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Alternative Post-High School Paths to Successful Adulthood

I used to assume my three kids would go away to four-year colleges after high school. That’s what my husband and I did, after all. It’s what practically everyone I knew did after they graduated from high school. A few kids would live at home and attend community college, but it seemed that most of us went away to school—even if we had absolutely no idea what we wanted to study.

Fortunately, the assumption that the only way to be successful is to attend a four-year college is in the past.

There are so many options for high school graduates to choose from now. Options that will lead them on their own unique path to becoming successful, well-adjusted, and happy adults.

My Beliefs Have Changed: There is No Single Path

As my kids have gotten older, my feelings about the traditional post-high school path have changed. Now I believe that deciding what to do after high school should be driven by a kid’s passion.

High school grads who aren’t ready for a four-year commitment still have plenty of options for success. They can take a gap year, learn a trade, find a job in a field they are interested in, or take classes at the community college to explore what their passions might be. In the last few years, my kids have navigated decisions about four-year colleges, gap years, community college, and trade schools.

When my oldest son received a basketball scholarship to a small school in California, I thought to myself, “Okay, this is how it’s supposed to be. They leave the nest after high school.” But after two years of grueling practices and a full class schedule, he decided he didn’t want to play basketball any longer and transferred to a state college near home. It wasn’t what I thought would happen, but he is less pressured, more focused on school, and happier.

My daughter had a difficult time in high school and dealt with severe depression and anxiety, so she didn’t feel ready to make the leap to college when she graduated from high school. We discussed her options, and she decided to take a gap year and work full time, which her father and I fully supported. This break in her education afforded her the opportunity to purchase her very first car, paid in full.

After a year at home, she was looking for a change of scenery and thought she was ready for college, so she moved 800 miles away to attend a community college in Denver. Once again, we supported her choice. But when she came to me after her first semester and said, “I don’t think this is the path I want to take,” I listened to her because I wasn’t sure she was on the right path either.

So now we’re considering other options for her. She has always wanted to work in a field where she can care for others and she’s particularly drawn to babies, children, pregnant women, and mothers. She doesn’t want to be a nurse or a teacher, so we talked about how she might be able to do something she loves without going to a four-year college. While she decides what path to take, she’s taking general education courses at a community college and working as a nanny, putting her passions for children and caregiving directly into action.

Consider All of the Options

If a teen isn’t sure about college or is nervous about having to choose something to do for the rest of their life, it might be time to consider some other possibilities. Spending a gap year volunteering for a cause they believe in or working part- or full-time in an industry that interests them can offer valuable first-hand experience they can’t get in a classroom. It’s also a good way to make professional connections and develop a work ethic.

Open communication with our teens has helped us come up with future plans that resonate with them and gives us the peace of mind to know they’re on the path of their choice.

When our kids were younger, we never really considered the alternatives to a four-year college, but I’m so glad they have options I didn’t feel I had. All three of my children are on varying paths to success, with the youngest set to graduate high school next year. He is interested in a career in music, so he’s looking at schools and programs that will support his passion for playing piano. I’ll continue to support a him in whatever choices he makes, just as I have with his siblings, because I truly believe that if my kids are happy pursuing their passions, then success will follow.

Stephanie Elliot

Stephanie Elliot’s work has been featured in Parents.com, Romper.com, TheFix.com, CafeMom, The Stir, SheKnows.com, Writer’s Digest, and more. She is an essayist, editor and the author of the young adult novel, Sad Perfect. To learn more, visit her website at: stephanieelliot.com.