The 7 Best College Alternatives that Will Let You Make a Living Without Going into Debt

One of the most common questions that I get from my younger readers is this: “Should I go to college? And if so, then why should I go to college?”

The answer?

It depends…

Although college and grad school can be incredibly rewarding experiences, they aren’t for everyone.

Despite what mainstream society tells you, you don’t have to go to college and getting your MBA isn’t a requirement to running a successful business and creating financial freedom. In fact, in many cases, attending college is not the best choice from a standpoint of finances, time and experience.

I never got my MBA and (foolishly) believed that I couldn’t be financially successful without a “Masters” degree.

But today, my business generates more profit in a single month than most of my college buddies make in an entire year.

I don’t say this to brag, but rather to point out that higher education isn’t the only path to success.

Yes, college can be a great decision, and I’ll talk more about that in a moment. But it isn’t the only decision.

In this article, I’m going to help you decide whether or not you should go to college and, more importantly, what you should do instead to create the life that you want and build financial freedom.

Let’s dive in.

Is College a Good Financial Decision?

In 2018, the average cost of public in-state tuition reached more than $25,290 a year or $101,160 for a full four years.

But you must consider that only 54% of undergrads graduate within 6 years so that number can quickly rise to more than $150,000.

Our country has more than $1.48 trillion in student loans that will, in all likelihood, never be repaid–$600 billion more than the total American credit card debt–and is paying an average of $351/month on those loans.

In and of themselves, these facts actually shouldn’t be that alarming. After all, college is supposed to be an investment, right?

It can be when viewed and attended correctly (which we’ll talk about later), but when you look at the data, it’s pretty clear that the average college graduate is doing something wrong.

Only 27% of college grads have a job related to their major and more than 85% of college grads will move back home jobless after graduation… You’ll begin to wonder exactly what you’re investing in.

why should I go to college

In its current state, higher education does little to prepare students for the real world and causes them to start off their adult lives shackled to a job they don’t like out of scarcity with more than 6-figures in debt.

Not exactly the “One Way Ticket to Success” you were lead to believe, is it?

So does this mean that no one should go to college or that a college education is completely worthless?

No I am not saying that at all.

Why Should I Go to College?

Before we get into some of the alternatives to a four-year (or longer) degree, we need answer a more pressing question, “Why should I go to college in the first place and is it ever a good decision?”

There are absolutely good reasons to go to college. I am not claiming that a college degree is a bad thing or that you should not pursue higher education. In fact, my view is antithetical to this. I believe that everyone should invest in their education. The only difference is that I don’t believe everyone should invest in the current system of education we have today.

However, for those of you who are interested in a specific field that requires an academic background–like law, medicine, and any of the STEM sciences–you should absolutely attend the best university you can afford.

I also believe–although this might make me unpopular with some of you–that you should go to college if your family is offering to pay for your tuition or you have a full-ride scholarship. If you have the option to spend four years furthering your education, networking, and, more importantly, having relatively stress free time to devote to self-exploration and personal growth, for free…take it. That time will be invaluable for your later growth and success.

With all of that said…Even if you fit the above criteria, I encourage you to take some time off, if finances allow, before you attend your first year at university.

College can be an amazing experience, but most recent graduates don’t have the real-world experience they need to make the most of it. By taking a gap year, working abroad, or simply working part-time and spending your free hours reading and exploring your interests, you’ll enter into your freshman year much more confident in yourself and your selected field of study.

If you can save up some money by working over the summer, you can travel the world for pennies on the dollar.

With companies like Workaway and Helpx offering free room and board in exchange for volunteer services, you can see the world on a shoestring (or nonexistent) budget.

In the end we only regret the chances we didn’t take. ~Lewis Carrol

Go work on a vineyard in Italy, help with a conservation program in Patagonia, volunteer at a school in Africa, get out of your comfort zone and experience the real world.

Studies have found that students who take a break between high school and college to travel and volunteer report feeling more ready for college, more focused on their studies, and more prepared for the serious rigors of academia.

Heck, even the Harvard Admissions Office has begun encouraging potential candidates to take a structured year off before returning to their studies.

The benefits outweigh the costs and, whether you return to college or not, this year (or more) abroad will be one of the defining moments of your life and a true rite of passage that will better prepare you for the real world.

So now that we’ve cleared the air a bit, there are still a few more points we need to look at before you can decide if college is right for you or if you should pursue one of the alternatives I’m about to share.

Namely, the financial future of graduates and non-graduates.

But Don’t College Graduates Earn More Money? 

According to CollegeBoard, graduates will earn nearly $1,000,000 more than their peers over the lifetime of their career. In fact, on average, college graduates earn about 56% more than their peers with only a high school diploma.

But this statistic is more deceptive than you may realize when you look closer.

