5 Inexpensive College Alternatives That Can Help Your Kid Get Ahead​

teen at crossroads

If you've got a high schooler at home, you probably spend many a night awake in bed wondering what will happen to them once they graduate. College, after all, is insanely expensive. Is it worth cleaning out your retirement account or saddling them with what could amount to a lifetime of debt? For a growing number of parents and kids, the answer is no.


Although the number of high school graduates applying straight to college rose steadily over decades, lately those numbers have begun to dip. In 2013 (the most recent year statistics are available), only 65.9 of high school graduates enrolled in college -- the lowest figure in 10 years, down from its peak of 70.1 percent in 2009.

So what, then, are all these high school graduates doing without a college degree? Despite what you might think, they're not all scrimping by on minimum wage at the local fast food joint. Many are pursuing educational alternatives to college that are far cheaper, more flexible, and just as engaging. In case you're curious what other educational options are out there other than college, check out this list of viable possibilities below:

Apprenticeships. Apprentices "learn on the job" by working -- and they get paid! Popular in Europe, this pursuit has long been stigmatized in the U.S. as being a low-wage, blue-collar thing, but that's increasingly not the case. Many incorporate courses at nearby colleges that can be counted toward a true college degree. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 375,000 apprentices are currently working in 19,000 registered apprenticeship programs nationwide. For more information about apprenticeships go to the Labor Department's Employment and Training Administration.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs). Just imagine the bragging rights of saying your kid's taking classes at Stanford, Princeton or MIT -- and for free of a mere $50! It's all possible thanks to MOOCs, which offer online access to video lectures as well as interactive lessons and study groups. Once you finish, you receive a certificate proving you've passed the course. The downside: with little money on the line, it's easy to slack off, with course completion rates hovering around an abysmal 10 percent. Still, if your kids are dedicated and disciplined, it's a wealth of wisdom easily accessed from the comfort of their laptop. For a full list of participating universities go to MOOC List.

Low-cost accredited online courses. If your teen wants to take college courses with transferable credits in case he decides to pursue a degree later, there's a way to do that too -- by taking college courses online. StraighterLine, for instance, offers a full freshman year of courses for just $1,299, a fraction of what you’d pay at almost any university. Eighty "partner colleges" as well as 500 other colleges accept these credits, so there are plenty of places kids can go from there.

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Programs that teach a particular skill -- like programming. Got a computer geek in the house? Then you're in luck: 36 percent of employees in the tech industry don't have a college degree. If you can program computers or iPhone apps and do it well, that's all companies like Google need to hear to get you hired! And many courses can show you the ropes for about a hundred bucks, like the Treehouse (for online courses) or Hacker School (for offline courses).

Gap year. This is where you defer on college for a year or longer to join the work force and make money, learn a foreign language in a foreign country, get some "real world experience." Some places, like Uncollege, have turned this gap year into a fully-fledged curriculum, where you start out traveling, then join a residential program at a "Gap Year House," followed by an internship and a final project. It can help to have some guidance or a concrete plan; from there, they may decide to attend college, get a job, or pursue a whole different path.

Which alternatives to college sound appealing to you, or your kids?


Image © Werner Dieterich/Westend61/Corbis

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