How a Non-Traditional Education Pathway Can Set You Up for Career Success

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Attending four years of high school followed by four years of college has become the expected education trajectory, but there are alternative education pathways you can take that can also lead you to career success. Depending on your career goals and the alternative educational opportunities available to you, you may want to consider these non-traditional education options if you don’t think getting a high school diploma and/or college degree is the best path for you.

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Start Earning College Credits in High School

If you don’t want to attend four years of college — either for financial reasons or you want to get started on your career journey sooner — you may want to look into programs that enable you to begin earning college credits in high school.

“Students should consider taking early college classes for various reasons,” said Jonathan Broder, co-founder of the test prep resource Digital Vaults. “Depending on your aim, you can either earn credit, learn something new or see if you’re a fit for college. If you take college classes early, you will earn that credit early on, which gives you a headstart. You’re ahead, so you’re saving time and money. Not only that, but you’ll learn something new, [which can give you] a clearer idea of what path you may want to take. And if you did well with your advanced class, you’ll see if college is the right path for you. Earning a credit early on allows you to have more options in what you want to do after high school.”

Make Your Money Work for You

Earning college credits in high school is also a smart idea for those who don’t plan to attend college at all.

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“For a variety of reasons, many students cannot or choose not to pursue a college degree upon graduating from high school,” said Dr. Rob Reynolds, an education expert at TEL Education. “For these students, having completed some college courses by the time they graduate can help them be more competitive in the marketplace, as well as improve their chances for professional success by helping them develop higher-order thinking skills.”

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Consider Community College

There are a number of advantages of enrolling in a community college instead of a traditional four-year college or university.

“Cost is a huge benefit of attending a community college versus a university,” said Andrea B. Clement, a career consultant at CareerCollateral.com.

On average, when you account for the credits themselves, plus books and room and board if applicable, a two-year degree costs less than a third of what a four-year degree costs, Clement said. And there are other benefits that go beyond the financial.

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“Classes at a community college are typically a bit smaller, so if you learn more easily in a setting where the ratio of teachers to students is higher, community college would be a better option for you,” Clement said. In addition, “community colleges are typically ‘commuter schools’ — they are based in your community, so they don’t require you to move away from home, and you save a lot of money on room and board. And most of these schools have really active career placement centers and connections with local employers to help place you right into a lucrative job upon completing your program.”

It’s also a good option for those who would need to work or have caregiving responsibilities.

“Community colleges tend to be more flexible with class schedules and times (usually offering quite a few online class options as well), making it a more advantageous route for a student who is also perhaps working a job part or full-time, or taking care of family members or kids,” said Ayden Berkey co-founder of the college resource platform Access Scholarships.

Make Your Money Work for You

Even if you do want to get a four-year degree, you might consider starting at a community college first.

“Starting at a two-year community college is an excellent idea,” said Phil Ollenberg, a higher education industry expert and assistant registrar at Bow Valley College. “That way, even if you stop after two years, you still have a credential (an associate’s degree) rather than nothing if you went directly into a bachelor’s degree. And community colleges invest a lot of time and effort into making sure their associate’s degrees transfer into four-year degrees at other schools.”

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Attend Trade School Instead

For some career paths, it’s better to attend trade school than a four-year college.

“Sometimes, you might feel like you’ll get more options with a trade school degree,” Broder said. “It depends on what path you want to take. With a trade school degree, you can be a mechanic, technician, graphic designer or even a criminal investigator. When you go into more specifics, you’ll have more options with a trade school degree.”

There are also healthcare careers you can get by completing a one- or two-year trade school or vocational program, including surgical tech, dental assistant and physical therapy assistant.

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“[Healthcare jobs] pay really well, and the other great thing about them is that they are always hiring — there are always jobs available,” Clement said. “Healthcare jobs offer great job security.”

Get a GED

Some jobs only require a high school degree or the equivalent, in which case a GED will qualify you for these roles.

“Some careers that don’t require a traditional four-year course include flight attendant, real-estate agent, customer service representative and police officer, among others,” Broder said. “There are many desirable careers that don’t need higher education because you’ll be learning on the job itself.”

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Last updated: Aug. 10, 2021

About the Author

Gabrielle joined GOBankingRates in 2017 and brings with her a decade of experience in the journalism industry. Before joining the team, she was a staff writer-reporter for People Magazine and People.com. Her work has also appeared on E! Online, Us Weekly, Patch, Sweety High and Discover Los Angeles, and she has been featured on “Good Morning America” as a celebrity news expert. 

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