Most people who decide on not going to college do not do so because they have a better alternative lined up. Most of them decide to skip college either because they don’t have the grades to get accepted to a worthwhile university or simply because they don’t want to.

The study says it all:

“College graduates on average will earn 56% more than their uneducated peers”.

Yes, unmotivated college graduates will on average earn more than unmotivated high school graduates.

But why on earth would you ever want to be average?

what to do instead of college

I’ve interviewed dozens of highly successful entrepreneurs earning 7, 8, and even 9-figures who NEVER went to college (and some who didn’t even finish high school).

So sure, if you want to settle for an average life then close this article and keep listening to mainstream society.

But if you want to be exceptional?

There are plenty of alternatives to the standard four year degree.

The 7 Best College Alternatives that Will Set You Up for a Lifetime of Success and Fulfillment

1. Go All Out on Self-Education and Develop a Marketable Skill

My Editor, a 22-year old college drop out, currently earns about $120,000 a year working from his laptop.

He didn’t come from a wealthy family, he completed less than one semester at college, and he didn’t have any significant advantages when he started his career.

Yet he makes 2-3X more than the average college graduate doing nothing more than clacking away at his laptop for 50 hours a week.

Today, his network is filled with 7 and 8-figure entrepreneurs, best-selling authors, and industry leaders. He regularly gets paid to attend masterminds with big-name business owners. And he gets to set his own schedule and work on his own time.

He accomplished this success by following a very simple formula that anyone can replicate.

“Massive Self Education + A Marketable Skill = Big Money”

not going to college

The truth of the matter is that, while a college education can help you make a living, self-education can make you a fortune.

When I was in college at San Diego State, I took classes in entrepreneurship. And to my surprise, not a single one of my professors had ever started or scaled a real business. I was paying thousands of dollars a month to learn from people who had never actually practiced anything that they preached.

Meanwhile, for about $20, you can buy the book Ready, Fire, Aim by Michael Masterson, an entrepreneur who has built and sold multiple businesses over the course of his life and earned well over 9-figures in profit.

You don’t need to attend college to get a world-class education.

If you have a little bit of money set aside or can work a part-time job to cover the bills, you can spend an entire year consuming life-changing content from people who have actually been in the trenches and created the success you desire.

Self education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is. The only function of a school is to make self education easier; failing that, it does nothing. ~Isaac Asimov

Watch YouTube videos from industry leaders, buy online courses from experts who have the results you want or use a platform like SkillShare to build a marketable skill. Attend seminars by leading influencers, listen to podcasts, read the best business books of all time, or books within your niche and hire a coach to help you accelerate your success in your chosen field.

By devoting 6-12 months to developing ONE marketable skill (something like copy or ghostwriting, graphic design, sales, email marketing, or social media marketing), you can quickly become an expert in your field and command a high-salary with confidence.

If you can deliver results consistently, employers and potential clients won’t be bothered by your lack of a college degree. Your skills will speak for themselves and you’ll be able to grow your income as much as you want.

2. Apprentice Under a Successful Entrepreneur and Get Your Real World Business Degree

If you know (or even know of) a highly successful individual doing what you want to do, then send them a message right now and offer to work for them for free for the next 6 months.

Share with them everything you’re learning from the free content you’re consuming on YouTube and podcasts, to the books you’re reading, the online courses you’re taking and the seminars you attended all on your own.

Find someone who has been in the trenches for decades and achieved success at a high level and they will recognize your hustle and desire to learn. In many ways, you will remind them of their younger ambitious self.

You will learn 10X more from them than you would from any “Textbook Warrior” professor who has little real experience in the field that they are teaching.

School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.” ~Ivan Illich

By apprenticing under a successful individual, not only will you learn the ins and outs of their chosen field, but you will also pick up on the habits and mindsets that helped them achieve success and you’ll begin to assume those same habits and mindsets.

Put your head down, work your butt off and help them achieve their goals.

If you are willing to put in the effort, continue to learn then they will start to view you as an invaluable asset to their company and, in the same time it took you to get a college degree, you could be closing down deals with them, landing a business partnership, or becoming a high-level employee within their organization.

Whatever they offer you out of the gate, take it… But don’t settle.

If your mentor wants you to bring him coffee, scrub toilets, and run errands, then do it. And do the best job possible until he has no choice but to offer you a real position and a seat at the table.

Show him that you can get results and most importantly that he can trust you.

Act like a partner by hunting down potential deals, researching new ways they could improve their business, and connecting them with other power players in their field.

Own any and every position that you are given without complaining and, with enough time, you will become indispensable to their organization that you may find yourself securing a 6-figure position doing work in the field you enjoy underneath a true power player in your industry.

(Note: This is one of the ways my Editor got started. He worked for me for free for 6+ months and then worked for me for only a few hundred dollars a month before he became a full-time employee at KFM).

