Five Smart Alternatives To Traditional College Degrees

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Wondering what people do with degrees in political science or mathematics anymore? So do employers. Here are five career-focused degrees to earn instead of the broad bachelor's of the past.

By Terence Loose

If you're like a lot of potential college students these days, your goal is to land a good career after graduation - preferably soon after graduation. And one major step toward that goal is choosing a degree that will give you concrete, specific skills that employers want.

In fact, that's one of the most important things you can do in today's tough labor market, says Rick Lockwood, a business professor at California's Coastline Community College.

"Decades ago, you could take a few classes in a subject that's applicable to the job you want and employers would train you. Now, employers don't do that. They want the schools to train people; they don't see it as their place to train workers anymore," he says.

He says one big reason for employers' refusal to train is the oversupply of skilled workers, so employers can cherry pick those with degrees in the specific field they're looking for. That's why he sees more and more students entering school thinking carefully about whether or not their degree will pay off after graduation.

To help you zero in on these marketable skills, we compared five career-focused degrees to their more traditional, and general, counterparts. Keep reading for the specifics on these specific degrees.

Instead of Business, Try Accounting

Don't get us wrong, a bachelor's degree in business is a great thing to have and employers really like it. But if you want to increase your chances at landing a job, Lockwood says a bachelor's degree in accounting is an excellent choice.

Why? While business is broad in scope, Lockwood says accounting is laser focused and in high demand.

"Students now think about where career opportunities are, 'Where am I going to make some money when I graduate?' So that's why I think accounting is so popular," says Lockwood. He says that because of increasing financial regulations, since 2000 there has been a strong demand for accounting majors and he doesn't see it slowing down anytime soon.

Where would an accounting major take you in the real world? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, a bachelor's in accounting or a related field is needed for most accountant and auditor positions.

Click to Find the Right Accounting Program.

Degree Details: Accounting teaches you skills that all businesses need, says Lockwood. Specifically, accounting majors learn to gather, record, analyze, and communicate financial information for individuals and organizations so they can assess performance and risk, says the College Board, a nonprofit research organization that promotes higher education.

Typical classes include accounting, business law, auditing, cost accounting, and tax accounting, says the College Board.

Instead of Studio Art, Try Graphic Design

Do you like to draw? Perhaps you've always been an artist at heart. But that doesn't mean you have to starve, too.

Because a bachelor's in graphic design teaches students how to use technology and computers for application in Web marketing and design (which most studio arts programs fail to do), it offers a vast range of employment opportunities upon graduation, says Cheryl Chapman, a digital media professor with Coastline Community College.

How vast are the employment opportunities? Chapman explains that career paths "range from digital photo restoration artist, to logo or brand designer, to medical or forensic illustrator, to Adobe Flash or mobile app designer, to creative director, to Web designer or advertising director."

And the degree prepares people to go after these careers by offering specific, marketable skills. "The key is to become proficient in using software that is required in the field today, blended with theoretical/technical knowledge, and inherent artistic talent to create a well-balanced, employable digital artist."

The key word there is "employable." Have we got your attention? If you want to pursue a career as a graphic designer you will typically be required to have a bachelor's degree in graphic design or a related field, says the U.S. Department of Labor.

Click to Find the Right Graphic Design Program.

Degree Details: A graphic design degree teaches you to use the latest design software to create everything from product packaging, to company brochures and ads, to things as cutting edge as gaming graphics, says Chapman.

Courses might include graphic design techniques, production design, Photoshop for designers, and typography, reports the College Board.

Instead of Biology, Try Nursing

Nothing against biology majors, especially those planning on going for researcher or medical doctor later, but with common classes including genetics, microbiology, and zoology (as noted by the College Board), this degree might not be on every job recruiter's list. An associate's degree in nursing, however, could be a safer bet if you're looking for a faster, more direct connection to the health care industry.

"Nursing is always going to be in demand because there's always a field there, there are very strict requirements, and people [need to pass tests to qualify]," says Lockwood. So the industry gets people into it that are very well prepared, and need to be."

