When College Isn’t the Best Choice: Helping Your Teen Explore Options

Everyone knows how it’s supposed to go for your child: sign up for college prep courses in high school, keep her grades up, ace the SAT and ACT, apply to several colleges. Pick one, pack up, and head off to the experience that will determine the rest of her life.

That’s the way it does work for about 65 percent of high school graduates. The payoff is greater job security after graduation (in the recent economic downturn, 4 college graduates lost their jobs compared to 8 of those who didn’t attend college) and greater earning capacity (workers with a four-year degree earn between $280,000 and $550,000 more than those without a college degree over their working life).

There are other statistics, though:

Of the 30 fastest growing professions, only seven require a four-year college degree.

A quarter of college graduates report that they are working a job that doesn’t require their degree.

Only 54 percent of students who start a four-year college graduate after six years.

A Reuters’ poll found that 40 percent of college graduates in this country are working only part-time or have no opportunities for advancement; 34 percent graduated with tuition debt of up to $30,000 and 17 percent up to $50,000.

College remains the choice of a majority of high school seniors, but there are many other options for teens who can’t afford the increasing cost of tuition, don’t yet know what they want to study, or know that they’d like to follow another path.

Studying for less than four years: Of the 30 hottest professions, most require some post-high school education, but not a full four-year (or more) degree. Trade schools, certificate programs, and community colleges all offer a chance to learn in-demand skills for a much smaller investment than a four-year college.

Starting a business of his own: Entrepreneurs take a huge risk, but some 22 million people in this country are taking that leap; that’s 14 percent of the nation’s workforce. The Internet has made starting and marketing a business much easier and cheaper; all your teen needs is a good idea and a will to work it. Even failure isn’t necessarily failure, if he learns from the experience and uses that knowledge to try again.

Volunteering: If you’re financially able (and willing) to support your teen for another couple of years, there’s a world of experience to be gained in volunteer positions. It’s an inexpensive way for a young person to sample a number of fields while doing some good along the way.

Take a job, any job: There’s nothing like working an entry level job for minimum wage to focus the attention of a meandering teen on what he’d really like to do, particularly if you require her to pay the equivalent of real living expenses (the money can go into a savings account to help support her future plans). She’ll be exposed to people she might never encounter and experience how much of the nation’s workforce struggles to survive.

Travel: There’s a huge world to be explored. If your teen is adventurous (and you can handle letting him go), travel is a great teacher. He can learn about different cultures, how to take care of travel, housing, food, and social needs in an unfamiliar environment on a budget.

Join the military: Military service teaches discipline, organization, and service. Benefits include health care, training while in service, and tuition help after leaving. Many colleges and employers give veterans extra consideration.

Find an internship. If your teen already has a sense of what field he’d like to enter, working as an intern in that area can let him know if he’s right. He’ll have an opportunity to show a prospective employer that he’s willing to work hard and learn the needs of the job. If that includes formal education, the employer may be willing to help pay the cost.

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