When it comes to post-graduation choices, college is the big deal. Two-thirds of high school graduates go straight into college after graduation. But are there alternatives to college that could be equally good life choices?
My wife and I are college graduates who have raised seven children to college age and beyond. Yet we never assumed college was the best choice for every one of them. Although they’re all very smart, they are each very different.
Take our oldest and youngest sons, for example.
Our oldest son is a classroom scholar. He essentially earned a full ride through his undergraduate, masters, and doctoral programs, and also an Ivy League research fellowship. He will soon begin his tenure as an associate professor at a major research university.
Our youngest, on the other hand, made excellent grades but hated the classroom. He wanted an alternative to college. After high school, he worked two full-time jobs while getting his associates degree at a technical college. Then he joined the Marines where he specializes in a very technical field. After he fulfills his enlistment, he can get a job in that field with a similar starting salary as his professor brother.
For each one, the choice was a good fit.
A changing landscape
Over the past decade or so, trends in education, the economy, technology, and the job market have caused many to rethink their choices. Consider the following:
- Only 60% of those entering four-year colleges will receive a diploma within six years. Some transfer to other schools, but a large percentage just drop out.
- Tuition costs over the past three decades have grown at more than eight times the rate of median wages.
- 71% of college graduates finish with an average student loan debt of $28,000. With interest, that number balloons to more than $37,000.
- Nearly half of millennials who have carried student loan debt believe their college education wasn’t worth it.
- A generation of laborers that dominated the skilled trades is retiring, leaving a glut of unfilled, high-paying jobs.
These and other factors are causing many to wonder whether college is the great value it once was. And if so, is the immediate move from high school campus to college campus the best choice? What about other education alternatives?
Alternatives to college
If you’re a parent, here are some questions you should ask as your teens consider college and career. Maybe college is the right choice. Or maybe the choice is right, but the timing is not.
If you’re a student, consider these other options before making the choice to go straight to college. Some might be a better fit for you, or they may help augment your college decision and point you to a more rewarding and meaningful future. As you look through the list, you’ll find many of these suggestions can and will overlap with others.
1. Take a gap year.
It’s more common than you think to take a year-long break between finishing high school and starting college. And it’s not necessarily a year. Some students skip the fall college semester and enroll the following spring. Others sit out more than a full school year.
As an alternative to college, a gap year can be about anything you want it to be. What it should not be about is sitting around doing nothing. Consider working a full-time job to set aside money for the transition to independence. Or volunteer in an area you’re interested in. Many 18-year-olds don’t have a clear vision for what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Numerous studies indicate that students who take a gap year are more successful when they do start college.
2. Get a job.
Often you can find an entry-level job in the degree field you are considering. Many employers are looking for candidates with real work experience, not just the theoretical experience of a classroom. Before I started my journalism degree, I worked at a newspaper doing menial work. I managed to convince an editor to let me submit an article for no pay. It was good enough that I wrote a couple others. At least one business was already willing to hire me after I finished my degree.
There are also a number of high-paying jobs that don’t even require a college degree (although many require some degree of technical training). Among them are commercial pilot, web developer, computer coder, physical trainer, insurance or medical sales rep, real estate agent, and personal care aide.
Don’t be afraid to work an unpleasant job or one that’s physically demanding. Some pay quite well because few people are willing to do them. And those kind of jobs can build perseverance and character like few others.
3. Start a business or nonprofit.
Because of technology, it’s never been easier to start a business. The era of brick-and-mortar storefronts is giving way to an era of e-commerce.
The geniuses behind some of the most innovative and profitable startups either never went to college or dropped out. Travis Kalanick created Uber, Michael Dell started the computer company, and John Mackey cofounded Whole Foods Market. Each had an idea and a passion, as did Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Steve Jobs, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey. Their ideas were a great alternative to college, obviously.
4. See the world.
Whether it’s working a summer job in Alaska, hiking through Europe and staying in hostels, or taking a mission trip, these multisensory experiences will stay with you for a lifetime. Our kids have done all three. Not just as alternatives to college, but also as additions to it.
