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Paying for College

4 Alternatives to a Four-Year College Degree

Lise Metzger

Jo Holland, 22, earned a certificate in event management and scored a job at an event-decor company, where she handles social media and designs party props and furniture.

It doesn't take a math major to see that something isn't adding up when it comes to conventional four-year bachelor's degrees.

Public-college costs have skyrocketed over the past five years, bringing the total average annual price of an in-state education to $17,860, according to the College Board. Private-college costs are even more alarming, approaching $40,000 a year. Students who have borrowed to pay those prices are entering into the workforce with an average of $26,600 in student debt, and many are carrying much more.

SEE OUR SLIDE SHOW: 10 Best Jobs You Can Get Without a College Degree

More bad news: The unemployment rate for bachelor's degree recipients between the ages of 20 and 24 is 5.9%, lower than the national unemployment rate but a discouraging statistic for those who assumed a degree would result in an immediate paycheck. With the costs high and the return uncertain, not a few parents and policymakers are asking whether a four-year college degree is worth the time and the cost.


But the prospects for someone entering the labor market sans a bachelor's degree are far worse. The unemployment rate for recent high school grads is a whopping 27%, and career options are disappearing fast. Nearly four of every five jobs destroyed in the recession were held by workers with a high school diploma or no diploma at all. The lifetime earnings for a bachelor's recipient are about $1 million more than for a high school graduate.

By 2020, the percentage of jobs that don't demand a post–high school credential will shrink to 36%, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "Employers are requiring more education at the entry level," says Andrew Hanson, an analyst for the center. "They won't accept you if you don't have some sort of postsecondary credential or award."

So where does the high school graduate with no desire to attend Flagship U and even less desire to flip burgers end up? That's what Jo Holland wondered when she graduated from high school without "the urge to go to college like all my peers," she says. Holland worked at a hostel in Chile before enrolling in college-level Spanish courses in England. She was unmotivated by her coursework and returned home to the Washington, D.C., area without a degree. Then she found an event-management course at a local for-profit college. The coursework appealed to her artistic sensibilities and, at $275 per class, it was reasonably priced. Holland completed her classes in less than five months and landed a gig at a local event-décor company.

If, like Holland, you are looking for an alternative to the traditional four-year degree at a residential college, you can find certificate or degree programs that will get you into the working world faster, cheaper or both.

1. Pick Up a Certificate

Almost 30 million jobs in the U.S. pay $35,000 or more and don't require a bachelor's degree, according to the Georgetown center. But that doesn't mean your education can stop after high school. Most middle-wage jobs -- $35,000 to $75,000 a year -- in fields with increasing demand, such as health care, information technology and public services, require some form of post–high school certification.

Professional certification is an affordable way to increase your employment potential or enhance your value to employers once you are on the job. And the earnings boost a certificate provides isn't anything to scoff at. In fact, more than one-fourth of those holding postsecondary licenses or certificates earn more than the average bachelor's degree recipient, according to Harvard University's 2011 "Pathways to Prosperity" report. Says Hanson, "It's increasingly becoming a matter of which occupations or industries you go into as opposed to, say, level of education."

You can find certification programs through community colleges, for-profit schools or corporate programs; they'll vary in price, length of study and academic prerequisites. For instance, becoming a certified nursing assistant typically requires coursework at a community college plus clinical hours at a health facility and a passing score on a certifying exam. To earn an information-technology certificate from the Microsoft IT Academy (one of a number of industry-related certifying programs), for example, you'd complete Microsoft-approved classes at an educational institution, such as a community college, then take exams that test your proficiency with Microsoft products. (See information on the Microsoft program.)

Jay Soelberg, a 20-year veteran of the IT industry, is earning a cer­tificate to buff his career credentials after recently losing his job. He is working his way independently through a Cisco Networking certi­fication. Even though he's found another position, losing his job persuaded Soelberg to add a specialty to his résumé. He passed his first test in October and is working toward his second. Because he chose to study independently, instead of through classes, his costs are minimal. So far, he has spent only about $800 on books, videos and testing fees. He says of the certificate, "It shows an employer that I can hit the ground running instead of needing a mentor."

2. Get an Associate's Degree

Holders of associate's degrees are in increasing demand in today's workforce. In fact, employers are planning to hire one-third more associate's degree earners this year than last, according to Michigan State University's 2012–2013 "Recruiting Trends." That will far exceed the increase in demand for bachelor's degree holders.

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