Can't Afford College? Consider These 5 Alternative Paths to Your Career

As a former professor, I am often expected to praise the virtues of a college education. But I left higher ed precisely because I'd grown frustrated with its lack of concern for real-world experience.

At the same time, I think it's ridiculous to suggest that every 18-year-old should eschew college and start a business. The truth is, most young people don't know what they want to do with their lives, and to my mind, the real question is whether four years of college is the right way to figure it out.

After leaving, I was amused to find myself in the same shoes as my own Classics students, explaining to interviewers why I was qualified for jobs completely unrelated to my degree. Now that I'm in the tech sector, I work with plenty of successful people who don't have degrees at all. So let me save you the time -- up to four years -- and tell you what I've learned outside the classroom.

1. Take classes without going for the degree.

Truth be told, most successful people have some college under their belt, and many of them dropped out because they were tired of taking required classes that didn't matter to them. So why not start from the idea that you can take the individual classes you want? That way, it's less about requirements and more about learning. Also, if you're not bound to pay for classes you don't want, there's more room to take classes for personal fulfillment as well as career advancement. Between community colleges and online instruction, I think the options for à la carte learning will only increase in the next decade, and I see no reason why students shouldn't take advantage.

2. Spend your money on professional development, not a piece of paper.

Professional development is a form of continuing education, and it's crucial to success in most fields. I had prepared for my transition with non-degree online classes, but it took me by surprise when interviewers asked about my professional memberships (this never happened in my former field). Soon enough I caught on, and when preparing for an interview I had a mental list of organizations, favorite debugging tools and inspirational designers at the ready. I also made sure my résumé displayed this information, as well as my attendance at other professional events like SXSW Interactive.

If you already know which career you're interested in, it makes sense to learn about your field in a targeted fashion. Money spent on memberships, conferences and equipment is an investment -- perhaps a better one than getting formal certification from a university.

3. Put together a portfolio.

To students and employers alike, a college degree too often looks like just a list of classes. For this reason, there's an increasing interest in having students put together portfolios. But you don't need a college education to have a portfolio. You can easily link your résumé to your Tumblr blog, your website or even your Flickr account.

This is another argument for not resting your laurels on too many generic "Business Communication Theory in the 21st Century" classes. Personally, I'd be far more interested in hiring the candidate with an interactive website on 19th-century Parisian poets. These days, potential employers are interested in your accomplishments, not your course list.

4. Think in terms of motivation.

Students often expect college to make them "successful," but they rarely think about what that actually means. In my experience their unstated expectation is that college will provide them with motivation they don't currently have.

But you need find what drives you -- and if takes some time, that's OK. It's also OK if what drives you is finding a decent-paying job you don't hate. Interests change throughout life, and you may not find your vocation until later on. Bottom line: don't wait around for an epiphany to strike, and don't ask other people to give you motivation. Go out and find it yourself.

5. Tweet your way to a job.

I know this one sounds precious, but it's a certified trend, and I even have a co-worker to prove it. He's a 20-year-old, self-taught developer who wanted to learn more about SEO. He sent out Tweets with the #SEO hashtag, which caught the attention of our office SEO guru and landed him a job. Granted, our Tweet-master is tremendously social, and this probably benefits him more than the degree he swears he'll never get. But even if you're not a social butterfly, social media has made networking easier than ever. The lesson? Use the tools available that best suit your personality.