Most churches offer short-term mission trips. Youth with a Mission and World Race, among others, offer various discipleship, evangelism, and entrepreneurship programs across numerous countries that last anywhere from three months to a year.
5. Get some Bible/worldview education.
Research continues to indicate young people raised in Christian homes are leaving their upbringing during high school and college years. This is especially true when they come in contact with professors and peers who are hostile to Christian teaching. Young Christians who don’t have a good grounding in Scripture are easily dislodged from their faith.
By taking a summer, a semester, or even a year to learn about the basic Christian doctrines and worldview, students become more competent to filter what they are learning through a biblical lens. Otherwise, worldly arguments can easily unsettle Christian upbringing.
6. Join the military.
After basic training, pay starts at more than $20,000 per year. And the addition of free food, housing, health care, insurance, and other benefits makes the value much higher. Military service doesn’t have to be an alternative to college, however. One of the biggest perks of serving is that the U.S. government pays for college once a person has completed his or her commitment.
Service members also train in areas that translate to employable skills after leaving the military. Plus they often travel to different parts of the world and are exposed to different cultures. These experiences, along with the character and discipline instilled in soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen, can make a young man or woman an attractive candidate for employment in the civilian world.
7. Attend trade school.
College has been pitched to recent generations as the default follow-up to high school. As a result, not many students have considered working blue-collar jobs. But now that many skilled tradesmen are reaching retirement age, wages are increasing for those professions. Positions are going unfilled in such lucrative and necessary trades as brick masonry, electrical and plumbing, among others.
Trade schools and technical institutes offer training often based on existing employment needs in the community. Therefore, education is often specific and hands on, and employment is readily available upon graduation.
8. The smart money is on community college.
With tuition costs skyrocketing at colleges and universities, many students are seeing the wisdom of community college. In most cases, classes in the first two years at four-year colleges just fulfill a degree’s core requirements. Community colleges offer those same courses, but at a much lower cost. And most of those credits transfer to four-year colleges.
Additionally, class sizes at most community colleges are smaller than large universities. That means greater access to the instructor for help and guidance. And often, core classes at four-year institutions are taught by graduate students. Your chances of being taught by an actual professor are much higher at a community college.
Two-year programs from many community colleges are also enough to qualify you for immediate employment in fields like veterinary care, dental hygiene, and web design.
9. Tailor-make your future with online classes.
Sure, you don’t get the campus experience, but the educational benefit of online college courses is seriously overlooked. Many of the nation’s top colleges and universities offer tuition-free courses on their own or through aggregate learning sites like Coursera, Khan Academy, and edX.
Test drive a particular field of study before you enroll in it as a college major. It’s also a great choice for entrepreneurial types who have a vision for a business but need select skills and training to get started.
So, what does God say about college?
Absolutely nothing. At least not directly. But there are some Scripture verses that give direction.
Seeking specialized training is wise and forward thinking. The Bible says a person who develops his skill establishes a path for success and recognition because of the quality of the work he or she does (Proverbs 22:29). We should seek to be the best we can be at what we do (Colossians 3:23-24). But the end goal is pleasing God rather than just making a name for ourselves.
Scripture makes a distinction between true wisdom and foolish speculation of the world (1 Corinthians 1:20-29). College certainly prepares a person to unlock the intricacies of science or business or any other professional pursuit. Learning from others who are an expert in a field is wise.
Increasingly, however, secular colleges are becoming hostile to Christianity and the things of God. And when man’s wisdom challenges God’s wisdom, it takes us down the path of self-importance and self-worship, and eventually self-destruction. As parents and students, we need to seriously consider if certain college campuses and classrooms are worth the tradeoff. Jesus’ words are clear: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
And then there’s debt. The amount of debt students are incurring to pay for college is higher than ever. Too many college grads are in jobs that don’t pay enough for them to pay off their financial aid debt quickly. As a result, they are enslaved to a lending institution (Proverbs 22:7).
Maybe it’s time to consider some of the alternatives to college. God has created each person with different gifting, passions, and learning styles. Young adults have more career development tools at their disposal than any other generation in history.
Which combination of options offers the best chance to bring together educational, social, and spiritual elements to become a productive adult? You decide. Don’t let others decide the path for you.
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