College can be a wonderful thing. For many, it's a place to meet lifelong friends, open your mind to new ideas, and earn a degree that can lead to a career that you love. And, fortunately for college-bound students, higher education has never been more popular. A Harvard University study from 2011 reported that 70 percent of high school seniors now go on to college, post-graduation.
That’s the good news. The not so good news is that of all the students who start college, only about 56 percent will graduate within six years. And two-year programs post even worse numbers—only 29 percent of those students graduate within three years.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (“Education at a Glance 2010”), the United States ranked last among the 18 tracked countries in the number of students who completed college once they started, with just 46 percent. That’s way less than countries like Japan (89 percent), and even less than Slovakia, where 63 percent of college students graduate.Why is that? It would be easy to blame college dropout rates on the rising cost of a college education, which has nearly sextupled since 1985. Or the fear of taking on more debt—the average student now graduates with $27,000 in debt from student loans, and total student debt in this country passed $1 trillion in 2011. Those are scary numbers. And, in fact, 48 percent of people who never went to college or who dropped out of college say that cost was the deciding factor.
But maybe money isn’t the only reason. Perhaps part of the problem is that we’re pushing kids into college who would be better served by following a different path.
There’s been a concerted effort over the last 20 years to convince every student that they must to go on to college. Families start planning for it when their children are still in preschool. High school students are pushed to take the hardest classes, fill their transcripts with extracurricular activities and multiple attempts at the SAT, and over- schedule their free time—until there’s no free time left— just to try to get into a four-year university.
It doesn’t matter whether or not the student has any idea of what she wants to do with her life. Or that not everyone is interested in a four-year degree—or even needs a four-year degree to do the work they want to do. The message has been “college is the only path to success,” and anyone who doesn’t get a degree will either be unemployed or flipping burgers the rest of her life.
The intention behind the “college for everyone” mindset is certainly good. Everyone should have access to a college education. Young adults who are excited to immerse themselves in the learning opportunities available through universities should pursue a college degree. Many careers do require four or six or eight years of higher education. This is not a bad thing. The problem arises when we see this as the only option, and when we tell teens it’s the only option.
In a 60 Minutes interview, Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal and the Thiel Foundation, compared today’s college experience to the housing bubble of a decade ago: “Everyone believed they needed to have a house and would pay whatever it took. Now everyone believes they need to go to college and will pay whatever it takes”—even if college doesn’t give them the skills they need and leaves them with more debt than their post-college careers will be able to afford.
Fortunately, there’s a growing backlash against this idea that the only path to a successful and happy adulthood is through college. Many families, and homeschooling families in particular, are finding that there are alternatives to the “one-size-fits-all, assembly-line, straight out of high school, right into college, and then into debt and an uncertain job market” path that we’ve been fed.
Maybe it’s because we’re so used to bucking the norm, and doing things our own way, but the idea of skipping the four-year degree isn’t so out of the ordinary for many homeschooling families.
“Going away to college is not the typical route for the homeschoolers I know,” says Andrea, a mom of two homeschool graduates who counsels families new to homeschooling.
In fact, Andrea’s son, who moved into a college dormitory the fall after his homeschool graduation, is an anomaly in their active homeschool community.
“I’m running into people doing community college from home or working to save money. I’m seeing homeschool graduates who want to keep homeschooling, taking classes they want to take as they want to take them, or doing apprenticeships,” Andrea says.
What Andrea describes is certainly true for my own family.
When my always-homeschooled son graduated two years ago, he took the ACT, got accepted to college, and then decided not to go. He's currently living at home, taking local classes, and picking up freelance writing jobs as he figures out what he wants to do next. He could be figuring it out at Washington State, where he was accepted, while taking out loans and going into debt. Instead, he's taking his time, trying new things, and figuring out a life path that’s right for him.
It isn’t always easy to give him this time. I still have moments of worry about where he’s heading. Giving your child the space and freedom to make his own way can be a very scary thing, especially when so many people are happy to tell you how crazy you are to not force them into college. But keep this statistic in mind: in 2014, a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that 46 percent of college graduates were working jobs that did not even require a college degree.
Knowing this, and recognizing that there are many valid options and alternatives to the college path may help alleviate some of the fear that can pop up from time to time. And, if you’re a family with a homeschool grad who is less than thrilled with the idea of going to college, the following list may spark some ideas.
Sometimes, when you’re not sure what direction you want to go in life, shifting your focus to helping others can help you figure it out. When you’re young and not yet supporting a family, gaining experience through volunteer service can be a wonderful alternative to college or working for money.
Today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 18.7 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. volunteer on a regular basis, which is unfortunate, because, not only can volunteer work be a satisfying way to give back to the community, it also provides a wonderful opportunity for young adults to develop skills, learn responsibility, build a professional network, and grow their resumes.
