Paying for College

4 Alternatives to a Four-Year College Degree

A traditional four-year degree isn't your only ticket to a good job with a solid salary.

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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These degrees, typically awarded after a two-year program, usually result in a career-oriented skill. Associate’s degree recipients earn about 24% more than high school graduates during their working life, reports the College Board. On average, men with an associate’s degree earn $49,000, and women earn $35,000. Popular fields include nursing, business and information technology. Police officers and business-degree holders earn some of the highest wages.

3. Take Two and Transfer

A four-year degree may eventually deliver higher earnings, but it also requires a pricey outlay for tuition, room and board if you attend a four-year residential college.

You could get your prerequisites taken care of for less at the local community college. Tuition and fees are two-thirds lower, on average, at a community college than at a four-year institution, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Spending two years at a community college could save you thousands in tuition and fees over a four-year public education; you'll save thousands more on room and board by living at home. Community colleges also offer night and weekend classes, so they are more accommodating to students who have jobs and families.

Although only about one in five community-college students transfer to a four-year college, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, those who do have a decent track record of finishing. About 60% of community-college transfers graduate within four years of making the move—in line with the six-year grad rate of students who start at a four-year public college, and twice as high as the four-year grad rate at public colleges.

4. Earn a BA Degree in Three

Although three-year degree programs have existed for decades (Bates College, a private institution in Maine, has offered one since the 1960s), increases in both public- and private-school costs have contributed to a recent surge in their popularity. Nearly 20 private schools have added three-year degrees since the economic downturn in 2008, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

With tuition and fees increasing about 3% to 5% a year for the past few years, enrolling in a three-year degree program becomes doubly beneficial: Graduating in three years lets you avoid a fourth year of college costs, and you can start earning a year sooner. The Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which looked into these degrees for the University of Wisconsin, estimates that resident students could save about $25,000 on the total cost of college by finishing a year early.

Wisconsin isn't the only state exploring accelerated degree programs. Ohio's 2012–13 budget requires public institutions to produce plans for three-year bachelor's degrees, with a goal of adding these accelerated degree options to 60% of programs by 2014.

Private school programs include that of American University, where 2011–12 tuition and fees were $38,982 per year. The Washington, D.C., university launched its three-year "Global Scholars" program in 2011. Students complete 45 college credits each year including study abroad, and graduate one year early with a BA in international studies.

If you're already nervous about hacking it in a traditional college setting, the three-year track isn't for you. "A three-year degree appeals to very highly motivated students," says Thomas Harnisch, assistant director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. You may need to squeeze in extra classes, take summer courses, or acquire college credit in high school through advanced-placement classes.

Harnisch recommends going for an accelerated degree at an institution that charges by status -- full-time versus part-time -- instead of by credit hour. With a school that charges per credit hour, you won't save much, if anything, by overloading courses.

After working in event décor, Holland found that she didn't want to cut short her education after all. She has returned to school part-time to work toward an associate's degree in business administration with the option of rolling it into a bachelor's degree later on. Although the road she's taken to higher education hasn't been the traditional one, she's still developing the skills to make it in today's labor market.

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