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Articles / Preparing for College / Alternatives to College: Exploring Other Routes

Alternatives to College: Exploring Other Routes

C Written by Cynthia Clumeck Muchnick, M.A. and Jenn Curtis, M.S.W. | Sept. 28, 2021
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Exploring Alternatives to College

We don’t need to belabor the point that this generation of teens is tired, depressed, and burnt out. You already know that. If you’re a teenager, you may be experiencing it yourself. And if you’re a parent, you’ve probably watched your teen struggle, adjust, then perhaps struggle some more as they’ve grappled with the turmoil of the past 18 months.

In addition to the usual stress of high school and a highly competitive academic landscape, teens have endured the uncertainty and inconsistency of COVID and its aftermath. In a recent Pew Research Survey of thirteen to seventeen-year-olds across the country, seventy percent of those surveyed cited anxiety and depression as a major concern. In fact, that measure placed the highest, above any other concern, including bullying, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy.

Nevertheless, time trudges on and teens still are confronted with that nagging, intimidating question, “What are you doing after high school?” And if they don’t have a plan, or theirs doesn’t fit the norm? Well, it can be all the more daunting to transition into the next life stage.

Now more than ever it’s important for parents and teens’ to openly communicate about desires to pursue alternate routes to a traditional four-year college. As parents ourselves and educational consultants who have worked a combined thirty years with teens and tweens, we urge parents to be flexible and open-minded when it comes to the post-secondary school plans for their teens. Four-year college is not for everyone, and attending certainly does not have to follow high school directly.

We have outlined some of the most popular alternative choices below, but we encourage you to be open to whatever your teen presents to you and also to help navigate this new path alongside them (if that’s what they want.)

The Military

Working for the largest employer in the United States is a great way for teens not just to pay for college (ROTC), but also to learn discipline and patriotism, and to travel and see the world among other things. Some students have grown up in military families and easily understand this career choice more intimately, but others only know what they have seen in the movies, on TV, or in the news.

If you know someone who is a veteran or who is currently on active duty and who can educate you or your teen about this career choice, set up a meeting. Many traditional colleges, like Oregon State, offer ROTC programs, so consider that option as you research schools.

Community College

Some students don’t blossom socially, emotionally, or academically until after high school or don’t receive the grades that they had hoped to achieve. Others are not ready to leave home after high school or want to brush up on a few classes that were too challenging for them. And still others recognize that they can save money for college tuition and choose to complete an associates degree or some college credits before transferring to a 4-year university.

These reasons and more are why community college might be a wise (and economical!) choice for your teen. Explore your local campus to learn more. Talk to current students who have selected this path, too.

Gap Year

Taking a gap year can mean different things to different students. A gap year can consist of travel, an internship (paid, unpaid, academic, pre-professional), learning a new language through courses or immersion in another country, or studying an instrument for proficiency. Travel can fill a gap year. Community or global service are also ways to spend a gap year.

Some students divide the year into four parts and do something different each quarter of the year for some variety and structure. There are even structured gap year programs that your student can explore to help him decide. Check out some of these websites for more information: ​​Plan My Gap, Projects-Abroad, Global Leadership Adventures, Birthright and Study Abroad.


Believe it or not, some eighteen year olds are just ready to work. Rather than starting college and dropping out, they want real-life experience in the world beyond schooling and may be ready to have it. (And sometimes this real-world experience leads back to college, tech, or trade school.)

Parents, if your teen is telling you that she wants to earn money and work experience and skip college (for now or always), listen to what she has to say, ask good questions, and try to support her in this endeavor as best you can. Maybe your teen still wants to live at home while pursuing her first job, or perhaps she is just not ready to move out. These decisions may involve having several conversations and negotiations, ones that are necessary but might be uncomfortable.

We caution you not to “cut them off” out of spite or tough love if this is not the journey that you envisioned. Instead, consider using their desire to work as opportunities for conversations in preparation for launch into the working world. How will they budget for rent, food, transportation, and recreation? Also, the job application process can be tedious with forms to complete and rounds of interviews and recommendations to obtain. Agree to help and support when asked, or offer it up gently. If they may want to do a mock interview with you or have you help them shop for some working world attire, try to be supportive. It is always better for our kids when we are in their corner.

Teens, if you’re eager to join the workforce before or during school, consider joining a company that will help pay for college.

Trade/Technical School

Students can enroll in both online and in-person tech schools near where they live. Becoming an expert in a particular trade or skill set is a feat worthy of praise!

Does your teen like to tinker? Explore a computer technician certification.

Is your teen good with her hands? Explore training in woodwork or craftsmanship.

Tech schools offer certification programs and two year training degrees in a wide variety of areas: air conditioning/heating, plumbing, IT, construction, aeronautics, agriculture, mortuary science, computer drafting, health sciences and aircraft maintenance among others.

One new company that recently piqued our interest is skillsgapp, a company that develops mobile skills development games for middle and high schoolers—skills related to those needed to fill the “skills gap”. It couples teens with games they can play on their cell phones that actually train them for industry professions such as car manufacturing, pharma drug, or cyber security to name a few. These skills usually require more than a high school degree, but typically less than a four-year college degree to start.

There is often a negative stigma associated with these careers, despite all of their perks like state-of-the art facilities, cutting-edge technology, and a huge trajectory for growth. Says Cynthia Jenkins, Co-Founder of skillsgapp, “This next generation has witnessed millennials suffer through college debt with unemployment and their own parents’ vocational volatility during COVID. Yet advanced manufacturing—the foundation of every computer we turn on, car we drive, vaccine we develop—remains strong.”

Whatever the path, whether it is college or an alternative route, celebrate it.

Parents, let’s keep in mind that this is our teen’s experience, their choice, their life. Support your young adult, shoulder to shoulder, side by side, as they navigate these decisions in a world that looks very different from the one we grew up in.

And teens, life does not always take us from point A to point B directly. The route can be circuitous, zig zag, and squiggly. The most important thing is to trust that you have the strength and wisdom to navigate whatever path you choose to take.

Written by


Cynthia Clumeck Muchnick, M.A. and Jenn Curtis, M.S.W.

Cynthia C. Muchnick, M.A. & Jenn Curtis, M.S.W. are the co-authors of The Parent Compass: Navigating Your Teen's Wellness and Academic Journey in Today's Competitive World. To learn more please follow them on Instagram @parentcompass or visit www.parentcompassbook.com.

Cynthia is a graduate of Stanford University and has been working in education for the past 25+ years as a former Assistant Director of College Admission, high school teacher, educational consultant, and author of five other education-related books. She speaks professionally to parents, students, teachers, and businesses on topics such as study skills, the adolescent journey, college admission, and now the parent compass movement. www.cynthiamuchnick.com

Jenn earned a BA from UCLA and MSW from USC and has been an educational consultant and professional speaker for the past 13 years. As owner of FutureWise Consulting, she has worked with hundreds of students across the nation on every aspect of the college admission process. With a background in research and mental health, she is particularly passionate about empowering teens to approach life with intention and educating parents about using their parent compass.

Visit www.parentcompassbook.com or follow these handles for more information on the authors and their book:

instagram | @parentcompass

facebook | TheParentCompass

LinkedIn | Cindy Muchnick and Jenn Curtis

twitter | @ParentCompass1

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