Everyone has valuable skills to offer. The links below can help you figure out how best to use them, but remember:
Do your research before volunteering to make sure you’re giving time and energy to an organizationthat you truly support.
If you can’t find a volunteer project that inspires you, consider starting your own, like cleaning up a nearby park or creating a newsletter for local indie band action.
If you do approach an organization about volunteer opportunities, be prepared to do an interview, just like you would for a “real” job.
Corporation for National and Community Service : Here, you can find service opportunities in your area, or register for national programs such as AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps VISTA, FEMA Corps, or Senior Corps.
Global Volunteer Network : This established organization, matches volunteers with service opportunities around the world.
Peace Corps : Though most of their volunteer projects require a bachelor’s degree, the Peace Corps also con- siders work experience, hobbies, and interests that align with their needs when screening applicants.
Volunteer.gov : A federal government website that lists volunteer opportunities on public lands in the United States.
Volunteer Match : Here you can register and search for volunteer opportunities that match your interests.
Other places to look for volunteer opportunities: nursing homes, local schools, daycare centers, community theaters, museums, community centers, homeschool groups, Meals on Wheels, animal shelters, neighborhood parks, shelters for families and children
The German word Wanderjahr means both “hiking” and “wandering,” suggesting a combination of strategic planning and serendipitous adventure. It was originally used to describe the journey of a young apprentice: after his training with his master ended, he would set off with a letter of introduction and a pack on his back to find other masters in other towns who could teach him new ways to do familiar things.
Today, this word could easily be applied to young adults who choose to travel after high school rather than going into college. After all, what better education is there than getting out into the world, navigating unknown places, and learning from people of various cultures?
For graduates who feel passionate about wanting to leave home and see the world, taking some of the money that would have been spent on college and using it to travel instead may not be a bad idea. Choose your destination, create a budget, and then use a travel agent or online guide to help you plan your journey:
Discover America : If international travel is not for you, this site can help you plan your trip across North America, learn more about the United States, and hit the road.
Lost World Adventures : Run by a former homeschooling family, this company has specialized in personalized travel packages to Central and South America and Antarctica for over 20 years.
European Destinations : This site offers a wide variety of travel packages and itineraries throughout Europe.
Cross Cultural Solutions : Here you can find opportunities to combine international travel with volunteer service in nine countries, if that’s something that interests you.
Gap Year Travel : This online portal can help you research and plan your travel adventure, and connect you with others who are doing the same.
Gap360 : This site is designed to help you research and plan your adventure, whether you’re looking for a short trip, an international volunteer experience, work abroad, or a longer excursion.
Apprenticeships are common practice in countries like Germany and Switzerland, but they haven’t made it into mainstream U.S. culture—which is too bad because apprenticeships, which are essentially paid, on-the-job career training, can be a great way to break into a field. People often associate apprenticeships with blue-collar jobs, like plumbing or car repair, but apprenticeships can also be valid paths to creative fields like video game design, photography, or journalism.
Finding apprenticeships can be intimidating because you must put yourself out there—whether you’re competing for an apprenticeship program or approaching a local business, you’ll have to convince the decision-makers that you are a worthwhile investment. One way to take the edge off this process is to spend some of your high school or post-high school time connecting jobs to interests. You may ask yourself what kind of jobs are there for writers, or people who are passionate about the environment, or whatever it is you’re interested in. Then track down people who are doing those jobs and politely ask them for informational interviews, where you can get a clear idea of the kind of work they actually do every day.
Fortunately, internet access now makes it easier than ever to find apprenticeship opportunities, fellowships, and mentors in your area and beyond.
The following are three state-specific apprentice programs. To see if there’s a similar program in your state, search “apprentice programs” + the name of your state:
Apprentice Programs of Georgia (APOGA) : This program is specific to Georgia but could be useful to graduates in that state, or those considering relocating to the state.
Massachusetts Apprenticeship Program : Specific to Massachusetts and full of information on pro- grams, laws, and opportunities specific to that state.
Texas Apprenticeship Program : This online resource, published by the Texas Workforce Commission, provides information on apprenticeship opportunities, laws, and tips specific to Texas.
It’s also a good idea to check with businesses in your area to see if they would consider offering apprenticeship opportunities. Artists, landscapers, butchers, woodworkers, contractors, designers, and other skilled workers may be interested in sharing their knowledge by taking on an apprentice, depending on the laws in your state.
For national listings of registered apprenticeship programs and opportunities, check out the following:
American Culinary Federation Apprenticeship Program : This site is full of information on culinary-based apprenticeship opportunities across the country.
