As Hollywood depicts it, college means manicured quadrangles, massive fraternity houses and rowdy tailgate parties.
In reality, those quintessential university experiences aren’t as common as pop culture suggests. Of undergraduate students, only about 60% attend four-year schools, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. The other 40% attend two-year or shorter programs at community colleges and trade schools, and a small but growing number skip college — and student debt — in favor of apprenticeships.
As these nine students show, there’s no “right” way to do higher education. The best path is the option that makes sense for your work schedule, family life, career aspirations and wallet.
1. Starting out as an electrician, debt-free
Name: Jordan Scheier, age 20
School: Mitchell Technical Institute in Mitchell, South Dakota
Program: Associate of applied science degree in electrical construction and maintenance
Scheier will graduate debt-free in May thanks to the Build Dakota scholarship, which offers full rides for students in technical programs. In return, graduates must work in a high-need occupation in South Dakota for three years.
Scheier expects to earn a salary of about $50,000 a year as an apprentice electrician, and he’s already getting recruiting calls. While he knows a four-year degree at a public or private college is the right move for some, he’s happy with his choice.
“Some people, they thrive in that environment. But some people would rather come here, get their hands dirty, do two years of hard school and get out making good money with little to no debt, if they’re smart about it.”
2. Looking to a future in finance much different from his past
Name: Frank Melo, age 21
School: Bunker Hill Community College in Boston
Program: Associate of science in finance option
Attending community college is a reset for Melo, who just one year ago was serving a prison sentence on drug-related charges. After release, he began attending College Bound Dorchester, a nonprofit in Boston that aims to combat poverty through education.
Melo was chosen as part of the nonprofit’s Boston Uncornered Initiative to receive a weekly $400 stipend to attend college. That stipend helps keeps Melo afloat financially and “out of trouble,” he says.
Melo ultimately wants to become an investor and says he wishes he’d started school earlier.
“I felt like community college wasn’t enough, but now me seeing this — it’s everything,” he says.
3. Earning for — not paying for — education
Name: Erin Lakenen, age 23
Organization: International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 906 in Marquette, Michigan
Program: Electrical apprenticeship
Apprenticeships are paid training programs in which students learn from a combination of on-the-job experience and classroom instruction. Lakenen has one day of class every other week, but mostly learns by working alongside experienced journeymen.
“I’m in mills, mines, powerhouses,” she says. “You have to be the type that’s willing to go to work in your steel-toe boots every day and get dirty and work long hours.”
Instead of taking on debt for college, Lakenen has been earning a paycheck since day one. The average starting apprentice earns $15 an hour, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Apprentices’ wages increase incrementally as they develop skills.
4. Replacing negative school experiences with positive
Name: Menachem “Mendy” Green, age 21
School: Rockland Community College, State University of New York in Suffern, New York
Program: Associate degree in business management
After leaving the yeshiva system of private traditional schools when he was 16, Green was able to earn his high school equivalency through a 24-credit program at the college.
Working hard to be successful as a community college student has boosted Green’s morale after having largely negative classroom experiences in the past.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I am capable when I set my mind to things,” Green says. “Not because someone told me to do it, but because I’m choosing to do it. I’m motivated to give my everything.”
5. Fitting a dental hygiene career to life goals
Name: Maddie Funk, age 22
School: Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield, Missouri
Program: Associate of applied science degree in dental hygiene
Funk has been interested in this career since high school, she says. “I wanted a job that I was going to be able to have a family and have good hours.”
She didn’t have the “classic” college experience of living in a dorm room and rooting for the university football team, but she’s OK with that.
“I like being able to have a teacher who knows my name,” she says. “I like the smaller class sizes. I didn’t really feel the need to live on campus and get that type of experience.”
6. Adapting learning to his life
Name: Thomas Roy, age 24
School: Rutgers University online
Program: Bachelor of arts in labor studies and employment relations
Roy chose an online program because of his physical condition, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which limits his ability to communicate or participate in a conventional classroom.
“There have been many challenges related to DMD but technology has made it possible for me to study at home,” says Roy, who uses speech-to-text software to participate in group forums with his class.
He takes courses part-time, so financing is affordable for his parents and he didn’t have to take student loans. His schedule also enables him to work toward a degree at his own pace.
7. Studying business while raising four kids solo
Name: Elisa Magagna, age 34
School: Online-only Western Governors University
Program: Bachelor of science in business management
Magagna went back to school at 31 to get her bachelor’s degree — while raising four kids on her own and working full-time. After graduating, her salary as an office manager increased by about $8 an hour.
She says it wasn’t always easy to keep up with online, self-directed classes while juggling family responsibilities. She credits Western Governors University’s mentor system, which paired her with a single faculty mentor throughout the duration of the program, for helping her complete her degree.
“I almost felt like I didn’t give up because I wanted her to see that I could finish it,” she says.
8. Balancing nursing with learning
Name: Christopher Banks, age 42
School: Arizona State University Online
Program: Bachelor of science in nursing
A former high school dropout, Banks previously earned a high school equivalency and holds a paramedic certificate and associate degree in nursing. He’s on track to earn his bachelor’s degree this spring.
For his bachelor’s, he needed a program that was portable, flexible and affordable to match his busy schedule as an on-call flight nurse in Arizona. An online degree program allows Banks to do it all.
“I have that flexibility in not having to make sure I have time off in order to attend a Monday-Wednesday-Friday class,” Banks says.
Banks, who loves travel, hopes to become a family nurse practitioner in foreign embassies.
9. Learning welding by doing the work
Name: Matt Teter, age 20
School: Missouri Welding Institute in Nevada, Missouri
Each day of Teter’s 18-week welding program consisted of an eight-hour shift, only one hour of which was in a classroom. The rest of the time, he learned to weld by doing it.
After graduating in January 2017, Teter has been traveling the country for work. He’s picked up jobs in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The constant movement can be exciting, but also makes it difficult to see family, Teter says.
How to pay for higher education
If your program has a federal school code, that indicates that it’s eligible to accept federal financial aid — some trade schools aren’t. Federal financial aid includes federal grants, work-study and federal student loans. Submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, to see what aid you qualify for.
To fill in gaps that FAFSA money doesn’t cover, apply for scholarships and, as a last resort, private student loans.
Above all, the best way to pay for college is choosing an affordable option in the first place. Apprenticeships and community college are low-cost, but trade schools can be pricey. Before enrolling in one, research opportunities to get the same training more affordably through an apprenticeship or community college.
More college stories from NerdWallet
- How apprenticeships work and how to land one
- Why choose a community college and how to enroll
- What trade schools offer and how to check one out
Photo credits: Kristina Bridges-Templeton, Ozarks Technical Community College (featured image, photo of Maddie Funk); Amy Gough, Mitchell Technical Institute (photo of Jordan Scheier); Romana Vysatova Photography (photo of Frank Melo); Getty Images (student completing paperwork).