Making the choice to continue on to higher education, attend a trade school, or head straight into the workforce can be a real hot topic for many high school students and their families. Whether it’s financial hardship, immediate career opportunities, or the hankering for (or aversion to) school, there are a lot of factors that play into your decision.
As a former recruiter and alumna of Central Washington University, I’ve listened to many concerns, answered heaps of questions, and provided a fair amount of resources for students starting their new paths. I’m also the daughter of a 20-year journeyman tradesman with the inside scoop on life inside a mill. As spring approaches with application deadlines for juniors, graduations, and acceptance letters for seniors, I thought I might share a little of what I’ve learned along the way.
If you are hesitant about which path to choose, that’s okay. It can be daunting when it feels like the entire rest of your life is riding on one choice. Just know that you are most certainly not alone at this three-pronged fork in the road! Let’s start with some of the questions and concerns you may have when looking at some of your options.
Are you hesitant because you think you can’t afford college?
Check your options before writing off your dream school! As part of the application process, you will have to apply for FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) regardless of whether you need it or plan to accept it. If you and your family live under the poverty line you will qualify for your state “Need Grant” as well as a few others. In my experience, that can amount to upwards of $10,000 - $12,000 a year in financial aid. The FAFSA is also your ticket to Stafford subsidized and unsubsidized loans. These are the lowest interest loans you can get, especially as someone with little to no credit score. Besides FAFSA, you can find all sorts of scholarships through the university you’re applying to, your local community, corporations you work for (e.g. UPS, McDonald’s, and Starbucks), and aggregate websites such as Fastweb, which act as a easy-to-use scholarship dating site.
I don’t want to go to school anymore. Can I make it without a degree?
Question why that is. Have you received an internship or opportunity to receive on-the-job training elsewhere? If so, have you thought about how far you can move up without higher education or certifications? If you don’t have family connections or a supermodel contract lined up straight out of high school, you’ll need to think carefully about this pathway. This is not to try and force you on to the higher education path. Just be mindful of the next five years of your life what type of work you will start out doing versus where you’d like to be. The straight-to-career pathway is neither right nor wrong, it is another viable option.
Yes, a university degree is prestigious and will set you apart from your competitors, but it is not necessarily the right choice for everyone nor is it the end-all-be-all for any future aspirations. Like the game of Life, college is simply a parallel life path to the instant career path. You may struggle through entry-level positions for a while to possibly end up working at the same level as your fellow cohorts by the time they graduate and assume their mid-level positions (plus, you’ll escape without student debt).
You don’t want to go to college because you don’t know what you’d like to major in, or more specifically, you don’t know what career you want after college.
Here’s a little unsolicited advice: think about what you’re good at.
Do you like writing? Are you good at puzzles? Are you interested in the environment or in human life? What priorities matter most to you? Do you care about treating people well and solving problems? How important is money to your future happiness? How about a steady schedule?
If you have even a loose grasp on any of these questions, then you will definitely succeed in choosing a major and having options ready for a fulfilling future career. Plus, both community colleges and universities will assign you a dope counselor/advisor who can walk you through this process and help you select the courses you need to graduate.
If you honestly have no thoughts about what interests you or never found a class in high school that was your cup of tea, then maybe community college is the right choice for you. For many students, completing your Associate of Arts degree (AA) over the course of two years at a community college can give you a less pressurized environment to explore all the different fields of study available to you. Another upside to this approach is that you can save a fair chunk of change, particularly if you live at home, while attending classes.
One caveat to this is that you may lose out on some of that “college experience” everyone is always talking about. University students tend to form tight knit friendships in their freshman and sophomore years by living in on-campus residence halls, eating at the cafeteria, and finishing up their general education requirements together (aka Gen Eds, aka your AA).
If you hated traditional schooling and can’t fathom another four years in the major leagues, you may want to consider an apprenticeship.
While no longer mainstream since the departure of Mike Rowe’s “Dirty Jobs” from our TV screens, the trades industry is alive and well.
Are you fascinated with how things work? Do you like to work with your hands? Do you like to be the powerful “fix it” person? Then you’ll probably feel pretty accomplished in the trades.
You can become a journeyman millwright, which are skilled fabricators capable of welding metal, assembling hydraulic machinery, and planning multi-faceted jobs. If an engineer is the idea man/woman, a millwright is the make-it-run (and keep-it-running) man/woman. You could be an electrician, a carpenter, a foreman, a mason, or an HVAC technician. These jobs make bank! A seasoned, state-certified (be prepared to get passed up in promotions and salaries without this), union tradesman/tradeswoman can make at least $30/hour and soar up to $50/hour.
You will still need to complete some additional schooling so as to learn the math necessary for each, as well as safety and planning skills. After you take and pass your state certification you are all set to have an apprenticeship which will top off your schooling with practical experience.
One caveat to this route: you will work shift-work, meaning your hours will most likely rotate between 40 hours of day shifts and 40 hours of night shifts and can be tough on the body after a couple of decades.
No matter which path you choose to follow, you can find success. As long as you put yourself out there, stay humble, and take every opportunity you get to learn new skills, you are ready for the workforce. Never let anyone tear you down for the life you have lived. Only you can define your success and rejoice in your brand of happiness.
Good luck and happy hunting!