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Great Alternative Paths If Your Student Isn't Interested in College

A traditional college education isn't the only option for students—and it's okay if they don't want it! Here are other options for you to explore together.

I’m a second-generation college graduate and the first in my family to go to graduate school. However, I’ve never believed that college is for everybody. If your high school student does not want to go to college, your first reaction should not be to turn pale or cry. It should be to ask why.

Good reasons for not wanting to go to college

There are many reasons your student may not want to attend college, the first of which could be a misunderstanding of what college means. Talk with your teens about their aspirations. College might not be the right path for them—then again, they might not be aware of its benefits in helping them reach their goals. Or maybe they want to enter the workforce sooner, serve in the military first, take a year off for travel, volunteer, participate in religious or missionary service, or pursue another lifelong passion. These are all valid options. Let’s explore some of them more in-depth.

Related: Your Goals, Your Life, Your Gap Year

Alternative options to traditional college

When it comes to education and skill development, a traditional four-year college or university is typically what most parents and students think of first, but these additional paths are just as valid—and valuable—as the traditional one.

Trade schools

If it’s technical skills your student is after, there are many training programs and classes that cater to those seeking a career in auto mechanics, manufacturing, skilled construction, and other trades, including some nursing fields. Many of these courses can be found at local community colleges. One caution: pre-professional degrees offered by community colleges are usually considered terminal degrees. Few—if any—credits earned are transferable to a four-year degree if your student chooses to pursue one later.

Military services

While associate degrees may get a recent graduate to an interview and possibly into employment, they do not always help graduates who want to advance into leadership positions. Military service is one exception, but the decision to enlist should be an informed one. Soldiers can learn many trades. However, the military is like any other business in the sense that it places a higher priority on positions it needs to fill. The soldier’s desire to learn a trade comes second—sometimes a distant second—to the military’s needs. To their credit, many military recruiters work with prospective recruits before they enlist to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship.

Related: College Options for Students Interested in the Military

Volunteer and nonprofit organizations

Government agencies, charities, and other nonprofit organizations often sponsor programs for young adults such as AmeriCorps that encourage high school seniors to take time off from school and engage in community service. AmeriCorps gives its departing members an education grant that can be used for future college bills or to repay student loans.

Give them time to figure out their plan

The greatest concern is when high school students have no idea about what they want to do “when they grow up.” For students who are trying to figure things out, it may be a matter of giving them six months or a year of living at home, with expectations such as continuous employment and contributing to household expenses. After some time, the realities of paying one’s own way may set in, while college or other aspirations may have time to flourish.

Related: How to Figure Out What You Want to Do After High School

No matter what your teen decides, as long as they’re making healthy decisions, often the best thing to do is explain the responsibilities and consequences of each action and inaction they’re considering. And from there, it’s best to let your student learn on their own.

If they choose to pursue it, we have a ton of advice for students on taking a gap year and what to do during that time!

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