Apprenticeship USA : A website from the United States Department of Labor, full of information on apprenticeships, grants, and more.
Additionally, it’s possible to find companies and organizations offering funding and mentorship for young adults seeking an alternative to college. Two well-known programs worth considering are:
Echoing Green : This 27-year-old program provides seed-stage funding for young leaders from around the world who are working to bring about positive social change.
Thiel Foundation : Chooses 20 young people under the age of 20 each year to pursue their passions. In addition to $100,000 to use working toward their goals, participants in this two-year program are mentored by some of the country’s best scientists, entrepreneurs, researchers, and business leaders. Most former fellows have gone on to invent something or start their own companies.
STARTING YOUR OWN BUSINESS
According to a 2014 report by Freelancers Union (a non-profit organization) and Elance-oDesk (a company that connects freelancers and potential projects), 34 percent of the U.S. workforce (or approximately 53 million people) now work as freelancers, independent contractors, or as home-based business owners. (That number includes both the author of this story and the editor of this magazine.) And some experts project that the number will jump to a whopping 50 percent by 2020.
These days, it’s easier than ever to become your own boss. Technology has significantly lowered the barriers to starting a business, and there are many free and cheap resources available to aid just-starting-out business owners. And while it’s true that many businesses fail, the lessons learned from a failed business can prove invaluable to entrepreneurs in their next venture.
Homeschooling, in particular, lends itself well to entrepreneurship because our kids are used to working independently, and they often have the extra time necessary to come up with and implement business ideas. I think homeschoolers may also be a little less afraid of trying and failing and then trying again than the general population—due, perhaps to all of the various classes and curricula we try and then drop along our homeschooling journey, and the fact that we’re used to working outside the mainstream.
If your homeschool graduate isn’t interested in going right to work for someone else and has an idea or two for work they would like to do, post-high school is a great time to try. some entrepreneurial possibilities include writing, graphic design, baking, website creation, teaching classes (at a local homeschool group or in the community), pet sitting, personal shopping, landscaping, handyman, childcare, and more. Really, the possibilities are nearly endless.
It can be good idea to test the waters first by starting tiny and building up your business slowly through people that you know. But when you’re ready for the next step, and need help with the logistics of starting, or growing, your small business, you may want to check out the following sites:
The Small Business Administration has tons of information on starting your own small business, including finding funding, filing taxes, structuring your business and more.
Techstars provides funding and guidance for entrepreneurs of any age in technology-based businesses.
TECHNICAL AND TRADE CERTIFICATION
Just because the four-year college path isn’t for you, doesn’t mean you have to forego school altogether. In some fields, a technical or vocational degree is all that’s required to find a career that interests you.
In fact, several of the fastest growing jobs in the United States don’t require a bachelor’s degree at all but do require some kind of specialized training or certification. Engineering technicians, aerospace operations, web developers, MRI technologists, nuclear technicians, and air traffic controllers, for example, are just some of the jobs that are expected to show continued growth over the next ten years, and none of them requires four years of college.
Unfortunately, according to Anthony Carnavale, Ph.D and Director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, there is often still a stigma attached to the trade school path. Vocational programs haven’t been very successful in the U.S. because “the idea of sorting kids into different tracks, with some going to college and others going to vocational programs, is [deemed] unacceptable.”
While this may be true, our perception of vocational training in this country could be changing, as more and more people become aware of the job openings available to them and of the fact that there’s a serious shortage of qualified workers for many of those positions.
Actor and TV personality, Mike Rowe, in particular, is a vocal advocate for closing the Skills Gap and learning skilled trades. Through his mikeroweWORKS Foundation and the Profoundly Disconnected website, graduates interested in pursuing a trade can get information, search for training and job opportunities, and learn more about why increasing the ranks of skilled workers in this country is so important.
If you’re concerned about the income potential for skilled trades, here are some numbers that may put your worries to rest: The average starting salary for a four-year college graduate is $45,000. For a trade school graduate, it’s $43,000. And, because of the labor shortages in both technical and blue-collar fields, a trade school graduate typically finds a job faster than a college graduate—in fact, many trade school grads finish their programs with job offers in hand. And, as economists point out, as demand for these skilled positions continues to increase, wages will, too.
A comprehensive, and alphabetized, listing of two-year colleges and trade schools from across the country can be found online at College Tidbits.
Two other sites that may help you in your search:
Career Colleges : This online portal offers listings for various trade schools and valuable information on technical careers.
EducationGuys : An online guide to technical schools, trade schools, and related information.
One thing to be aware of, though, is that a number of for-profit colleges and trade schools may promise more than they deliver. Be sure to thoroughly research any program or school you sign up with before committing your time and money. Ask people in the fields you’re considering going into for their recommendations of trade schools and programs. And don’t be afraid to look up schools with the Better Business Bureau to see if there are any complaints against them.
