College is a natural next step for many graduating high school seniors. Of 2010 high school graduates, 68.1% were enrolled in college by October of the same year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While most people would support the idea that education is critical to success and self-fulfillment, college should not be viewed as the sole avenue for learning and achieving these goals. There are many rewarding paths that are not dependent upon a four-year degree. Whether a young adult is looking to expand his or her horizons prior to beginning college, or has no intention of ever seeking post-secondary education, there are many alternatives to college worth exploring. (When federal student loan resources are exhausted, parents and students face tough decisions on how to pay. Check out Should Parents Pay For College?)
TUTORIAL: Education Savings Account
1. Travel the World
There is a limit to how much one can learn about the world and its cultures through text books, television and the internet. The value of international travel is difficult to quantify, but it can offer life-changing experiences to travelers who go beyond the traditional tourist destinations. Immersion in a different culture can teach travelers that parents around the world love their children, that most people are honest and hard-working, that people from all countries enjoy laughing at a good joke, and that our own way of doing things is not the only, or necessarily the best, approach. This global perspective - whether gained in lieu of or in preparation for college - can be a profoundly important and pivotal learning experience. (Learn more in College Dropouts Who Made It Big.)
2. Start a Business
Starting a business can, under the right circumstances, allow an entrepreneur to learn much more than studying business in college. Many entrepreneurs have proven that one does not need a college degree to be successful, including Microsoft's Bill Gates, Apple's Steve Jobs and Facebook's Mark Zuckerburg. Naturally, not all entrepreneurs will end up billionaires; however, many will learn important skills along the way that will help in their next ventures. People who start a business can learn to set and achieve goals, to market and sell an idea, to overcome failures, and to build on successes.
Becoming an intern allows one to "test-drive" a career before investing time and money in college. An internship, which provides on-the-job training in addition to little or no pay, can give people an idea of what working in a particular field would be like, and if it is something that would be interesting and fulfilling enough to pursue. While many companies reserve internships for college students, other firms have intern opportunities available to high school students and graduates. (You can go to college without going broke, but it may take an unconventional approach. See 5 Ways To Fund A College Education.)
4. Vocational Training
Vocational school teaches the skills that are required to perform a specific job. Vocational programs often last for two years, and upon successful completion the individual becomes eligible to take any necessary tests for certification. Some popular training programs include culinary arts, automotive repair, cosmetology, massage therapy, medical and dental assistant, construction, computer maintenance and repair, and even entrepreneurship. While skills learned in a vocational program qualify a person to work in a particular job, the ensuing experience may lead to an entrepreneurial opportunity, as many of these workers can go on to open their own businesses.
Volunteering, either locally or through a large organization, can be a rewarding experience. Many non-profits do not require any specialized training for volunteers, and often provide training that can be useful in the future. AmeriCorps (www.americorps.gov), has volunteer opportunities lasting for 10-12 months within the United States, and the Peace Corps (www.peacecorps.gov) sends volunteers to foreign countries for 27 months. Both AmeriCorps and Peace Corps provide a small living stipend, as well as other benefits including healthcare and child care. AmeriCorps volunteers may be eligible for an education award - money that can be used for future college expenses.
6. Join the Military
Joining the military is an excellent opportunity to learn skills that can be applied to future jobs, or to begin a career in one of the five branches of the military. The Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy offer pay, room and board, skills training and other benefits including a variety of programs to assist with or pay for college tuition, room and board, books and supplies, and monthly living allowances. A wide variety of positions are available through the military for both enlisted and officer (four-year degree) service, including many non-combat jobs. Pension benefits are a valuable perk, and are payable immediately upon retirement following 20 years of service. (Save thousands of dollars on tuition with these tricks and little-known programs. Refer to Pay For College Without Selling A Kidney.)
The Bottom Line
Less than half of the nearly 70% of students who go on to pursue post-secondary education will earn a degree within six years. This begs the question: is college really appropriate for all high school graduates? College can be a valuable investment even without ever earning a degree, but it can also be a very expensive hobby when equally important lessons and skills could be learned elsewhere. Though there is much emphasis on going to college - especially straight out of high school - for some this isn't best use of time, money and energy. There are many alternatives that can be seen as a stepping stone to getting the most out of college, or that can lead to rewarding career paths without the need for post-secondary education.