened economy, an anomaly in higher education is playing out: Enrollment is down despite soaring unemployment in the U.S.

“Usually when the economy is down, we see enrollment go up, especially at community colleges,” says Andrew Hanson, director of research at the nonprofit Strada Education Network. “That hasn’t happened so far.”

Compared with last fall, undergraduate postsecondary enrollment is down 4%, according to figures from the National Student Clearinghouse. That decline is greatest for first-time students, slipping by 16.1% nationwide. For first-time students enrolling in community colleges, the drop is even greater: 22.7%.

Given economic uncertainty, public polling suggests that many Americans are looking to learn new skills to advance in or start a new career, which will likely require an education. The same is true for high school graduates looking to get their start in the workforce and land a lucrative job that can turn into a career.

Alisha Hyslop, senior director of public policy at the nonprofit Association for Career & Technical Education, encourages students to think about the educational and work experiences needed to reach career goals.

“I think the most important piece of information that students can discern is, what they think they want to do next and then matching that educational experience that will help them get there,” Hyslop says.

The four-year college experience can be transformative for many students, helping them discover who they are and opening the door to a lucrative career. But a four-year degree isn’t for everyone. Consider these alternatives.

Community College: Earn a Certificate or Associate Degree

Experts see community college as a low-cost option that can help students with career exploration. Community colleges are typically less expensive than four-year universities and allow students to earn credentials in less time. While a bachelor’s degree is mapped out over four years, students can earn an associate degree in two.

But an associate degree in two years isn’t the only option or timeline at community college, where other credentials are abundant. Students can also earn certificates through programs lasting months or weeks.

A shorter timeline may make these options especially attractive to older learners.

To help understand the challenges of the pandemic relative to education, the Strada Education Network Center for Consumer Insights launched Public Viewpoint, a set of ongoing surveys polling Americans on education issues. Among findings across various surveys are that 14% of Americans planned to cancel education plans due to the coronavirus and that there is an increased interest in attending college online, going to a community college or enrolling in a trade school.

Findings indicate fear over potential unemployment, with 41% of respondents feeling they need more education to replace their job should they lose it and another 37% considering a career change should they end up without work.

“What we found is that for older learners and workers it becomes increasingly important that the program is shorter term, that it’s streamlined, relevant, that it’s applied,” Hanson says. “They want a program that’s going to take them to that next step, they’ve got a specific goal in mind in most cases, and they just want the skills.”

Hyslop encourages adult learners to consider “stackable credentials.” These short-term programs may help adult learners find a job quickly but also can be built upon, which can help workers move up in their career field.

Amy Loyd, vice president of programs at nonprofit Jobs for the Future, says that students need to be aware that educational options below the bachelor’s degree level can be engaging, valuable and rewarding.

“When someone says college, people immediately think of four-year institutions, without recognizing that our two-year institutions are also colleges, and there’s a whole array of postsecondary education options – such as industry credentials and apprenticeships – that provide powerful, career-connected learning,” Loyd wrote in an email.

Attending community college tends to pay off. Workers with only a high school diploma had median weekly earnings of $746 in 2019 while those with an associate degree brought in $887, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce also found that “27% of workers with an associate’s degree earn more than the median for workers with a bachelor’s degree.”

The chosen subject also matters. A bachelor’s degree in social work, for example, typically won’t pay the same as one in engineering.

Get a Crash Course at a Coding Boot Camp

Attending a coding boot camp is another short-term option for students looking to develop a specific skill set. The options are abundant. There are more than 500 coding boot camps to choose from globally between online and in-person models, according to Course Report, a website that tracks the industry.

Depending on what is being taught, the length of coding boot camps can range from six to 28 weeks, with the average running 12 weeks long, per Course Report. The website identifies a starting salary of $67,000 for boot camp graduates. Average boot camp costs land around $13,500, and price can be a barrier for some students.

“Those kinds of programs typically aren’t eligible for federal financial aid, and there are major gaps in financing structures to serve students in those programs,” Loyd says. “Without new financing options, individuals needing new skills will be left behind as the world evolves – and low-income individuals and people of color are at most risk.”

Earn and Learn With an Apprenticeship

An apprenticeship can be thought of as a paid learning experience.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “apprenticeship opportunities are offered through an employer or the program sponsor.” An apprentice works in a role in his or her chosen field, which offers the opportunity to learn on the job, possibly receive classroom instruction and study under a mentor during employment.

“Apprenticeships are a valuable and beneficial option for students post-high school because they provide education and training – and in many cases, a college degree in the process of that apprenticeship – and also a paid work experience, which is vital for many students, especially in this economy,” Hyslop says.

Deciding Between Alternatives to College

Experts encourage students to start planning for their future early.

“Students shouldn’t wait until their last years of high school to consider their next moves,” Loyd says. “Our K-12 system does not adequately provide our young people with career information, advising, and navigation supports. Students and their families should start considering what’s next in middle grades or even earlier.”

She adds: “College is a very expensive career exploration program.”

Knowing the pathway to a career can help students make the choice that is best for them. Experts urge high school students and adult learners alike to identify the credentials needed to reach their career goals.

But they say prospective students should also take a hard look at the quality of the programs they are interested in by checking out graduation rates, job placement data and earnings for those who have completed the credential.

Hyslop encourages applicants to look at the student supports built into a program.

“Is there academic and career counseling? Are there opportunities for students to go out into the community and practice their skills? Is there help with resumes and the job search?” Hyslop recommends asking. “Is there a place that’s going to actually help students transition through the educational pathway and then into the workforce?”

Students should also think about how to pay for their education. Is there federal financial aid available? Other outlets for funding may include state workforce development grants or employer tuition assistance programs.

Program needs will vary as much as career goals. Some careers, students should recognize, are almost certain to require a bachelor’s degree while others offer various entry points.

“It’s hard to find a single recipe that’s going to work for everybody,” Hanson says.

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