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Alternative Education Outside the Traditional 4-Year Path

Traditions are usually good things. They wouldn’t have become traditions if they weren’t. But when times and circumstances change, sometimes it’s time for traditions to change with them. Take, for example, the traditional path to career success: attending a four-year college or university and earning a bachelor’s degree. With today’s rapidly morphing job market and ever-escalating college costs, it turns out that the traditional 4-year bachelor’s degree program isn’t the guaranteed path to success it used to be.

Fortunately, America’s educational institutions are – slowly – beginning to adjust to our brave new world. Here’s a look at some of the progress that’s been made so far in providing us with real and promising alternatives to the traditional 4-year bachelor’s degree path.

The Traditional 4-Year Degree Path Defined

Before looking at the education alternatives, we need to know what is meant by traditional. Let’s define it this way. The traditional 4-year degree path consists of:

  • Enrollment in an accredited public or private college or university;
  • Pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in a specific major that is commonly completed in four continuous year-long terms; and
  • Attendance on an actual, brick-and-mortar campus.

That’s a pretty narrow definition, but it’s one on which most people can agree. It also opens the door to a wider range of interesting options, like those listed below.

Alternatives that Lead to a Bachelor’s Degree By Way of a Non-Traditional Path

Earn your Bachelor’s Degree Online

There was a time when an online degree program was looked on as a novelty or the exclusive domain of diploma mills. Those days are gone. Today there are literally hundreds of traditional colleges and universities offering thousands of high-quality, accredited degree programs through distance learning. In most cases, in fact, a degree earned online from a traditional college is virtually identical to one earned on the school’s physical campus.

Earning a college degree online offers a number of important advantages, also. Costs are generally lower (you’ll save on room and board, transportation, etc.), you’ll have the flexibility of “attending class” on your own schedule, and most programs allow you to complete your degree at your own pace. Distance education isn’t for everyone, however. High levels of self-discipline, motivation and time management are essential to online learning success. In other words, procrastinators need not apply.

The Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree

Actually, three-year bachelor’s degree programs have been around for decades, there just weren’t a lot of them. Sharply-rising tuition costs and the 2008 recession have changed all that. Accelerated degree programs are popping up on college campuses throughout the country. For example, three-year degree programs are now offered at 13 Ohio state public universities.

You’ll earn your degree through a combination of AP or dual credits earned in high school, fuller course loads during regular terms, and by taking summer classes. The payoff? Saving room and board costs for an extra term and hitting the job market a year ahead of your peers.

The Two-and-Two Plan

Not all that untraditional. With the two-and-two plan, you complete your first two years of study at a local community college, then transfer to a traditional four-year college to complete your degree. Given the huge difference in tuitions between community and four-year schools, the costs savings are tremendous. And you’ll end up with exactly the same degree as if you attended the big campus the whole time.

Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education, or CBE, allows students to earn course credits toward a degree (or certification) based on demonstrated competency in the course subject matter. In other words, credits are awarded based on the student’s knowledge and skills rather than on time spent in a classroom listening to lectures and doing coursework.

CBE programs are becoming increasingly popular on college and university campuses because they attract older students who have been in the work force for a period of time and have gained the knowledge necessary to skip over the traditional classroom process. CBE is popular among students because it saves them time and money that would have been wasted taking courses covering subjects they already know.

Work Colleges

Technically, Work Colleges fit the traditional definition stated above, but their uniqueness qualifies their inclusion here. Work Colleges are four-year degree institutions where students work at a job as an integrated and federally required component of their degree programs. Jobs are typically located on-campus and designed to be consistent with the school’s stated mission and operational needs. There are currently eight federally-recognized Work Colleges in the U.S.: Alice Lloyd College and Berea College in Kentucky; Blackburn College in Illinois; College of the Ozarks in Missouri; Ecclesia College in Arkansas; Paul Quinn College in Texas; Sterling College in Vermont; and Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.

Alternatives that Lead to a Certificate or Degree Other than a Bachelor’s Degree

Associate Degree

With more and more employers seeking out workers with particular skills, the two-year associate degree has become a popular and practical alternative to the much more expensive and time-consuming bachelor’s degree. A strong trend in hiring associate degree holders has been in place for several years now and is holding steady. This option also offers the flexibility of earning a bachelor’s degree at a later date. Just make sure you check into credit transfer policies early on to ensure your credits count.

