Although there are a handful of success stories about people who made it big without any formal learning to back them up, such as Steve Jobs or Richard Branson, for most of us the reality is that education can open doors and help us advance in our career in a way that hard work and talent alone simply can’t.
But what can you do if the typical university route hasn’t worked for you or just isn’t accessible? There are a number of reasons why university might not be right for you, from a lack of time or money to not knowing exactly what direction you want to take your career in.
Whatever the case may be, if you’ve decided that university isn’t a good fit for you at this point in time, but still want to learn and advance in your career, here are a few alternative ways to educate yourself and earn qualifications.
Consider taking a certificate course
There are many professions you can get into without a university degree, and in many cases, successfully completing a certificate with an accredited education provider is enough to get you off to a good start for far less than a degree would cost. This includes jobs in accounting and finance, real estate, tourism and hospitality, project management, fitness training and others.
Many certificate courses can even be followed fully or partially online, which allows you to plan your studies around your work and other commitments. If you decide to go this route, however, be sure to do your research and choose an online learning institution that is properly accredited and will provide adequate academic assistance.
If in doubt, the National Center for Education Statistics provides a College Navigator tool, which will allow you to verify any school’s accreditation and even check things like graduation and retention rates.
Invest in short courses and workshops
If you don’t have time to take on a degree or even certificate course, taking short courses or attending workshops can be a great way to fill any gaps in your knowledge and show employers that you’re serious about your professional development.
Short courses may cover any area from soft skills such as communication and leadership to industry-specific skills like accounting, web design or photography, so think about what skills you’d like to develop further or the areas you want improve in.
Take introductory courses online for free
If learning is your primary goal and you aren’t too concerned with qualifications, there are plenty of college-level courses or MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) you can take online, and most won’t cost you a thing.
Some of the most popular providers include Coursera, EdX and Khan Academy. While some of these do offer certificates of completion, it’s important to be aware that most employers still tend to be skeptical of such certificates. MOOCs are, however, an excellent way to learn more about a particular topic or skill at no cost, or even find out whether or not a specific area of study actually interests you before you make a monetary commitment.
Use your prior experience to get qualified
Even if you’ve been in the workforce for a number of years and feel competent in your field, there’s a good chance you’ll run into problems when changing jobs or looking for a promotion if you don’t have any formal qualifications to back you up.
In this case, recognition of prior learning (RPL) can help you turn the skills and knowledge you’ve gained through informal learning such as work, training courses or volunteering into a recognized qualification, without having to start from scratch.
Alternatively, if you already have a bachelor’s degree but want to enhance your professional prospects by earning a graduate degree, you may be able to fast track your MBA by converting your experience and seeking credit exemptions from a university.
Volunteer in the field you hope to enter
One of the biggest hurdles newly graduated students face is a lack of experience. By volunteering in the field you hope to enter, you’ll be able to learn on the job and gain transferable skills while also making contacts within an industry, which can be invaluable once you start looking for a job.
Another big benefit to volunteering is that it gives you the chance to explore the career you’re interested in and make an informed decision rather than spending a lot of money on a degree or diploma only to discover that it’s not what you want to do after all.
Sites like Volunteer Match or Idealist can help you find volunteer opportunities that match your skills and interests. Just make sure that whatever you end up devoting your time to will be a good fit and help you develop or sharpen your skills in some way.
Marianne Stenger is a writer with Open Colleges. She covers career development, workplace productivity and self-improvement. You can connect with her on Twitter and Google+, or find her latest articles here.