3. Join the Military, Develop Your Discipline, and Get Paid to Go on the Adventure of a Life Time 

Before we dive into this college alternative, I want to make something clear.

I am not encouraging you to enlist in the military in a combat role unless you are 100% certain that’s what you want to do. Quite frankly, the prospect of going overseas to “kill bad guys” doesn’t sound like a much better alternative than going to college.

what to do instead of college

However, if you live in the United States or a similar country, joining the military in the right role–preferably something in the technical or intelligence fields–can help you build your character, develop a valuable skill, and get paid while you do it.

A few benefits of military service include:

  • A competitive salary ($30-45k before benefits)
  • Free health care
  • No cost of living (you get a housing and food allowance which allows you to save money faster)
  • Tuition is paid for by Uncle Sam (so you can use this alternative to get your degree if you don’t have the financial means to attend college on your own).
  • 30 days of vacation each year
  • Highly competitive retirement benefits (even though you probably won’t retire off of those benefits, you can cash out after 20 years and have very little to worry about financially).

If you join the right branch in the right role, you can gain an invaluable technical skillset that will allow you to build a high-income career once you retire and return to normal civilian life.

More importantly, military service will help you build the character that you need to succeed later in life. You’ll develop real discipline, build your mental toughness, and understand the power of having the right team in place.

You’ll also have the added benefit of ample vacation time and days off (my friends in the military typically work three 12-16 hour shifts per week and have the rest of the week off) that will allow you to build a side hustle and invest in self-education stress-free.

While military service certainly isn’t for everyone, it is one of the most viable alternatives to college that will set you up for success later in life.

4. Go to Trade School and Tap Into America’s “Hidden” High Paying Job Market

If you want to have guaranteed employment for the foreseeable future and don’t mind getting your hands dirty (or prefer a career that doesn’t have you chained to a desk), going to a trade school or alternative college is the way to go.

In the United States, we have a surplus of job opportunities for highly skilled laborers and a deficit of workers.

Because of the negative stereotypes surrounding these so-called “blue-collar” jobs, the employment opportunities are endless and, to many people’s surprise, quite lucrative.

Individuals who are proficient in some form of skilled labor can make multiple 6-figures working less than the average office employee and have the added benefit of getting to work outside of the conventional office environment.

Depending on your interests and your willingness to take risks, you can make $50,000 to $200,000 a year immediately after graduating from a trade school.

From diving off the coasts of Mexico and repairing oil rigs to fixing helicopters to metalwork to construction, if you are intentional about education, pick a trade you genuinely enjoy, and are smart with your money, you can achieve the same financial abundance of an Ivy League graduate doing exciting work outside of the office.


5. Embrace the Struggle, Go Broke, and Pursue Your Artistic Passions Until You Succeed


There is no better time to pursue what you love than in your late teens and early 20’s. You likely have no debt, no family, and no real responsibilities. And this means that right now is the perfect time to go all out and pursue your passions.

If you want to be a writer, a painter, or some other type of creative, then go for it.

Move to a “creative friendly” city like Austin, Asheville, Seattle, or Washington D.C. Keep your overhead low, work in the service industry, and devote every free minute you have to refining your craft, networking with like-minded individuals, and building your reputation inside of your industry.

not going to college

You may be bussing tables and serving food for the next five years, but if you keep at it, you can become a professional in any creative field and make a considerable amount of money doing it.

For example, Steven Pressfield, the author of The War of Art (and one of the most successful authors of our time) spent his 20’s driving trucks across the U.S. while working on his manuscripts. His experiences as an OTC truck driver gave him the creative material he needed to “Turn Pro” and I can promise you, he would not be the successful author he is today without those experiences.

If you have a high-risk tolerance and a creative outlet that you have a high level of passion for, now is the time to pursue it.

The path ahead of you won’t be easy. You probably won’t make any “real” money for several years. And you will likely contemplate quitting more times than you care to admit.

But if you stick it out, continually hone your craft, and put yourself in the right place, you can go pro and make a fortune doing what you love.

6. Embrace Adulthood and Get a Job a High-Paying Job (that Doesn’t Require a College Degree)  

Despite what your parents have told you, you don’t need a college degree to get a high-paying job. If you aren’t interested in entrepreneurship, the military, trade school, or pursuing a career in the arts there’s nothing wrong with deciding to dive straight into the workforce while investing in your personal development and deciding on your long term aspirations.

Working full time immediately after high school will not only give you the opportunity to earn and save money so that you can further your education or start your own company in the future, but it will teach you invaluable life lessons and help you forge the character traits and discipline you need to succeed later in life.

This doesn’t mean that you have to work a minimum wage job as a barista or server either.

There are plenty of high-paying jobs available to the recent high school grad that offer competitive salaries.

