Alternatives to the Traditional 4-Year College Experience

My friend has a wonderful daughter with a lot going for her, but school has never been her thing. Diagnosed with ADHD and executive functioning deficits in third grade, she has always felt overwhelmed and unmotivated, despite above-average intelligence and the help of tutors and support programs. The big question for my friend is: Should her daughter stay on the college preparatory track and risk further discouragement, or is it time to explore other pathways toward her future independence?

According to the 2017 U.S. Census, just over one-third of Americans over the age of 25 have a four-year college degree. In the DMV, that percentage is much higher, at just under 50 percent, though it can feel much closer to 100 percent depending on where your child attends school. As the daughter of two career educators, I struggled with admitting that college might not be the right option for my own child and also questioned whether it made sense to invest thousands of dollars to find out. According to Business Insider, the cost of college increased by 260 percent from 1980 to 2014. And the question exists as to whether it’s worth it. In a 2017 survey of high school students nationwide (conducted by the College Savings Foundation), 39 percent of all respondents were considering alternatives to traditional four-year colleges based strictly on the cost factor. Beyond cost, even when kids are fully capable of getting into college, school administrators are finding that students don’t always have the resiliency and life skills needed to handle college. Some simply don’t really have the interest or desire to do the work required.

“College is not for everyone, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be living in the streets,” says Linda Lounsbury, a college consultant and volunteer with Bridges to Baltimore college admissions program. Joan Wittan, an independent educational consultant in Rockville, Md. who specializes in working with students with learning differences, points out that the timing of college in the United States is unusual. “Automatic high school to college is not done all over the world,” she says. “Part of the time between high school and college is for them to explore their interests.”

But in the United States, the focus of the teen years seems to be on “resume building” to prepare for college applications. Students have little time for extracurricular activities that explore their true interests and passions – as well as possible majors or careers – while also gaining life skills, such as discipline, independence and responsibility.

“If your student is struggling in school and doesn’t enjoy it or like to study, looking at college alternatives is not a ‘lesser than’ option,” Lounsbury says. “They can earn as much as they want and be independent and successful,” Lounsbury says.

Among these alternatives, Wittan and Lounsbury often encourage families and students to consider the following options:

  1. Career and Technical Education (CTE) , offered through community colleges or vocational schools, provides training and certifications in an incredible variety of trades, including aircraft mechanics, network systems, data communication analysis, coding, veterinary technicians, cosmetology and hospitality. Credible programs offer hands-on training, internship experience and job placement. The North American Trade Schools currently lists 2,600 vocational schools east of the Mississippi, some of which are residential. These programs tend to be more experiential, with fewer traditional general education requirements.
  2. Local community colleges offer students the opportunity to earn two-year associate degrees, as well as automatic admission into in-state public schools. In Maryland, tuition is free for qualifying residents. This cheaper option enables students to get their general education requirements out of the way while exploring various subjects of interest and determining if college is the right path for them.
  3. Non-traditional college options help students learn a trade and become career-ready by earning a more industry-focused associates or bachelors degree, while also having a “traditional” college experience. Examples of schools offering these programs are Penn College of Technology, Johnson Wales University, Brighton College and Culinary Institute of America.
  4. Colleges that incorporate additional academic and life-skills support, such as Landmark, Lynn and Beacon, or transition-to-college programs, such as the Connect Program at Davis & Elkins, help set students up for success. There are also portable private transition programs, such as the College Internship Program and Emerge, that provide an additional layer of support at any college the student chooses to attend.
  5. For-profit training programs can lead students to a lifetime of career success and fulfillment. Examples of well-respected, for-profit training programs include: General Assembly for coding, data and digital design; Les Roches for international hospitality management; Medix College in Canada for medical professional training for pharmacy technicians, dental assistants, medical lab techs and more; and DigiPen Institute of Technology in Seattle for interactive media and video game development.
  6. Scheduled gap years , an option for any student exploring traditional or alternative post-high school training, are on the rise in the United States. Studies by U.S. Gap Year Fairs show that students who take a gap year on average graduate in less time than students who go straight to college from high school. Verto Education is one formalized gap year program that combines the best of both worlds, enabling students to earn college credit while traveling around the world exploring their interests. “Some students are more than college-capable but are burnt out and may be better ready to launch after they’ve had some time to explore,” Wittan says. Often a taste of real life helps them appreciate being in school.

Financially, participating in any of the above programs can provide a better return on investment than a traditional college experience. Many non-traditional college and vocational school options offer financial aid and may allow payment using funds from 529 plans. Many also offer residential options for parents who are ready for their teens to leave the nest or are anxious for them to experience life on their own.

The bottom line is that there are many alternatives to a traditional college experience that students may want to consider. “It’s a family decision, but if a child has something in mind, why not give him the responsibility of researching it and maybe trying it out,” Lounsbury says. “It can save money and mental health.” Parents’ willingness to let go of their own college expectations and allow their children room to explore and consider other options gives kids the chance to consider their personal expectations and to set and reach their own goals.

As Wittan says: “There can be some grieving involved as parents give up certain dreams, but then satisfaction as they find the right path for their child so that no one is being set up for failure.”

Where to look for more information