Parents’ Guide to College Alternatives

October 15, 2018
Sarah DilworthCollege

Every parent wants their child to be successful. You do everything you can to guide them and help them grow. As your child enters high school, the number of choices and opportunities expands, leaving you to wonder which options will help your child be secure in their next steps in life. So what happens when you suddenly find yourself the parent of someone who has decided not to attend college? Does this mean your child will not be successful? Will they be behind their peers?

Having adult children who may be questioning and uncertain of their future is stressful. As a parent, you are the supporter, the encourager, the cheerleader for them along their journey of self-discovery. As it can be a tricky area to maneuver, we have created a simple guide for parents to support their child through this difficult, yet very important stage in their lives.

As you start to navigate the college alternative process with your child, keep these things in mind:


First off, we’ll be the first to say it, it’s okay to let go of any embarrassment, shame, anger, or disappointment you may be harboring. We understand that for some parents, the idea of their child not attending college is unfathomable and can be incredibly devastating. You might find yourself looking back and critiquing every mistake you think you made. This is not helpful. Everyone has their own journey, and as a parent, you’re still supporting your child in discovering and thriving as they find their way. And let’s face it, the more parents push for something, the more some teens will rebel and do the opposite. Some just need to know that it is THEIR decision, not yours.

Positive Reinforcement

The evidence is clear, you can still be a successful, happy adult without ever attending college. We all know that Steve Jobs dropped out of college after just one semester. But did you know Ellen Degeneres, Anna Wintour, Michael Dell, and Henry Ford did not go to college? We say it over and over again, but formal higher education is not for everyone. Arm yourself with some facts about higher education, graduation rates, student loan debt, and gap year options to help guide your teen during this time. Be sure to add in the stats that show the income gains from every level of higher education. All sides should be presented as informed choices are your child’s best tool right now.

Make Some Rules

Set parameters. Is your child going to live at home? How will they contribute to the household? Will it be through paying rent, doing chores, buying groceries, etc? They should have a plan for their immediate future. Discuss their short-term goals and where they see themselves in five years. Support them in planning action steps they can take to meet those goals. For some parents, as long as their child is earning some sort of income, that is enough. But if you want to encourage your son or daughter to explore their interests, learn a bit about the world, and engage in their community, in addition to working and earning money, we encourage you to explore the following college alternatives with your teen.

College Alternatives

1. Work, including apprenticeship and entrepreneurship

Unless they are equipped with a trust fund, hopefully, your recent high school grad will have the desire (and need) to earn money. No one is saying they need a high paying job, because, let’s be frank, a high school qualification will rarely produce that. However, it is important for them to earn enough money to eat, play, explore, and save. Again, having open conversations where you set your parameters regarding possible rent, car payments and/or insurance, health insurance, cell phone and internet charges, etc., will help your teen learn to budget.

Apprenticeships could also be a great option for your teen if they are interested in learning a skilled trade. These jobs, such as electricians, plumbers, carpenters, cosmetologists, or mechanics, incorporate education with on the job training and are often a perfect fit for someone who learns by doing and is ready to embark on their career.

This could also be a perfect time for your son or daughter to foster their entrepreneurial spirit. There are so many ways in which one can start their own business, or “side hustle” as your teen might say. Are they creative? Do they often produce works of art or have a crafting hobby? Do they have a skill they could teach, like guitar lessons or knitting? Are they good with technology and have an idea for an app? The most successful innovators of our time held fast to their entrepreneurial spirit as they tried over and over again to get their product or idea just right.

2. Volunteering and Service Learning Programs

This could be as simple as finding a cause or organization in your community that your teen cares about and volunteering their time a few hours per week. Or if they prefer a more committed option, there are more structured programs like AmeriCorps, Habitat for Humanity, Rotaract, and City Year, for example, that are excellent options for a young person to join. These require some advanced planning and typically have an application process, but the rewards of belonging to a service group of this nature are astronomical for both personal and professional development and making an impact on the community.

There are also plenty of international volunteering options, ranging from short term (1-2 weeks) to long term (upwards of a year). Volunteering abroad through a reputable program provider will best link your child to a local NGO, provide on-the-ground support, help with housing, provide transportation, answer visa questions, and give a sense of community, especially if there are other volunteers in the same area. While you may save a few bucks volunteering directly, the organized structure of an established program is something that eases the worries of both parents and teens, who often keep their fears and questions to themselves.

Another option for volunteering domestically or internationally would be for emergency or relief volunteers. Because of the nature of this, there would be less planning involved and more of a jump to action type volunteering. However, if this is an area that sparks an interest in your teen, encourage them to get involved with Red Cross, FEMA, UN Volunteers, or other emergency relief organizations. Also getting trained in emergency services through their local community college might be a good place to get a head start.

3. Travel or Retreat Abroad

Perhaps traveling abroad coincides with volunteering abroad or finding an international internship. But it does not have to. Again, this can be as structured or as flexible as you like. International retreats are gaining in popularity. It isn’t just yoga being offered these days  (although there certainly are plenty of those and are still a great way to see the world and find yourself). There are also hiking, weight lifting, surfing, creative writing, meditation, silent, Muay Thai, boxing, detox, general wellness, and even retreats that incorporate volunteering within the local community of their desired destination.

These options are ideal if you’re under a time constraint and want to have a set schedule with housing, meals, and activities organized for your teen. Buying a rail pass and travelling around Europe, or purchasing an open-ended plane ticket to Southeast Asia is a great option, but only for those more mature, free-spirited, and adventurous types.

4. Hobbies and Non-credit Classes

Just because they aren’t attending college in the fall doesn’t mean all learning has to come to a halt. Most community colleges offer noncredit courses in a variety of subjects. This is a great option for those who are enthusiastic about keeping their brains engaged and exploring a variety of interests. Noncredit courses also don’t have the added pressure of entrance tests, projects, exams, GPA, or grades.

This is the perfect time for your child to take up a new hobby. Whether it be a sport like rock climbing, learning a type of dance, practicing yoga, joining a crossfit gym, or a somewhat more sedentary hobby like knitting, pottery, photography, or writing poetry. This is a time in their life where they are encouraged to be self-focused, so trying something new and exploring their interests without any expectations is ideal.

You Could Find All of this in One Gap Year

No matter what your teen’s plans are, one thing that is clear; young people need time and space to focus on their futures. Year On’s programs can give them this. Our gap Year Experience, Semester Experience, and Summer Experience combine the above concepts into a structured program with tangible goals focused on building life skills, gaining real-world work experience, and exploring personal interests, all while having the adventure of a lifetime.

Learn more about Year On.

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Sarah Dilworth

Contributing Writer

Sarah Dilworth is an international education advocate, marketing professional, and freelance writer. Born and raised just outside Baltimore, Maryland, attended college in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and earned her master's degree in Dublin, Ireland, Sarah recently received her Irish citizenship and currently resides in Argentina. She spends her free time learning Spanish, practicing yoga, dancing the tango, scouring vintage markets, and eating her way through the various barrios of Buenos Aires.

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