With only a few months of training, you can get a job as a real estate broker, loan officer, OTC driver, or commission-based salesperson (one of the most valuable jobs you’ll ever have).

It’s important to realize that you don’t have to pick a lifelong career right now. 

Spending a few years working in the real world and developing marketable skills can provide you with the experience and insight you need to decide on your future options and make you a good living while you do it.

If you’re interested in jumping into the workforce, I recommend that you check out this article from Mr. Money Mustache on 50 jobs that pay more than $50k/year without a college degree.

7. Attend a Community College to Get Your Education on the Cheap and Create New Opportunities

Although community college might not be as prestigious as a traditional university, there are still plenty of benefits to attending, even if you don’t complete your degree at that college.

For starters, the average cost of community college is about 1/5th of a standard university. So even if you are set on attending a traditional college, you might be better off by completing your general education requirements at a community college, working to save money, and then finishing your education at a more established university (this is what I did!).

alternative colleges

Furthermore, community college allows you to refine your interests and further your education without the burden of massive student loan debt.

If you aren’t sold on any of these alternatives to college but aren’t certain what you want to study at university, attending community college for a few semesters can help you get the clarity you need before investing serious money into a degree you might not even use.

For those of you who had a “less than stellar” track record in high school, community college is your second chance. If you show up and go all-in on your education, your SAT scores and high school GPA won’t matter in the eyes of the admissions office. And if you invest in extracurricular activities and work hard to build your academic resume, you can transfer from community college into the Ivy League to get the education of a lifetime.

And, if you decide to simply graduate from community college instead of transferring to a traditional university, you will still have plenty of career options waiting for you.

In fact, with nothing more than an associates degree, you can work as an engineering technician, MRI technologist, nuclear technician or air traffic controller, making anywhere from $60,000 to $120,000 a year!

The bottom line?

Ignore the stereotypes and haters. Community college is just as viable as a traditional four-year degree if you are intentional about your education and make the most of the experience.

Where Do I Go Next?

Most people who attend college without an actionable plan (such as becoming a lawyer, getting a Ph.D. in molecular biology, or practicing medicine) do so out of fear.

They go to school because they’re hiding from the real world. Modern education is all that they know. It’s easy to show up to class 15 minutes late, take a few notes, and pass their classes while partying on the weekends.

You are told exactly what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.

But this doesn’t exactly lead to success in the real world.

Success is paid for in the trenches. It’s earned through blood, sweat, tears, and failure in the real world. It’s earned by trying new things, falling on your face, getting up, and doing it all over again.

You won’t learn how to create success and build wealth in a classroom. Only real-life experience can teach you that.

If you have your sights set on a four-year degree because you know exactly what you want to do and you need a higher education to make it happen, awesome! Go to college and make the most out of the experience. Have fun, learn what you need to learn, and then join the “real world” with the credentials you need to make your desired career work.

However, if you are considering a four-year degree simply because “it’s what everyone else is doing”, it’s time to wake up.

Get out of your comfort zone and out of the safety of modern education and get into the real world.

Most of us feel the fear and react to it. We stop doing what makes us afraid and the fear goes away. The linchpin feels the fear, acknowledges it, and then proceeds. ~Seth Godin

Try, fail, learn and repeat it all over again until you achieve the goals you’ve set for yourself.

True mastery of a subject doesn’t come from studying a textbook or listening to a professor (who’s likely never practiced what he’s teaching) lecture you for 8 hours a week.

True mastery comes from finding those who have the results you want, learning from them, taking action for yourself, failing hard, learning painful lessons then getting back up the next day to do it all over again.

It’s the result of experience, failure, perseverance that eventually leads to triumph.

Commit to mastery not just education.

Whether you go to college or not, realize that your higher education will not guarantee success and it will barely shine a candle to the value that you will derive from playing the game of life in the real world.

At this point, you have a choice.

If you aren’t going to college for a specific type of training (STEM fields), you can still choose to play it safe and do what everyone else is doing.

There’s nothing stopping you from following the socially accepted norm of signing the student loan agreement, going into debt, and hiding in your comfort zone for the next 4-8 years.

However, I strongly urge you to reconsider.

Life is truly lived and experienced on the edge of your comfort zone.

Real battles are won and lost in the trenches, not in the safety of a structured lecture hall with bathroom breaks.

So instead of following the masses, I strongly encourage you to chart your own path. Pave your own road to success. Create the life that you want and leave mediocrity to the rest of the world.

Whether you go to college or not, you have a choice to make.

A choice to take average actions and get average results or to take uncommon actions that will lead to an uncommon life of success, fulfillment, and freedom reserved for the courageous few.

I hope for your sake that you pick option number 2. Either way, play hard, get your hands dirty and do it all with pleasure.

Until next time.

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