12 Exciting College Alternatives of Tomorrow, Emerging Today

The high cost of college tuition is encouraging more and more of today's high school students to consider alternatives to the traditional college experience. While the old standbys of going into the workforce, volunteering, or traveling still exist, there are new options emerging as well that offer different, but still valuable pathways into a future career and a fulfilling life after high school. These programs may not have yet earned the cachet that traditional college degrees carry, but they're quickly becoming solid places for students to learn, grow, and find out what their true passion is in life, without shelling out tens of thousands of dollars in tuition in the process. Curious as to what these kinds of college alternatives have to offer? Read on to learn about innovative new programs that can help you learn, get certification, start a business, travel, and make the most of your first few years in the real world.

  1. Udacity:

    Udacity grew out of a collection of free computer science classes offered through Stanford in 2011. Over the past year, the site has grown to offer a wider range of technical courses, with plans to enroll up to 500,000 students over the next few semesters. Behind the program are Sebastian Thrun, David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsky, all roboticists and Stanford researchers. Thrun helped to fund the program with his own money, and its first courses enrolled an impressive 160,000 students from 190 different nations. Not only does Udacity make it possible to learn incredibly useful technical skills online, it also does it for free, offering certificates of completion for all students who enroll in the courses and finish the assignments.

  2. Coursera:

    Want to take classes at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, Stanford, and Princeton? Through Coursera you can, and you won't pay a dime in tuition. Students can choose from a variety of courses, watch lectures, learn through interactive exercises, and work with other students from around the world. Lectures are broken down into short video segments, which can make concepts easier to grasp and also allow learners more flexibility in when and where they tackle the learning process. While students won't get diplomas or certification after completing courses, they can be a valuable way to build knowledge and add educational experiences to a resume.

  3. The Minerva Project:

    The Minerva Project is ideal for students who do want to head to college, but don't want to do it in the usual manner. Minerva is essentially an elite university on par with Ivy League institutions, but with a couple of twists that make the education it offers much more relevant in today's world. First, tuition is a fraction of that charged at top Ivy League schools, coming in at an estimated $20,000 a year, though it could be less for some students, which will help it be much more accessible to middle-class students. Secondly, students are encouraged to take introductory courses for free through online sites like edX and Khan Academy, as Minerva will only offer upper-level courses. Thirdly, and most interestingly, students enrolled with Minerva will take courses online but will live in dorm-style apartments together, often moving from city to city to learn while exploring the world. Minerva is expected to launch fully in 2014, but it's already attracted a hefty amount of attention from the media and educational experts.

  4. Saylor.org

    Chairman and CEO of MicroStrategy Michael J. Saylor established the Saylor Foundation in 1999, and since 2008 the organization has been pushing forward its Free Education Initiative which offers more than 241 coursers in the most popular majors in the U.S. free of charge to students around the world. Students can choose from the courses, watch lectures, get access to free and open textbooks, and assess their learning through quizzes and tests. While at present the site doesn't offer any form of credentialing, changes are on the horizon, as plans to use badges to represent knowledge learned are in progress, allowing students to showcase the knowledge they've gained on resumes and on the web. Free courses, free textbooks, and the ability to show proof that courses were completed may just change the way the next generation of workers learns and prepares for their careers.

  5. Thiel Fellowship

    Entrepreneur, founder of PayPal, and venture capitalist Peter Thiel believes that students who want to start their own business ventures don't need a college education to do so, and he's willing to put his money where his mouth is. Thiel created a fellowship which offers $100,000 to 20 students under 20 if they will quit college and start their own companies. While rolling the dice on a business venture is always risky, Thiel believes that college is as well, often not delivering the payoff that it promises and requiring hefty investments in tuition to boot. As the education bubble looks set to burst, Thiel may have a point (though he has been criticized for his hypocritical views on the matter) and he may not be alone in the coming years in helping to encourage bright young entrepreneurs to set out sans college degree.