Career and Technical Education Programs

Career and Technical Education, also referred to as CTE, refers to education programs focused on providing students with real-world, practical and employable skills. CTE has evolved from what used to be known as vocational education, the sort of programs that in the past were taught to non-college bound high school students at trade schools. Today, CTE programs offer a combination of academic and career-specific courses that prepare students for highly-skilled, well-paying jobs.

CTE programs and courses are typically offered in middle schools and high schools, and at 2-year colleges, as well as public and private technical, trade and business schools. The Association for Career & Technical Education (ACTE) recognizes 16 “career clusters” within the larger CTE field:

  • Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources

Specific trades and career fields found among these career clusters in include construction, electrical contracting, automotive technology, plumbing, architecture, agriculture, healthcare, culinary arts, fashion design, veterinary medicine, and many others. CTE program lengths vary from a few weeks or months to two years, depending on the specific subject and program. Graduates are commonly awarded a completion certificate, diploma, or even an associate degree.

IT Certifications

If you’re currently employed or considering a career in the information technology field, you understand that employability depends heavily on your knowledge and skills regarding very specific software, computer languages and technical procedures. IT certifications are a great way to let current and potential employers know you’ve got the specific training they’re looking for. IT certifications are offered by professional associations, trade groups and, in many cases, product vendors such as Microsoft, Apple, Cisco Systems, and dozens of others.

To earn an IT certification you will choose the certification you’re interested in, complete a study program, and then register for and complete the required exam. Study programs are commonly available from the organization or vendor offering the certification. In most cases, all steps toward earning your IT certification can be done online. Costs for study programs and to take exams vary by certification.

One great advantage to IT certifications is that they can almost always be earned without any prior degree or other prerequisite.

A Few Other Possibilities


The U.S. Department of Labor describes an apprenticeship as, “… a combination of on-the-job training and related instruction in which workers learn the practical and theoretical aspects of a highly skilled occupation. Apprenticeship programs can be sponsored by individual employers, joint employer and labor groups, and/or employer associations.” Waning in popularity in America, apprenticeships are still available in a wide range of fields, including: agriculture, construction, business administration, accounting, graphic and interior design, engineering, IT, telecommunications, and many others.

The Department of Labor provides this sponsor database for apprenticeship opportunities throughout the nation.

Military Service

There was a time, not so long ago, when graduating high school meant pursuing one of three options: get a job, go to college, or join the military. The world’s a much more complicated place now, and the range of post-high school possibilities may be broader. Yet, military service remains a real and, for many, very attractive option. Benefits include housing, generous health and retirement benefits, and a salary comparable to that of most recent college graduates.

The modern military is also in need of highly-skilled workers, and in most cases they train their own, meaning you may be able to receive a valuable high-tech education totally free-of-charge. And if you do decide to leave, you will likely have earned the right to some very attractive GI-Bill and other related education benefits.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

Massive open online courses, commonly known as MOOCs, are internet-based courses of study offered (for the most part) free-of-charge, and accessible to large numbers of participants throughout the world. First appearing in the early 2000’s, the popularity of MOOCs has exploded over the last decade. There are now literally hundreds of quality MOOCs available to practically anyone with a digital device and internet connection. Many courses are offered by some of the top colleges and universities in the world, such as Harvard, Stanford, and UC Berkeley.

Trends in MOOCs include courses offering real college credits, programs leading to credentials, and even a few actual degrees like this MS in Computer Science sponsored by Georgia Tech. Don’t expect these credentialed courses and degree programs to be free, however. The Georgia Tech degree, for example, costs $7,000. Still, that’s a tremendous bargain for an actual MS degree from a major public university.

Career Education Colleges and Universities (CECU) is the national organization serving postsecondary career education schools, staff , and most importantly, our students! We are a voluntary membership organization that serves as the national voice for the for-profit higher education sector. Today, more than 600 campuses across the nation are represented through their school’s membership.

Our member schools provide skills-based education opportunities to nontraditional students, particularly veterans, working mothers, and parents, to help them open doors and secure employment in today’s workforce. These schools equip students with the career skills they need to succeed – from allied health and nursing, to mechanics, welding, culinary arts, cosmetology, truck driving, veterinary medicine and beyond!