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Options to a four-year college degree may lead to success for your student

Apr 17, 2019

Soon, juniors in high school will be rising seniors. Also rising will be their anxiety level and the pressure students and parents feel to find the perfect 4-year dream college. Maybe it does not have to be this way.

With four-year college costs ever higher and student loan debt in excess of $1.5 trillion, it’s no wonder that college enrollment has dropped 9% since 2011.  A recent study from the Strada education network and Gallup found that only 11% of employers believe colleges and universities are doing a good job of preparing graduates for the workforce.

The good news, as outlined by John Hupalo in The Hill is that less costly, skills-based alternatives to a four-year degree are becoming widely accepted.  Major employers such as IBM and Apple are hiring workers who do not hold bachelor’s degrees.  Instead they have taken an alternate path to the work force via:

  • Community Colleges
  • Technical and Trade Schools
  • Apprenticeships
  • Boot Camps

Often graduates of these programs are work-ready, without student loan debt and competing for places with four-year degree holders.   If a four-year college experience is not right for your son or daughter, one of these options may serve them best.

Community College

Widely available, accessible and affordable, community colleges around the nation provide an option for students to pursue a two-year Associates degree.   Some students build on their Associates degree to transfer to a university and complete a 4-year degree later.  If a four-year college may be in your student’s future, it is very important to plan ahead. Meet with the community college admissions officers in advance to determine how and where the Associates Degree credits will transfer. The technical term is an Articulation Agreement, which is an agreement between a community college and a four-year college, often a state school, that maps which community college classes are equivalent to the four-year college’s program.  Similar classes permit credits to transfer.

It’s also important to note that not all community college programs are the same.  A variety of options have grown to include workforce training programs and certificates in targeted industry areas including automotive technology, HVAC, and commercial energy management but also in other areas like cosmetology and esthetics. Also, be aware that certain non-degree and certificate programs offered at community colleges may not qualify for financial aid and are often paid for out-of-pocket, so take a close look while reviewing different training options available.

Technical or Trade School

Technical and Trade schools provide knowledge to develop hands-on work skills towards jobs not so easily outsourced. Programs for the skilled trade industry usually run from six months to two years, some costing as little as $2,000. The short duration of the program allows individuals to select an industry segment and focus their attention on it directly, including some of the science and technical knowledge behind the work. Individuals typically acquire the necessary certifications needed for their industry. Some schools offer additional training in soft skills and preparation for the interview process for the field they are focused on.


An apprenticeship differs from trade school in that individuals get to “earn while they learn” working under a skilled journeyman in a specific unionized profession. While apprenticeship pay may be low, the opportunity to actively learn hands on in real working situations is invaluable. As a result, some apprenticeship programs are highly competitive, so it may take much effort to locate an opportunity. Completing a program can sometimes take four or five years plus 100 to 200 hours of additional classroom instruction per year. The experience follows standards as specified by different trade unions and is highly dependent on the journeymen providing supervision.

Boot camps

A new and growing field of development is found in “boot-camps” that provide training in modernized skill sets, often utilizing new technology and intensive hands on projects.   Coding boot camps have become very popular as the need for these skilled workers increases each year. These programs can provide their students updated learning experiences needed to enter the workforce in less time without completing a traditional college degree.

Programs can vary in time length from a few weeks to twelve months. When comparing programs, students should consider the length of time required for the curriculum and the student’s personal learning abilities to find the best match that challenges personal growth. Some programs build a pipeline towards employment upon completion by connecting the students as interns in specific companies in high growth sectors. For example, the Discover Praxis program first provides a 6-month boot camp, where participants engage in group projects and workshops while also having the opportunity to work one-on-one with a personal coach. 

Once the participant has completed the six-month boot camp, they are paired with a high-growth startup. Here, they will gain work experience and expand their network while earning income full time at the startup.

While primarily focused on coding, boot camps have broadened their offerings to include other skills enabled by technology including sales, marketing and operations, to provide opportunities for a variety of trainee interest.  

For students who think a four-year college experience may not be the best fit or may not be affordable, these options hold the promise of offering the skills necessary to establish a great career. For many of us parents, this alternative may not fulfill our dream of college for our child, but it may result in a happier, better adjusted, career-ready young adult unburdened by student debt.  That’s something to think about.