Suppose you're considering college, but either aren't able to get admission or find it too expensive or unsuitable for other reasons. You are considering alternatives to college. This page discusses some alternatives. Note that these alternatives are not full substitutes for the college experience. For more on deciding whether to go to college at all, see college: deciding whether to go.
Alternatives within college
Community colleges, including those that offer evening classes targeted at people who work during the day, might be an attractive option for you.
Alternatives for learning
|Option||Quality of materials||Time flexibility versus degree of external structure to time||Cost||Quality of interaction with peers and instructor||Grade and credential|
|free online opencourseware||On the most mainstream topics (such as classical mechanics or introductory chemistry) you can get material that is at least as good as what you'd experience if you took a class at an elite college (this is not necessarily a high bar). In some cases, the material is truly outstanding, but in almost all cases, it is better than you can reliably obtain in the real world.||You can consume or interact with the materials as you see fit. There are no external constraints.||Free||No interaction||None|
|massive online open courses||MOOCs are relatively new. As of new, the breadth of material for which quality MOOCs available is somewhat less than the breadth of material for which quality opencourseware is available. So, the general point for opencourseware applies but with less strength.||You often get access to materials only while a course is formally in session, although you have considerable flexibility about how to pace yourself within that. Some courses allow you to access materials even when they are not in session.||Mostly free. You may need to pay for a credential.||Varies based on course and instructor. Due to the large instructor-to-student ratio, you often have to rely on peers rather the instructor to resolve your doubts or confusion. MOOCs have something going for them: they attract curious people who are eager to learn.||If you submit the assignments and your test attempts, you can get a a grade. In some cases, you may be able to get a formal certificate of completion if you pay a small amount of money.|
|open universities that use distance learning||The materials often have a guaranteed baseline quality but are unlikely to be the best (they're often worse than the best opencourseware or MOOCs you can find). However, the materials may be better structured for a self-learning experience.||You are usually required to follow a time schedule.||Depends on the university, but could range from free to a fairly high fee. It would still be cheaper than studying at a brick-and-mortar college.||You're likely to base a guaranteed baseline quality, but not much beyond that. You may not get much personalized interaction with instructors and might have near-zero interaction with fellow students. Also, the instructors and students who choose open universities often do so because of an absence of better options available to them, so they may not be that motivated or capable. However, the situation varies considerably.||You do get grades, certificates, and (if you complete enough courses) a degree.|
|auditing courses (the idea being that you go to a geographically close university and just sit in for free)||This depends heavily on what universities are in your geographic vicinity. If you are living near world-class universities, for instance, if you are living in the Boston area or Bay Area, you can get a world-class education fairly easily. Even if the university near you isn't reputable per se, you might still be able to find some good courses there.||You have to follow rigid time schedules the same as if you were taking a face-to-face course for credit.||free (financially) but you have travel costs plus costs of restructuring the rest of your time to meet specific time commitments||Real-time face-to-face interaction, plus the other perks of being in a course (perhaps somewhat limited by the fact that you are auditing it). The quality of the actual interaction again depends on the quality of the universities that happen to be near where you are.||None|
Alternative activity sets
Some people decide not to go to college so that they can pursue entrepreneurship instead.
If you are intellectually and emotionally capable of handling college, we recommend that you strongly consider it, and choose against it only if you have high confidence in what you are doing. If you have uncertainty, it's better to do something like taking a gap year between high school and college rather than foreclose the college option entirely.