“Mom, Dad, I think I’ll skip college.”
Before you panic, remember college, especially right after high school, is not for everyone. Your child may have reasons to delay it or forgo it altogether. But that doesn’t mean he can afford to skip getting the training he needs to succeed. So what’s next?
Good jobs and salaries are available in fields from biotech to 3-D animation. They don’t require a bachelor’s degree, but they do require a solid academic foundation and technical skills.
Kids who decide not to go straight to a four-year college come in all shapes and sizes: They include the student who is clearly focused on a specific career (such as an auto mechanic or chef), the student who lacks the academic preparation or confidence in his ability to succeed in college, and the student who may simply need more time to figure out what she wants to do before she sees a reason to pursue a college education.
While the focus in most high schools is on moving kids from high school to a four-year college, vocational education — now called career and technical education (CTE) — is getting more attention and funding at the state and federal level. In an economy that requires stronger technical and computer skills, career and technical ed looks a lot different than the vocational ed you might remember. It is more likely to include robotics than wood shop.
Here’s how you can help your child prepare to enter the workplace if he’s not planning to go to a four-year college:
Make sure your child gets a strong academic education in high school
Your student still needs a strong foundation in core academic subjects. In an economy changing as quickly as ours, all kids will need to learn new skills as their jobs change. After all, today’s auto mechanics need to understand how to work on cars with sophisticated computerized systems, and chefs need to have a grasp of the science of cooking.
These foundational skills include reading for information, applied mathematics, locating information, problem solving, and critical thinking, notes a 2013 ACT, Inc. report. These are the underlying cognitive skills necessary for success in most jobs, trade and technical schools, apprenticeship programs, or community colleges. So students should aim to graduate from high school with at least average grades in most courses. Moreover, some post-high school options may also ask students to take the SAT, ACT, or ASSET exams for placement, or give their own tests covering industry-specific material to see if students are right for what they offer.
Your teen may not be aiming for the Ivy League. But doing well in high school still matters.
Investigate community college for high school students
Dual enrollment offers many high school students a way to earn both high school and college credit for classes taken at a community college. Because community colleges have facilities and technical programs not available in high school, this can be a great way to get a head start on a career.
“Middle college” programs offer similar opportunities for high school students to spend their school day at a community college and earn a diploma and up to two years of college credit. Talk to your child’s counselor to find out about whether any of these options are available near you.
Consider community college after high school
Your child will likely need to look at a community college or technical training program after high school to prepare for the job he wants.
There are lots of reasons to consider community college. It’s a far less expensive way to pursue post-high school education than going directly to a technical program or a four-year college, a key consideration for the student who is unsure of his career direction. Community colleges offer technical training programs, and they also typically have smaller classes than four-year colleges. That means that in addition to getting technical training, your child can sample college-level academic classes in a less stressful setting than the typical large state university.
Do your homework if you’re considering a technical school
Technical schools can be expensive, and they may not offer the training your student needs to get a job. Some questions to ask before investing time and money:
- How good is the program?
- How much does it cost, including books, equipment, uniforms, lab fees?
- Is there financial aid? Are private loans involved?
- Is it accredited? What are the names and phone number of the licensing organizations? Which state agency handles the licensing for graduates of this school? Your child’s counselor can help you research which accrediting organizations are reputable in this field.
- Check with the state attorney general’s office and Better Business Bureau and your county’s consumer protection agency to see if the school has a record of complaints that indicate questionable business practices.
- Is the equipment up to date?
- Sit in on some classes. Are the teachers engaging and knowledgeable?
- How do graduates of the program fare?
- What percentage of students complete the program?
- What percentage of students get jobs?
- Where are they placed, what is their starting wage and how long do they stay in their first jobs?
- Are credits from the program transferrable to a college program?
- Can the program refer you to recent graduates?
To learn more, read Choosing a Career or Vocational School on the Federal Trade Commission’s website and our article Beware for-profit colleges.
Consider a gap year
It may be hard for parents who grew up in a less competitive era to understand, but an increasing number of students who’ve spent years building their academic credentials with AP classes are asking for a breather before going to college. Your child may have the academic preparation for college but feel too burned out to take advantage of it right now. A gap year may be just the thing to get him recharged and focused on what he wants out of an education.
More and more colleges are allowing students to apply, then defer enrollment while they gain life experience and perhaps, a more international perspective. There are programs for students to help villagers build homes in Latin America or work in health clinics in Africa. Princeton University is formalizing the process by offering students financial aid for a gap year. An industry has grown up to place students in overseas programs for a gap year, a concept much more common in Europe than in the United States.
These programs can be a great way to help a student focus on career goals, but they generally cost money rather than providing a means to earn it. It’s important for your student — whether she’s applied to college or is not ready to do so — to understand the real cost of a gap year program. Talk to your child’s college counselor for ideas about researching financial aid options for a gap year.
They can change their minds
Finally, try to encourage your child to keep his options open. He may change his mind — many times. The global marketplace will change even more. Jobs will exist in 2020 that most of us haven’t imagined yet, and careers that now look like lifelong paths may simply be first steps into an unknown future.
If your child needs some direction, the Occupational Outlook Handbook by the Bureau of Labor Statistics has a wealth of information about jobs, including the training and education needed, earnings, job prospects, what workers do on the job and working conditions.
Encourage your child to pursue his interests. The kid who loves playing games online may indeed grow up to invent them. But he’ll also need to focus on school so he can learn how to think analytically, solve problems and become a lifelong learner.