Considering College and Alternatives

Figuring out what to do after high school is challenging. This may be the first time in your life you’re facing such a major decision, but you’re not alone. Your classmates are probably experiencing the same overwhelming feelings, even if they seem to have it all figured out.  

Here’s an overview of the different paths you could take after high school.

Two- or Four-Year College

Depending on your career goals, college may be the best option for you right after high school. Before applying, however, explore the type of college your potential career path requires. A two-year program at a community college or technical college could be the way to go, or your career choice may require a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college. 

Even if you need—or plan to get—a bachelor’s degree, starting at community college can sometimes save money and also allow you to complete general education requirements before transferring to a four-year school. Many states have articulation agreements (a plan ensuring that course credits transfer) between their community college system and their universities to make the transfer process fairly seamless.

Learn more about all the different types of colleges and schools

Gap Year

Maybe you’ve already applied and gotten into college, but you want to do something else for a little while before starting school. Or maybe you need to take some time to take care of your physical or mental health. Many schools allow accepted students to put off entering college to take a gap year for one or, sometimes, more years. You can use the time to work, travel, or take care of yourself. 

Delayed matriculation involves some rules and regulations, so make sure to check with your college’s office of admissions before making any decisions. Most high school guidance counselors recommend that students apply to college during senior year as if they’re going to college, and then request a deferral. Many colleges grant deferrals and may even hold your financial aid and scholarships for you, but some may require you to reapply the following year. 

For more information on gap years, check out “Is a Gap Year Right for Me?

Of course, you may be taking a gap year to learn more about what kind of higher education you need—or whether you want to continue your education—in which case applying in your senior year may not work or make sense. 

One thing to keep in mind is that SAT and ACT scores don’t expire, but it’s recommended that you retake the tests if you’ve been out of school for five years or more.

Work and College

For many people, working while going to college is the best—or only—option financially. People often work full-time while attending community college, but many students attending four-year colleges also work part-time or even full-time. If you’re attending a four-year college full-time, however, college experts recommend not working more than 15 to 20 hours per week during the academic year, because more than that can affect your ability to study. 

Besides covering some of the college bill, research shows that working while in college sets you up for a higher paycheck once you graduate. That’s because you’re gaining skills, building connections, and signaling that you’re a good employee prospect, according to a Rutgers University study.

Community Service Programs

Programs such as AmeriCorps provide a unique opportunity to anyone who’s undecided about next steps or who already has an interest in community service. You can work at nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community- and faith-based groups across the country in areas such as education, disaster relief, technology, and neighborhood revitalization. These programs typically last nine to 12 months, and you’re usually paid a monthly stipend or receive money toward your education. Learn more about AmeriCorps and the variety of program options available, including FEMA Corps and National Civilian Conservation Corps.

Trade School and Apprenticeship Programs

Skilled trade jobs, such as working as an electrician, plumber, HVAC (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning) technician, or auto mechanic, don’t require college degrees. They may require a program-completion certification from a technical or community college or a formal apprenticeship program. 

This could be the path for you if you’re interested in taking a shorter route to a skilled trade and learning on the job, but make sure the program you choose has a good reputation for graduating students into good jobs. Sometimes trades education is offered at for-profit colleges, and not all of them offer good outcomes for their students. Research what they offer, what others say, and the job potential in your community. The Federal Trade Commission offers these tips to analyze a trade school. Also take a look at this list of mostly for-profit colleges that have been identified as possibly misleading students about student loans or education outcomes. The list doesn’t necessarily mean these schools don’t offer a good education, but be sure to review them closely.

Serving in the Military

The United States military branches include the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines, and National Guard. You can enlist full-time after high school, or you can join the military through college programs like ROTC. The U.S. government will often pay for all or part of your education after high school before, during, or after your service. To learn more about military options, contact your local recruiting office.

Full-Time Employment

After spending 13 years in school, you may want to get out in the real world and start earning money. A full-time job can teach you how to support yourself, help you earn money to pay for higher education, figure out what you want to do, and help you get your foot in the door sooner in an industry of interest. You may find, however, that additional training will be required to earn a better income, which may mean attending college at some point to increase your earning potential. But work experience carries more weight with many employers these days.

Talk with your high school guidance counselor, teachers, coaches, parents, other family members, community leaders, and trusted friends—whoever you think might be helpful to you. They can guide you to more resources and help you in the search and self-exploration process. 

Whatever you decide for right now, you can always change your mind. Perhaps you want or need to earn money first, but you know you’d like to pursue a college degree or a skilled trade. It’s never too late to retool. Many people take classes or go back to school to make a career change.

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