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Four Year College Alternatives

For those of you with students beginning senior year, you are no doubt already looking ahead to the spring and wondering about the next steps. Part of homeschooling high school is working with your teen to determine their post-graduation plans.

For many families, traditional four-year college is still the go-to option. The value of a four-year college is increasingly being questioned, however. The rising costs of college, the student debt crisis, and the poor social environment in many colleges are leading families to reevaluate whether four-year college is right for their children. If you are concerned about these questions, this article will give you some food for thought on alternatives to four-year college.

One reason we homeschool is so we can craft a personalized education for our children. If we personalize high school education but act as though every child must attend a four-year college, we undermine a core ethos of homeschooling. The truth is that college is not right for everybody, and we ought not to think otherwise. Every student, along with his parents, needs to carefully discern whether to continue his education after high school graduation. And, if it is to be continued, what does that look like?

If your student decides that a four-year college is not for him or her, here are some other post-secondary educational options to consider:

Vocational / Trade school

A vocational or trade school is a school that trains students for particular jobs, primarily in the skilled and mechanical trades. Popular trade school programs include HVAC technician training, welding training, electrician training, truck driving classes, cosmetology, and hospitality. Trade school programs are generally brief, ranging from three months to three years (the national average trade school program takes less than two years). Students come away with an associate’s degree or professional certification.

The benefits of trade school are manifold: a shorter path to a new career, practical experience, and career counseling/job placement assistance are available through the trade school. Not to mention the incredible cost advantage: as of 2023, the average trade school education in the United States costs $17,000; the typical four-year college costs $27,000 per year (source). 

Community College

If a four-year college is not right for your student, community college might be an ideal alternative. Attending a community college for two years is a great way to reduce college education costs and avoid some student loan debt.

A community college—also known as a junior college—is a publicly funded institute offering two-year (associate) degrees. Four kinds of associate degrees are available: Associate of Arts (general education), Associate of Applied Arts (vocational training), Associate of Science (for fields such as medicine, engineering, business, and computer science), and Associate of Applied Science (more technically oriented). They also offer professional certifications in fields as diverse as hospitality management, real estate, medical coding, and automobile repair. One field where students can earn a plethora of certifications is information technology. With the rapid growth of IT, this could be ideal for students interested in computer skills.

The price is also a better deal. At a typical university, a student pays $400 to $600 or more per credit hour, which means each course will cost $1,200 to $1,800. Depending on residency status, community colleges typically charge $45 to $250 per credit hour. This means community college offers students a savings of up to $1,425 per course, a considerable cost advantage.

Another point is that community colleges usually have flexible schedules, allowing students to maintain jobs outside of class. Their local campus means students can usually commute, sparing students the expensive residency fees that come with living on campus.

Online College Courses

It may be that your child wants a four-year degree but, for various reasons, needs to stay home while working towards it. In that case, you may want to consider online college courses. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, many colleges offered flexible online alternatives to traditional in-person classes. Since Covid-19, it is easier than ever to get an education online. Online-U has a comprehensive list of online colleges; they also let you search for online colleges by program and desired degree level.

Non-School Options

Perhaps your student wants to consider non-school options for graduation. In prior generations, only a minority of high school graduates went on to college. The rest pursued non-school plans after graduation. Though college has become much more common, there are still plenty of viable non-school choices for students not inclined to pursue continued study. Your student could:

  • Take on an apprenticeship
  • Join the Military
  • Start a business
  • Sell real estate
  • Volunteer
  • Join a religious community
  • Jump right into the workforce

In case you are worried that lack of a college degree will impair your child’s ability to find work, consider that about one-quarter of college grads are currently working in jobs that don’t require a degree; millions more are working in fields not relevant to their degree. Of the thirty fields projected to grow the fastest over the next decade, only seven require a standard four-year degree. For more ideas, check out the article “Is College for Everyone? 11 Alternatives to the Traditional 4-Year College” at the excellent website Art of Manliness.

Remember, too, those who go to a four-year college lose four years of earning potential while in school. When they finish their degree program, they will likely be broke and/or in debt. Obviously, the hope is that college has prepared them to find a decent-paying job to counter-balance this. But in terms of savings, work history, building credit, and things like that, a student who has gone right to work will have the upper hand. A student who does not go to college but enters a standard three-year electrician apprenticeship out of high school will make an average of $60,000 yearly at age 21 with 75% less debt than a four-year college grad.

Taking a Gap Year

Sometimes, your graduate is not ready to decide post-high school life. Or perhaps a student would like to go to college but is not prepared due to maturity, finances, health, or other reasons. For these students, it might be best to consider a gap year; that is, take a year off from school between high school and college. Students can make excellent use of a gap year. In case you missed our recent post, “Gap Year for Homeschoolers,” check it out to learn about situations when a gap year is ideal.

During a gap year, your child can:

  • Work full time to earn money for tuition
  • Do volunteer work while discerning the future
  • Research possible careers
  • Attend school part-time
  • Travel
  • Spend some time getting acclimated to adulthood, the proverbial “spreading the wings”

A gap year can be an excellent opportunity for a young person to spread their wings, collect themselves, and prepare for the next stage of life.

When is College a Must?

I hope this article is not coming across as “anti-college” because that is not the intent. Everything has pros and cons; this article is meant to demonstrate that if your student doesn’t seem a good fit for college, that’s not necessarily a con. There are many other rewarding and financially viable alternatives to traditional four-year college.

Of course, there are situations when college is an absolute must. College training is generally mandatory if you are going into any of the STEM professions (Science, technology, engineering, mathematics). You will need college if you plan on working in the medical field as anything higher than a CMA. Additionally, some companies will not consider non-degreed candidates even for entry-level positions.


We’ve covered a lot of ground here, and hopefully, you have some things to chew on. There really are plenty of options out there for students averse to a traditional four-year college. Contemporary society has stigmatized not going to college as a sign of academic failure. As demonstrated here, that is certainly not the case. Like all things related to education, make your decisions based on what is best for your child and his or her particular strengths and interests—don’t do anything just because everybody else is doing it.

For additional help in this area, see Good Counsel Careers (GCC). GCC is a service from Homeschool Connections to help teens discern Life After High School.

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