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Is college right for you? Eight alternatives to the traditional path

For many students, college is an important step after high school. College can provide training for a specialized career like medicine or law, or an opportunity to study at a deeper level than in high school. But for too many students, college is “just what you do after high school,” and they end up graduating (or dropping out) with crippling debt and no real prospects.

So it’s important to consider seriously whether college is a good fit for you. Let’s take a look at some alternatives.

1. Community college

Some of the fastest-growing career fields, including dental hygiene and veterinary tech, only require a two-year degree, and community college graduates may be better off financially than their peers at four-year colleges.

Tuition is much lower—think $3,400 a year instead of $9,400 for an in-state public university or $24,000 out-of-state. In addition, most community college students can live at home, zapping the cost of the dorm and cafeteria. Young adults can enter the workforce faster and without the burden of student loans.

2. The military

Joining the military after high school can be a great opportunity to spread those wings. Some young adults join the military because they aren’t interested in college or don’t have the grades to pursue something they want to study. Others don’t have the financial means to make it work. Some do it for patriotism, others for adventure.

3. Apprenticeships

Apprentices are busy both working and learning, and they’re paid for it. Apprenticeships include training for a particular job, and employers pay for their apprentices’ college or vocational degrees in some cases. By the time a young adult completes an apprenticeship, he or she will have the skills, experience, and credentials needed for employment in the field he or she apprenticed in—and no college debt.

4. Vocational training/the trades/certificates

The skilled labor shortage in this country is not a secret, but it could be a huge problem for the economy. A 2015 study predicted that by 2025, 2 million manufacturing jobs would not be filled. More than 80 percent of executives who responded to the study’s survey said they would not be able to meet their customer’s needs because of that gap. About the same number said they are willing to pay above market rates. 

What does this all mean? A vocational training program could jumpstart a stable, well-paying career. Most programs only take a year or two and may be ideal for someone who wants to earn credentials but cringes at the thought of four more years of school.

5. Entrepreneurship

The year after high school can be a great time to be an entrepreneur. If you have a particular passion or skill—and a lot of hustle—you might consider starting a business or nonprofit.

High school or shortly after can be a great time to start a business—at that age, most people aren’t trying to support a family or pay down massive loans, so the stakes are low if something doesn’t work out.

6. Volunteering

If you are passionate about a cause, the time after high school—with almost nothing in the way of family or financial obligations—is an ideal time to dive in. You could spend a year in the U.S. or abroad giving your time to a nonprofit or church group.

In addition to being a service opportunity, volunteering gives you the chance to explore your passions, gain experience in the field, and create a network of people who can vouch for your skills or connect you with further opportunities.

7. A side gig

Whether it’s driving Uber or substituting for organists at area churches, more than 30 percent of workers in the U.S. have side hustles, and the trend is growing. Some side gigs can turn into full-time jobs, but another advantage of side gigs is their scalability.

8. A gap year

Some students will benefit from a year spent exploring their skills and interests, whether it’s volunteering, apprenticing, traveling, or working. A gap year can allow you to recharge your batteries and take a breather before diving back into academics. It can also help you clarify what (or whether!) you want to study in college.

In some cases, a gap year spent working is just a plain good decision. If you want to attend college, but money is tight, a year of work can be a good head start on the tuition bill.

Wrapping Up

While many students benefit from pursuing a four-year degree immediately after high school, others will be better off taking a gap year or a different route altogether. When college tuition costs are rising and non-college opportunities are multiplying, it makes sense to think seriously about what’s best for your future.

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