  6. Zoho Programming Training:

    The solution to finding enough workers to fill STEM jobs could lie in programs like those being pioneered by Zoho founder Sridhar Vembu. Vembu took 100 kids with no college education, trained them through hands-on programs that didn't emphasize theory or math, and produced a group of effective and creative IT employees for his budding company. While currently programs like this don't exist in the U.S., his success with building an impressive IT team quickly and efficiently is something that's drawing a lot of attention and may become common practice in startups that want to train workers from the ground up.

  7. Digital Badges:

    One of the biggest and perhaps most just criticisms of free online courses is that students have no way to record what courses they've taken or that they've completed them satisfactorily. That may be changing. Mozilla, the company behind the popular web browser Firefox, is working on the Open Badges project, which is designed to let people display their achievements in online learning, job training, or after-school programs on their website, blog, Facebook, LinkedIn profile, or online resume. Mozilla isn't alone in working on digital badges, however, as the MacArthur Foundation has partnered with them, putting millions of dollars in funding on the line to encourage people to compete to come up with a new way to build, authenticate, and display these badges on the web. It's only a matter of time before digital badges become a widespread and standardized way of showing off online learning, completely free of charge.

  8. WebToTheRescue.Com

    Students who have great business ideas and the motivation to start them without heading to college first, may want to check out this entrepreneurial resource. The site is the brainchild of MBA Nillie Goldman and is designed to help individuals of all ages and levels of experience build and expand a business. Visitors to the site will find comprehensive lists of accelerator programs, resources to get in touch with investors, lessons on contacts, social media, and privacy, as well as a whole host of tips and tools that are essential to any startup. It links to just about any resource a young entrepreneur could need, the majority of them free to access and use throughout the startup process. While there is never a guarantee that a business will be successful with the help of guides like these, students can certainly improve their chances.

  9. edX:

    In years past, it would have been nearly impossible to score free courses from MIT and Harvard. Yet today, students can simply head to edX and take high-quality classes from these two prestigious institutions right from the web. edX is the product of a partnership between the two schools, which works to offer free educational resources to people around the world. Starting in the fall of 2012, students can enroll in a wide range of courses from the two institutions, and it is expected that over time other colleges and universities will offer their own course content through the program as well.

  10. UnCollege:

    The combination of high college tuition, low starting salaries, and few entry-level jobs has left many college-age young adults feeling pretty frustrated. The UnCollege site was the product of that frustration. Lead by Thiel Fellowship choice and education expert Dale J. Stephens, the site aims to show young people that college isn't the only path to success and that those with talent, motivation, and determination can actually become quite successful on their own. Stephens gives talks on the movement around the country and the site offers a reading list for any individuals hoping to learn why college may not be the best option for them. This year, UnCollege is also hosting a Hackdemic Camp, which aims to inform young people about alternatives to college, starting a business, and getting by without a degree.

  11. P2PU:

    Through P2PU, prospective students will not only get the chance to learn, they'll also get the chance to share what they know with others. The grassroots site was designed with the goal of helping people engage in lifelong learning outside of the sphere of traditional formal higher education. At present, there is no accreditation process in place, but the site is working on developing a way to allow users to display digital badges marking that they've completed a course. P2PU is just one of the growing number of free, open, higher educational opportunities online that will undoubtedly shape post-secondary education in the coming decade.

  12. Udemy:

    Eren Bali and Gagan Biyani launched Udemy in 2010, a site that serves as a platform where instructors can build online courses on topics of their choosing, currently including everything from the arts to fitness to technology. The majority of courses offered through Udemy are free, but some come with a charge, especially those from noted or expert teachers. Because anyone can build a course on Udemy, it offers students a much wider range of educational subject matter than many other similar sites which can be incredibly useful in a host of real world applications. What really sets Udemy apart from other online learning applications is that teaching is done live, through video streams, which much more closely mimics the traditional classroom experience.