Trade School, University, College, or Military: How to Help Teens Choose What's Next

Not every kid is suited for the same path after high school. Here are the basics on which might be the best fit for your teen.

illustration of paper doll with trade uniform dress option, university sweatshirt, military uniform, etc.
Photo: Illustration by Chris Gash

For many years, attending a 4-year college or university after high school graduation seemed like a no-brainer. Obtaining your bachelor's degree has traditionally been a sure-fire way to move into a higher-paying career with better benefits, more job security, and more upward mobility, but the times, they are a'changin'. Even before COVID-19 drastically altered the job market and wider society, college grads were entering the job market with crippling student loan debt and a workforce that has become increasingly dependent on contractors, freelance workers, and unpaid internships, a bachelor's degree may not be the sure thing it was 30 years ago.

Luckily, there are other choices for teens who are wondering what they're going to do to be relevant in a changing job economy. Learning a trade, entering the military, or attending a community college before transferring to a 4-year institution are all valid options that might be a better fit for your child. According to Candice Lapin, author of Parenting In The Age of Perfection: A Modern Guide To Nurturing a Success Mindset, when discussing the future with your teen the most important thing to consider is, well, your teen.

"First you want to start thinking about your child's passions as interests because they have a higher likelihood of being happy and financially secure as well as abundantly successful if they pursue something that aligns with their personality, strengths, and interests," explains Lapin. "Start with your teen's interests and let that guide your family decision."

Trade School

Trade schools, also known as technical or vocational schools, focus on teaching skills for specific jobs. They are usually much smaller, have lower student to teacher ratios, and generally take less time to complete than a 4-year degree. Vocational schools prepare students for jobs such as pharmacy technicians, electricians, dental hygienists, and cosmetologists, and have the potential to be quite high-paying–all in less time than a university degree and with less financial burden once complete.

"Someone who is passionate about doing hair should not feel compelled to go to a four-year university," Lapin explains. They can go to a vocational school that specializes in cosmetology, and perhaps further their knowledge in the field by studying chemistry if they want to pursue creating products within the industry."

Vocational schools also provide job placement services for students who are finishing their degree or certification as well as hands-on training and education in job-specific skills. Don't forget, says Lapin, "One size does not fit all and four-year colleges are not the only guarantee of success."

Community College

Two-year community colleges are also an option for those looking for alternatives to a four-year school. Students can attend a two-year school and complete basic core curriculum classes in a smaller classroom environment then transfer to a four-year school to finish out their specific course of study.

"If you struggled with school but figured it out later around junior year and your grade point average (GPA) isn't a match for certain colleges yet," Lapin says that a community college might be the way to go. Students who attend community colleges have the opportunity to boost their GPA and transfer to their dream school later.

Community colleges also have lower tuition costs than universities and four-year colleges. "You can really reduce cost by attending city college for two years and transferring," explains Lapin. "For students who do not have financial support and are paying for school, community college is a great way to reduce cost and get into a great state school."

Enrolling in a local community college also allows flexibility in living arrangments. Students may opt to continue living at home during their two-year stint before transferring to a four-year program. Similarly, smaller class sizes and the ability to remain at home may make the transition from high school to college easier for some freshman students, allowing them time to adjust to college-level workloads before moving to a larger campus.

Military Service

Military service has traditionally been eschewed by middle-class families in favor of college, but all students should consider it as a viable option. One big benefit of enlisting in the armed services is the tuition payment services provided to veterans. The G.I. Bill will pay up to 100 percent of tuition and expenses based on the amount of time spent as active duty.

Military service also provides leadership training and real-world job skills that can be transferred to civilian life upon fulfillment of your military contract. Also, employers may be more likely to offer higher starting salaries to those with military backgrounds than to those without. And for those with dreams of working in high-profile public sector jobs like the FBI, CIA, or State Department, military service is a great starting point, says Lapin.

Public and Private Universities

Although the potential for large student loan debt balances might not make a four-year degree the best choice for every young adult, traditional four-year universities have one thing going for them that smaller community schools do not–student life. Clubs, sports, and other campus facilities are usually beyond the budget of smaller schools. And with smaller student bodies, community colleges may not offer as much diversity of culture as larger schools.

In the face of a changing job market and less certain future than recent years, it's time to sit down with your teen and discuss all the alternatives and help your teen make a responsible choice–after all, they're close to being adults themselves.

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