HIGH TECH IMMERSION
One of the newest options in the post-high school educational landscape is the high-tech immersion program. Several tech schools have popped up across the country over the last few years, offering 8-week and 12-week, full-time certified immersion courses in coding, web design, game development, and more.
Aimed at graduates with a passion for computer technology or adults looking to change careers, these schools provide class time, mentors, and hands-on projects to prepare their students for careers in high-tech fields. And they couldn’t have come along at a better time.
According to the U.s. Bureau of Labor Statistics, IT jobs in the United States will grow 22 percent through 2020. Areas of highest growth include software developers (28 to 32 percent), database administrators (31 percent), and IT managers (18 percent).
The main benefit of one of the shorter tech programs versus a traditional four-year computer science college degree is that the technology and information in immersion programs are both current and relevant in today’s job market.
By comparison, many university computer science programs are oriented to training undergraduates to become either systems programmers or academic computer scientists, not software developers. And they are taught by professors who generally got their degrees anywhere from five to ten years ago, at minimum, when the tools and tactics for software engineering were very different. Additionally, it’s difficult for most universities to keep up with the changing pace of technology. The industry simply changes faster than academia. Other benefits of tech immersion schools over traditional CS programs include: the cost of immersion programs is a fraction of what you’d pay for a university degree; you jump right into learning what you are there to learn, rather than having to take classes in subjects unrelated to your field; students work directly with business owners and tech employers; and the tech schools will help you land a job, internship, or freelance projects after the immersion is over.
Currently, one of the best-known high-tech immersion programs is Tech Talent South. Tech Talent South has locations in Asheville, Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Jacksonville, New Orleans, and Raleigh.
In 2010, Bill Gates said, “Five years from now, on the web, for free, you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.” And he was right. There are now thousands of free online classes available from colleges like Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As homeschoolers, many of us are used to creating our own curriculum and lesson plans, and finding opportunities for learning outside of the home. So, why stop once high school is over? With all the options at our fingertips today, it’s possible to create your own four-year college program for next to nothing, without even leaving home.
To come up with your own DIY College plan, ask yourself the following:
What are the things I’m most interested in studying?
How do I learn best (independently, in a class, one-on-one, online)?
How much money can I afford to spend?
How much time can I devote to my studies each week?
Then, look around online and in the community to come up with options that best fit your needs. Some to consider are:
Homeschool Classes : Some homeschool groups offer classes for all ages. Just because you’re finished with high school doesn’t mean you can’t continue to take a class in a subject you’re interested in. Check with your local groups to see what’s available.
Community Classes : Depending on where you live,you may be able to find a number of classes offered by local businesses. In our town, art studios, glass blowing shops, the local community garden, and the local butcher shop all offer classes for teens and adults on an ongoing basis. Our city government even offers a free 8-week course on working in city government twice a year.
College Classes : Some colleges will allow non-enrolled students to audit classes, particularly in the summer when classes aren’t as full. They may also offer “open” or “extension” classes in a variety of subjects. There is a fee involved, and grades are typically not given. But it’s a great way to learn more about a subject that you may be interested in.If a school does not offer auditing options to non-enrolled students, it may still be possible to contact the professor of a course directly and ask if you can sit in on the classes. Sometimes this will be allowed if the class isn’t full. It will all depend on the school’s and professor’s personal policies, of course, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Books : Even in the age of technology, books are an important resource when crafting your own college experience. Whether you want to work your way through a textbook or just read everything you can find on the subjects you’re interested in, having access to good books is key to higher education. Search online, check to see what texts are being used in college courses that sound interesting to you, ask for recommendations, and then create your reading list.
Online Courses : As Bill Gates predicted, the Internet has opened up a world of quality educational opportunities that simply didn’t exist prior to the technology boom. Today it’s possible to take free, college-level courses in just about any subject imaginable without leaving your house. Called Massive Online Open Courses (or MOOCs), these courses are created and taught by college professors, and can usually be done independently, at your own pace. All you need is a computer and an internet connection. Some of the best online courses can be found through Coursera, edX, iTunes University, and Stanford Online.
Finally, if all of the paths above sound equally wonderful to your grad, there’s always UnCollege Gap Year. This program combines many of the elements we’ve shared here—independent study, mentorship, volunteering, travel, and entrepreneurship—into one program that guides students through self-directed learning and growth. It does have a tuition cost of about $16,000, but the idea is that you’ll get a hands-on, real-life education, and perhaps discover a different route for your career than you might find from a traditional college degree.
This article was originally published in the fall 2015 issue of HSL. Subscribe, and you'll always be the first to read great articles like this.