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Life After High School: Alternatives to the 4-Year University

Parent Toolkit | Jul 13, 2015

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Logo: Parent Toolkit

Jul 13, 2015

A recent poll conducted by the Parent Toolkit, and sponsored by Pearson, found that almost 90 percent of parents surveyed said children need some sort of training or education after high school in order to achieve the American Dream. While the traditional 4-year university experience may be right for some, it’s not the right fit for everyone. The good news is that there are several other options that can help prepare teens for future success. How do you and your children know the right fit? We talked to our Parent Toolkit experts and representatives from community colleges, the military, and vocational schools to help you and your teen navigate life after high school. Here is what they had to say:

  • Take a look at community college. With the costs of attending a traditional 4-year college or university growing year by year, community colleges offer an affordable way for students to gain specialized training or earn college credit to transfer to a traditional university to finish their degree. Before you and your teen decide if community college is the right fit, do a little research. You may want to pay a visit to your local community college and tour their facilities, which can help give your teen a better understanding of what college life is like at that campus. While there, inquire about the scholarship and financial aid opportunities. There may be many funding options available to those who qualify.

    Community colleges provide an opportunity for students, says Juan Mejia, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Tyler Junior College in Texas. “Not only do many of these institutions offer open admission to those who apply, but they also typically have smaller class sizes, a better student-to-teacher ratio than most public universities, and courses are taught by qualified faculty. Some community colleges also offer associate degree options or certification programs that may not be offered at four-year schools, including specialized training in technology and service careers that do not require a bachelor’s degree. By far, the best part of the community college experience is the vast amount of support provided to students, and the help that they receive to ensure that they complete their associate’s degree or that they are prepared to transfer to a four-year university.”

  • Look at vocational training to learn a trade. Many community colleges and trade schools provide an array of vocational training options for those interested in gaining certification in a technical trade. These programs allow students to gain hands-on specialized training in trades like nursing, medical assistance and billing, physical therapy assistance, plumbing, welding and technology. In many cases, community colleges work with business leaders to develop the local workforce, which means that students have access to the latest technology, cutting-edge equipment and innovative simulation labs to allow them to experience authentic pre-employment situations before they enter the working world. If your teen is interested in a specific trade, you should try to take a tour of the school’s facilities and labs that students in these programs will be working in and learn more about the requirements for admission.

    While many community colleges and trade schools admit most of those who apply, having a good academic record will help students secure funding for their studies in the form of scholarships or grants. There are some vocational programs, especially in the health fields, that have extra requirements for admission, including taking anatomy courses in high school or having volunteer experience. If the program your teen likes requires that he continue his education and earn a bachelor’s degree in that field, you should also inquire about whether all of his courses will transfer to the university that he wants to attend.

  • Look into military opportunities. If your teen is interested in joining the military, you may want to find out more about the different branches (the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corp and Navy), and see if any of them align with her skills and interests. For example, if she’s on the swim team and enjoys volunteering as a life guard or keeping people safe around water, the U.S. Coast Guard could be good fit. While you’re researching the various branches, weigh the benefits of serving, like a steady income and tuition assistance, with the risks of deployment and war.

    “Parents should look to the military as an opportunity that will provide their child with valuable job training and an education,” says Tony Castillo, the chief of the education division at the U.S. Army Recruiting Command (USAREC). “The Army has a great system that allows recruits to work toward a college degree while they are serving their country. Last year, we awarded $326 million in tuition assistance for soldiers to go to college and pursue certification while on active duty. There are also over 150 careers to choose from, including positions like unmanned aerial vehicle operator or medical specialist. The Army has many careers that are not combat-related, and for every person on combat forces, there may be two to three others who serve in supportive roles. During the enlistment process, recruits can select a guaranteed career , and that’s what makes us unique.”

    If the military becomes an option that your teen is seriously considering, meet with a recruiter. Recruiters screen applicants to see if they are qualified for the military and they can also provide you with information about the additional benefits, desired qualifications and specific needs of the military branch where they serve. Recruiters are also tasked with scheduling recruits for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam, which is administered at Military Entrance Processing Stations, or MEPS. A physical exam may be conducted at that time. For more information about military entrance processing, visit the Military Entrance Processing Command website at

  • Still in high school? Your teen may be able to earn college credit early. There are also various programs available for high school students to gain college credit before they graduate. Dual enrollment programs and Early College High Schools provide students with the opportunity to complete a program of study and earn an associate’s degree while they are still in high school, and in many instances, students can gain these two years of college credit tuition free. In addition to these offerings, there are other specialized programs available in engineering, medical sciences, information technology and other health-related fields. Students admitted into these programs typically have strong academic records and show a commitment to pursue these types of careers after college. To find out if your local college offers these types of programs, you may want to ask your child’s high school counselor or call the school directly.

The best way for your teen to transition to life after high school is to meet with the school counselor regularly and to discuss his interests often. You can also be involved in those meetings. Missouri-based school counselor Dr. Sharon Sevier says that high school counselors can be a parents’ best ally in helping teens find the right post-secondary path, and they can “hold your hand and guide you through the process.” She also suggests that parents begin to explore their children’s passions early, while also encouraging their interests, making them aware of their future career options, and respecting their decisions.

“We have to honor what they want to do,” she says. “As parents, we need to support our children’s choices, but we should also equip them with knowledge and the skills to be continual learners, and to have initiative to succeed in whatever they choose to do. Ask open-ended questions about how they feel about certain career fields, and do your best to simply support and guide them. Always remember that this is your child’s life, not yours, and you want your kids to choose a career that they will be happy in.”

“We want teens to graduate from high school and to be as successful as they want to be,” adds Army representative Castillo. “Whether they decide to join the Army, attend college, or go straight to work, they are serving their country by becoming a productive member of our society. And it’s incumbent that we all do what we can to help them reach that goal.”