Smart Alternatives to a Traditional 4-Year College Degree

is college worth the money

The average cost for a four-year college degree is almost $23,000 per year, and it increases by an average of 3-4% per year. That means in 2027, the average tuition cost will be more like $33,000 a year. How can I pay for this? And most importantly, what value does it really have?

The average college graduate has an average of $25,000 in student loans. And the amount of student loan debt has recently passed $1 trillion, surpassing the nation’s total credit card debt. Nearly half of student loans are currently in deferment or default. All while our government plans to rake in $184 billion in profit from student loans this year. Given that more than half of college graduates under 25 are either unemployed or underemployed, does it make sense to steer my son toward a 4-year degree?

I do think a four-year degree offers value. I work in an industry that rarely considers those without at least a Bachelors degree. But given the current college graduate unemployed or underemployment rate, I can clearly see that many soft degrees (ex. Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology, etc.) are useless without their advanced degree equivalents. Many students simply stay in college and continue to accumulate additional degrees, and debt, rather than deal with their slim job prospects.

I’m already thinking about smarter alternatives to traditional educational outlets for my son. Of course, what road we take will ultimately depend upon his interests and aptitude. But I thought it would make sense to find some alternative routes to the traditional 4-year degree.

Alternative Educational Programs for Would-Be Developers:

For right-brained individuals — those good in the math and sciences, there are programs that specialize in training Web developers like Dev Camp. These programs often run 19-weeks and will provide better hands-on training as compared to many 4-year degree programs, and for a fraction of the price. Finding developers is actually quite difficult for employers, so they will often recruit Junior Developers from these types of programs. These programs are typically about 20-weeks long, and offer enhanced group learning and mentorship. Junior developers can start off making as much as $90k per year, depending upon their location.

Another Dev Boot Camp is the Education Hackerhouse which handpicks 8 applicants each term who are interested in programming. The selected “cadets” receive free tuition, housing, and credits from the University of Florida College of Engineering. Students will live and learn with 8 mentors, and actively work toward developing their own start-up. Hackerhouse retains 10% equity in each student’s start-up.


Four Stanford University professors decided to bring free education to the masses online. They started MOOCS or Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCS aren’t typically degree-deferring programs, although some programs offer certification, or in the case of one MOOC- Udacity, nanodegrees. Some of these MOOCS are free to participate in, although certification usually requires a fee.

There four popular MOOCS: Coursera, CS50, Udacity, and EdX. They offer courses in a variety of subjects including Advanced Chemistry, Risk Management, Full Stack Web and iOS Development, Foreign Language, Music and Film, and Biology and Earth Sciences. All courses are taught by professors from major universities such as John Hopkins and Columbia. The MOOC – CS50 is part of Harvard.

Those entering MOOCS must be highly-motivated individuals, as the experience is highly-impersonal. And students will not receive external motivation from teachers or other students. MOOCS are great for individuals looking to enhance current skillsets, or those that have a high-aptitude for entrepreneurship.

I think I’ll make my son spend is summers enrolled in MOOCS during his high school years, just as extra preparation.

Traditional Trade Programs that Pay Off:

Another certification that is worthwhile is trucking school. Not glamorous, but a worthwhile endeavor. Truckers can make six-figures after just a few years of experience. In addition to truck driving, other worthwhile trades include plumbing (especially today for plumbers in Sydney’s eastern suburbs), welding, and nursing.

Free Colleges and Universities:

There are a number of colleges in the U.S. that are tuition-free. Many of them require some service in exchange for free tuition, but that service is incomparable to the amount of money students save.

Deep Springs College in Death Valley, CA offers free tuition and room and board to its male students. The college was founded in 1917 on the three pillars of academics, labor and self-governance. Twenty-six male students are selected from a pool of applicants every term, and must make a two-year commitment to the program. After which, male students transition to a traditional four-year program.

Other tuition-free colleges include:

  • College of the Ozarks in Missouri: Students are required to work on-campus 15 hours per week, plus two 40-hour work weeks. The college does charge for room and board which can be covered through the Pell grant and other Federal aid.
  • United States Military Academy in West Point, New York offers free tuition to students, also known as cadets. Students are required to serve in the military after graduation, and must play on a sports team each semester.
  • United States Naval Academy in Annapolis offers free tuition in exchange for service in the Navy after graduation.
  • United States Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut is also tuition-free to cadets.
  • United States Air Force Academy in Colorado offers free tuition in exchange for post-graduation service in the Air Force.
  • United States Merchant Marine Academy in New York is tuition-free in exchange for post-graduation military service. One neat thing about this college, is students spend a year at sea visiting many countries aboard a sea vessel.
  • Webb Institute in New York offers free tuition only; room and board is not covered. Webb offers only one degree program, a dual bachelor’s degree in marine engineering and naval architecture.
  • Berea College in Kentucky: Tuition is free but students must work at least 10-hours on campus. Students will also need to cover their own room and board.
  • Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia provides full-tuition scholarships to all of it’s students. House and other expenses are not covered.
  • Alice Lloyd College in Kentucky offers free tuition to those living in the Central Appalachian region. Students must take jobs through the student work program.

Junior College Route:

Junior college is a smart alternative for kids that have unclear goals or an unproven academic track record. A two-year university will allow them to get some focus while preparing for a four-year; it is also much cheaper.

A two-year degree is also a smart alternative for students that have done well in high school. It’s makes more financial sense to take your general education classes at a two-year than a four-year. Students can always do the “switch,” or defer their enrollment to a four-year for one year while completing their general education coursework at a local junior college. Most four-year colleges will allow you to defer enrollment for up to one year.

There are also two-year degree programs that can result in certifications in high-demand fields like nursing. Many two-years offer trade programs from companies like Piscataway Real Estate to prepare students for careers in HVAC, car maintenance, real estate, or plumbing. These careers are often better paid than the entry-level jobs garnered by bachelors degree holders.

Entrepreneurial Fellowships:

There is an “uncollege movement” growing in America that supports training and entrepreneurship over traditional four-year fluff degrees. Entreprenuer Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal and funder of Facebook, started the Thiel Fellowship which encourages students to drop-out of college and drop-into their own business. Thiel awards $100,000 in cash to start-ups he believes in.

Most people would respond favorably to running their own business, but most don’t have a sound business background. Any student considering this route should first work within the industry they will compete in, and have a foundation in accounting, marketing, and management.



Brandy - The Mother

Hi, I am Brandy and I am "the mother." I enjoy being a mother, friend, and playmate to my son.

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  1. January 1, 2015

    […] Smart Alternatives to a Traditional 4-Year College Degree […]

  2. August 28, 2015

    […] Smart Alternatives to a Traditional 4-Year College Degree […]

  3. April 2, 2016

    […] Smart Alternatives to a Traditional 4-Year College Degree […]

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