Susan Heathfield, a management consultant and writer of About.com's Guide to Human Resources, agrees, explaining that nursing is one of those "hands-on" professions that is impossible to outsource overseas. She adds that with the baby boomer generation retiring and living longer, thus requiring more health care, this is a degree that will be wanted for years to come.

There's no one way into the nursing profession. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, you might pursue a career as a registered nurse with an associate's degree in nursing (ADN), a bachelor's degree in nursing (BSN), or a diploma from an approved nursing program. One other thing to note: registered nurses have to be licensed.

Click to Find the Right Nursing Program.

Degree Details: An associate's degree in nursing teaches you how to care for the sick, of course, but also how to examine patients, and educate patients on how to stay healthy, says the College Board.

If you pursue this degree, you could find yourself in classes like mental-health nursing, health assessment, nutrition, anatomy and physiology, adult nursing, and more, reports the College Board.

Instead of Mathematics, Try Computer Science

Mathematics is a strong major with a lot of real-world applications. It can't be denied. But, says Heathfield, if you want to pursue a college degree that's at the top of many employers' lists right now, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than computer science. It's a degree that says you know how to deal with the one component no business can survive without in today's economy: computers.

"You're still going to take a lot of math with a computer science degree," says Heathfield. But, she says, that math will be in the service of the more marketable computer science degree.

And the sky is the limit for computer science degree holders. "I think you can go anywhere with a computer science degree. It's the very first degree that comes to mind as being good to have on a resume," says Heathfield. That's because every business is dependent on computers, computer networks, and the Internet, and people who are experts in this field will go far, she says.

One place this degree might take you is a career in computer programming. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, most computer programmers have a bachelor's degree in computer science or a related field, and some employers may accept an associate's degree in computer science. Programmers write the code that turns the designs of software developers and engineers into software.

It should be noted that software developers also typically have a bachelor's degree in computer science, software engineering, or a related field, says the Department of Labor. Not to be counted out, our dear old friend the degree in mathematics may also be acceptable for a career as a software developer, says the Department.

Click to Find the Right Computer Science Program.

Degree Details: When you study computer science, you'll learn programming as well as the theory and design of computer software, says the College Board. It's a study into how humans use computers, from a scientific point of view.

According to the College Board, some typical classes include artificial intelligence, digital system design, mathematics for computer science, software engineering, and more.

Instead of Political Science, Try Paralegal Studies

If you picture yourself a legal eagle, one traditional way to pursue a law degree is to get a political science degree, then go to law school, then pass the bar. The obvious drawback is time - many years of school - and money. That's why if working in the legal profession is your immediate goal, an associate's degree in paralegal studies might be a more attractive way to go.

And here's the best part: "Much of what paralegals do (researching legal questions and writing legal documents, for example) is the same work that attorneys do," according to the College Board website.

And an associate's degree, which can be completed in as little as two years, is a big attraction. "Some people choose the paralegal route because they don't want to go through three years of law school in addition to receiving a bachelor's degree. Others want a meaningful way of participating in the legal process without the demanding schedules that attorneys face," the College Board website says.

Finally, the College Board points out that some people even use a paralegal studies degree as a stepping stone. They work as a paralegal for a time, then apply to law school, with a good amount of practical legal experience to help them along.

Thinking about stepping into the paralegal field? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, most paralegals have either an associate's degree in paralegal studies, or, if they already have a bachelor's degree in any field, a certificate in paralegal studies. In some cases, employers may even accept applicants with a bachelor's degree and train them.

Click to Find the Right Paralegal Studies Program.

Degree Details: A paralegal studies degree prepares you to work under the supervision of an attorney or court, says the College Board. It teaches such things as legal research, conducting investigations, writing legal documents, and keeping legal records.

Here are some common classes, according to the College Board: civil procedure, criminal law and procedure, ethics, legal research and writing, and more.

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