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Eight career-building alternatives to a college education

As student loan debt continues to rise unabated, many are looking for alternatives to the traditional four-year college experience. 

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College isn't for everyone, and as U.S. student loan debt continues to rise unchecked, many would-be undergraduates are looking for alternatives to the traditional four-year college experience. 

While it may seem like a bachelor's degree is the only way to get ahead in today's competitive job market, that's not always the case. In reality, there are many well-paying and fulfilling career options out there that don't require you to pay for an expensive college degree. The problem is, these options aren't being talked about, which means that a lot of high school grads head off to college because it seems like the only thing they can do, even if their heart isn't really in it.

If you're looking for an alternative path to a fulfilling career, here are eight unconventional options you might not have considered.

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1. Try a trade or vocational school.

If you have an interest in a specific, skill-based and hands-on career, you should consider trade school in place of a four-year university program. Trade and vocational programs are usually two years instead of four, meaning you're paying two years less in tuition, and getting a two-year jump-start on your career. Skilled workers are an essential part of the worldwide economy, and these kinds of jobs are in high demand.

What kinds of careers can a trade or vocational school education train you for? Here are just a few options:

  • Mechanic -- Top U.S. trade schools for mechanics include: Lincoln College of Technology, Universal Technical Institute, University of Northwestern Ohio, Arizona Automotive Institute, WyoTech and the New England Institute of Technology.
  • Hair Stylist/Makeup Artist -- Top U.S. cosmetology schools include: AVEDA Institute, Paul Mitchell School, Recency Beauty Institute, Ogle School of Hair, Skin and Nails, Empire Beauty Schools, Hair Design School, and Xenon Academy.
  • Massage Therapist -- Top U.S. massage therapy programs include: Cortiva Institute Schools of Massage Therapy, National Holistic Institute, Bryan College, The Soma Institute and The Steiner Education Group.
  • Chef -- Top U.S. culinary schools include: The Culinary Institute of America, Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, International Culinary Schools at the Art Institutes, Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Schools, Johnson & Wales University and the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College.
  • Plumber -- Top U.S. trade schools for plumbing include: Cleveland Community College (in Shelby, NC), Atlanta Technical College, Montana State University, Macomb Community College, Saint Paul College, and New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

2. Check out apprenticeship opportunities.

Apprenticeships are making a comeback in our modern society--in a big way. This year the U.S. Department of Labor announced they will be investing $100 million "to develop innovating, high-quality registered apprenticeship programs" through their new American Apprenticeship Grants. Like a bachelor's degree, most apprenticeships take about four years to complete, but the advantage of an apprenticeship is that you're being paid from the moment you start, you're learning the ins and outs of your trade from a professional, and you're getting valuable hands-on work experience that will be very attractive to your future employers.

You can find apprenticeships for career as a: dental assistant, pharmacy support staffer, paramedic, firefighter, electrician, mine inspector, welder, carpenter, construction worker, truck driver, home care aide, painter, child care development specialist. blacksmith, and much more.

To find apprenticeship opportunities in your area, check out the DOL's database and search for your state and country here or here.

3. Join the U.S. Armed Forces.

If you're looking for some structure in your life and you want to learn self-discipline, make new friends and earn a solid living, consider signing up for the U.S. Military. You can make good money and you'll have the chance to see the world at a young age, albeit not always in the best of circumstances. Not everyone is cut out for the often nomadic life of a soldier, but many people can thrive under this kind of strict lifestyle. Plus, if you do decide you want to peruse a college education, the G.I. Bill will allow you to do that at little to no cost to yourself.

If you're thinking of joining, I recommend reading this Forbes article on the pros and cons of military life, speaking with people who have military experience, and checking out the Military's official website before signing up.

4. Work your way to the top in the industry of your choice.

Most employers value experience over anything else, so if you don't mind hard work and long hours, it's very possible to start at the bottom of the career ladder in your field of choice and work your way up to the top. Want to own a restaurant someday? Get a job as a server, a host or a bartender now. Want to see the world and make good money as a Flight Service Manager? Get an entry level flight attendant position today.

Other kinds of industries you can work your way up in without a college degree include: firefighting, retail, sales, real estate, funeral services, security, and many more. While you might start out in a low-paying position filled with grunt work, if you want to move up in the company, make sure your superiors know you're in it for the long haul. A lot of these industries have high turnover rates, so anyone who's there to stay and knows the ins and outs of the job is extremely valuable. The more dedication you show to your company, the faster you will get promoted.

