Many parents and families believe higher education is necessary to achieve career goals and financial independence. Forty percent of parents believe a college degree is very important. However, a bachelor’s degree is just one of the four recommended paths to choose after high school graduation.

In a world with advancing automation and globalization, our graduates will need real skills and knowledge to compete. These skills and knowledge typically will be attained through one of these preferred post-secondary outcomes:

  • a four-year college degree
  • a two-year associate’s degree
  • a certification in a trade
  • a career in the military

Four-Year College Degree (with minimal or no debt)

Many desirable jobs require a four-year college or university degree. Some students, especially those with challenging STEM majors, take five or six years to complete the degree. Depending on the major/degree, 40 courses or more are typically required for graduation. Some students are able to reduce this number via dual enrollment/early college, or Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), or College Credit by Examination (CLEP) courses while still in high school.

Colleges only have undergraduates, while universities also include graduate students and advanced degrees. In addition to student-paid tuition, public schools are subsidized by the state and/or federal government. While private schools tend to have higher price tags, they also often offer greater financial aid packages available to students.

The U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard can help you search and compare colleges to develop a list for further consideration.

Two-Year Associate’s Degree

For some students, a two-year associate’s degree is a better choice. Generally, this degree requires 20 or so courses to complete. Students who choose this route can save time and money, moving to a career more quickly. Many high schools offer dual enrollment or early college programs, which allow students to accumulate college credits in high school or even complete an associate’s degree simultaneously with high school graduation.

Some students who wish to attend a four-year university may choose to complete their first two years at a community college, and then transfer to the university, saving money while still graduating in four years. More than 900 community colleges exist nationwide. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) Community College Finder features a map of community colleges by state. You can also learn more about this option from our Community College Guide. 

Certification in a Trade

Demand for trade and vocational programs is on the rise. Technical trade programs are often offered through community colleges or technical skills programs. Many high schools also offer alternative learning tracks in trades. Some programs offer certifications while others provide paid training via apprenticeships, where students learn on the job from experienced workers.

Career in the Military

Some students thrive in the structure and challenge provided through a military career. Military branches include the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy. Some military jobs have specific physical requirements and/or restrictions. While the military provides both education and training, students can also go to college while serving, with tuition assistance provided. Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) is offered at over 1,000 colleges and universities across the country. An ROTC scholarship can help make college more affordable, but is provided in exchange for mandatory years of service after completing the degree.

Consider Your Options

So which of these paths is right for you? Here are some suggestions as you think about your options.

  • Think about where you want to live, your salary expectations, whether you prefer outdoor or office work, etc.
  • Consider your academic strengths, what fields and industries interest you, which vocations are experiencing growth, and what type of work makes you happiest.
  • Spend time talking with your school counselor, teachers, parents, friends, and family for insights about their post-high school experiences.
  • Discuss your financial situation with your family to determine which options are affordable for you.
  • Work at a job while in high school, or try internships, or do job shadowing, or conduct informational interviews with those in careers or fields of interest to you.
  • Research different career options. The U.S. government’s Career Outlook/Predicted Earnings website and ACT’s Planning for Your Future ebook may be helpful. Our blog Your Guide to Choosing a Major includes additional resources.

Commit to One of the Four Paths, and Get It Done!