4 cheaper alternatives to attending a 4-year college

Avoid taking on so much debt and jumpstart your career before your peers.

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Tuition alone at a four-year school costs students an average of $96,466 for all four years of study. If you have a vision for yourself that doesn’t necessarily require a four-year degree, going into debt for school might not be the best choice. Before applying to schools or signing off on student loans, you might want to consider these alternatives first.

Alternative 1: Go to trade school

  • Average trade school cost: $33,000
  • Potential savings: $63,466

Vocational programs cost less, are typically much shorter than a bachelor’s degree program and can land you in a career soon after graduation. In fact, some programs like coding boot camps will refund all or part of your tuition if you don’t get a job. With less of a financial and time commitment, it’s less of a loss if you decide to switch paths down the line.

Many programs cost as little as $1,000, though it varies depending on where you live and the type of program you’re interested in.

How can I pay for trade school?

If you can’t afford the tuition out of pocket, consider one of these options to pay for trade school:

  • Federal student aid. Many vocational programs are eligible for federal student aid as long as they’re at a nonprofit institution.
  • Private student loans. Some private student loan providers like Climb also specialize in financing for skills-based programs that typically don’t qualify for student loans.
  • Personal loans. If your program isn’t eligible for federal or private loans, a personal loan might cover the cost. However, you might need to apply with a cosigner if you don’t have a few years of credit history under your belt.

Alternative 2: Go to community college

  • Average two-year community college degree cost: $7,140
  • Potential savings: $89,326

Going to college generally ups your earning potential. Even getting an associate’s degree from a community college can increase your average salary by around $6,000, according to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). This could be a good option if you need some time to decide on your career without committing to a four-year program.

How can I pay for community college?

Consider one of these options to help cover the cost of your two-year degree:

  • Federal student aid. Nonprofit community colleges are generally eligible for federal student aid, such as loans, grants and work-study. But you’ll have to be enrolled at least half time to qualify.
  • Grants and scholarships. Some private organizations offer grants and scholarships that community college students can apply for to cover all or part of your tuition. These are typically based on merit or financial need.
  • Private student loans. If you’re ineligible for federal aid, many private lenders also work with community colleges — though not all. You also typically need to be enrolled at least half time to qualify.
  • Personal loans. Plan on working full time while you take classes? A personal loan could help cover the cost of courses if you’re ineligible for federal or private aid.

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Alternative 3: Get your real estate license

  • Typical cost of a prelicensing course: $ 100 to $800
  • Typical savings: $95,666 to $96,366

Natural salespeople might want to consider going into real estate. Rather than spending four years in school, to become an agent, you need to take a prelicensing course, pass an exam and file a license application. How much you pay for your prelicensing course and exam depends on where you live. And if you move, you might need to become licensed again. Once you get your license, you might be required to work with a broker for the first few years of your new career, though laws vary by state.

How can I finance a real estate prelicensing course?

You have two main options to help cover the upfront cost of becoming a real estate agent:

  • Payment plans. Many real estate prelicensing courses come with payment plans that break up the cost of more expensive courses into several installments.
  • Personal loans. It might be worth investing in a personal loan if your course costs over $1,000. Bring on a cosigner if you’re unemployed — you need to show you have a source of income to qualify.

Alternative 4: Start a business

  • Typical cost to start a new business: $31,150
  • Typical savings: $65,316

Got a business idea? You might want to jump in right away instead of going to B-school. How much it costs to start a business varies widely depending on the industry, location and nature of it — you could run a website out of your apartment for as little as a few thousand dollars. Even if your first business idea fails, it could propel you into the job market and teach you the skills you need to succeed in your future career.

How can I finance a new business?

You don’t necessarily have to pay out of pocket for your new business. As a first-time entrepreneur, you might want to explore these options:

  • Grants. Several organizations and businesses offer free funding to startups — especially if you’re a veteran or member of an underrepresented group.
  • Equity crowdfunding. Find investors to trade partial ownership for startup funding by pitching your idea to a crowdfunding platform.
  • Startup loans. Though most business lenders only work with businesses that’ve been around for a few years, some are willing to work with entrepreneurs. However, since startups are risky, these loans tend to come with less competitive rates.
  • Microloans. Another option available to startups are small-dollar loans from organizations like Kiva. These typically have more competitive rates and terms than your typical startup loan.
  • Credit cards. A credit card in your name or your business’s name is an easy way to cover day-to-day expenses your budget can’t afford up front.

How to fund a startup

Case study: Zak’s experience

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Zak Ali
Assistant Publisher

After high school, I opted for a gap year to figure out what I wanted to do for a career, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions for me financially. However, the decision to not go to college — while the rest of my peers seemed to be advancing in life — wasn’t one I made lightly.

Ultimately, it came down to me asking myself two questions: “Did it make sense for me to take on high-priced student loan debt when I still didn’t know what my passion was?” and “When I eventually did find my passion, would a college degree be necessary to fulfill it?” Once I got serious about those two questions the rest fell into place.

Perhaps the greatest perk of starting a business rather than pursue higher education was that if I was successful, I’d be paying myself to learn instead of it being the other way around.

What’s more, because of the real-time experience I was able to garner, job prospects in the field became easier to obtain. While I did end up transitioning back into the workforce, I always laugh when my peers ask me where I went to school.

Bottom line

Going to college might have its advantages, but it isn’t the only way to successfully start your career. If you have an idea of what you want to do, training for that career — or even jumping right in — could be a better fit.

Still not sure? You can learn more about how to fund your education with our guide to student loans.

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