5. Look into AmeriCorps positions.

If you have a passion for social justice, giving back to the community, and helping the underprivileged, you might want to check out AmeriCorps. All you need for most AmeriCorps positions is a high school diploma, and they've got placements around the country for people who want to work in many different kinds of fields, including education and tutoring, nature conservation, housing for the homeless, criminal justice advocacy, rebuilding after natural disasters, working with the elderly, and much more.

AmeriCorps workers are paid a small stipend which is usually JUST enough to live on, but if you're good at being frugal you can make it work. Another perk of AmeriCorps service is the education award: once you've completed 12 months of service, you'll be eligible to receive money for future educational endeavors. The amount of this award varies from year to year, as it's based on the changing yearly maximum amount of a Federal Pell Grant (the 2015 maximum is $5,775). If you work for AmeriCorps for more than years, you can earn up to two of these awards.

This makes AmeriCorps a great option for recent high school grads who want to pursue some kind of continuing education, but aren't exactly sure what yet. Taking a break to work with AmeriCorps between high school and college can not only substantially reduce the cost of school, but can also help you figure out what your true passions are. And even if you don't want to go to college, an AmeriCorps position will equip you with invaluable job skills, look great on your resume, and the connections you make will be priceless. I volunteered with AmeriCorps while I was in college and my boss, who at the time was living off the standard stipend and working towards her two-year education grant, ended up getting hired on full time by the non profit we worked for when her contract was up.

Head over to their website to check out all the AmeriCorps opportunities in your area of interest!

6. Teach English abroad.

You've probably got a few Facebook friends who are currently working as English teachers in some exotic and faraway land, and if you like kids, love adventure and want to see the world, why not make that your life too?

While you might assume that all of the English-teaching programs out there require a four-year degree, that's not entirely true. Some programs do prefer to hire teachers with college degrees, but many of them require only a TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) certification, which cost about $1,000-$2,500 and 100 hours of your time. That's definitely not cheap, but it's peanuts compared to the cost of a year of college.

For more information on how to get started, check out this blog post from the International TEFL Academy.

7. Start your own business.

What do Rachael Ray, Richard Branson, and Debbi Fields (of Mrs. Fields' Cookies) have in common? They're all entrepreneurs who never got a college degree. And if you have a dream, with enough hard work you could be next on this list. Small business owners are the backbone of our economy, and according to this Forbes article, since 1995 they have generated 65 percent of the net new jobs on the market.

While starting a business has never been a walk in the park, it's gotten a lot easier since the dawn of the internet age. In the past if you had a product to sell, you had to have a physical space to sell it out of, but now you can sell anything from the comfort of your own couch, as long as there are people out there who want to buy it.

Some potential business ideas? Life coaching, personal training, running an online thrift store or Etsy crafting business (for more detail on the last three check out my recent article on nine legitimate ways to make money from home), networking services, making food products (although you'll need to have your kitchen inspected by the health department before you can sell your grub to the masses), landscaping, graphic designing, launching a daycare, and literally any other product or service that people would pay you to provide them.

If you need a place to get started, check out Ramit Sethi's blog post on how to start your own business.

8. Learn to code on the cheap (or for free!) and become a website designer, SEO, programmer or developer.

As online and mobile businesses grow in number and popularity, more and more careers in site designing, SEO programming and developing are popping up. If you have the skills companies are looking for, many won't care whether you're a Harvard graduate or a high school drop out, and luckily, there are tons of places (both online and around the country) where you can learn those skills for much less than the price of a college degree--and some where you can learn 'em for free!

Brad's Deals actually partners with quite a few tech-friendly teaching organizations by hosting classes and workshopping events, having our team members teach classes, and hiring on graduates of these programs. Here are some of the places we work with:

Girl Develop It, a nonprofit organization that exists to provide affordable and judgment-free opportunities for women interested in learning web and software development. We regularly host their classes and meet-up events.

RailsBridge, an organization that started in San Francisco in 2009 with the goal of promoting diversity in the Rails development community.

The Startup Institute, an eight-week program gives students the skills, mindset and network to get a job at a startup and thrive in a new career. Brad’s Deals hosted a recent Startup Institute graduation and three members of our marketing team are instructors.

Dev Bootcamp, a short-term, immersive program for developers looking to build skills with the end goal of getting a job in development. Members of our development team mentor Dev Bootcamp students, and we’ve hired several DBC grads.

Free online coding classes can be found at sites like:

This article first appeared in Brad's Deals.

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