The following is the first staff post by Jessica Streit from The Debt Princess. Please join me in welcoming her to the site!

Trinity College Dublin, late 19th century

Trinity College Dublin, late 19th century (Photo credit: National Library of Ireland on The Commons)

High schools across the country are graded based on test scores, graduation rates and the number of those graduates who go on to college. Students are being bombarded with propaganda pushing them towards universities and educations that they are ill-prepared to pay for.

I have seen this first hand as an educator and I have developed a hypocrisy that is ill-fitted for my career path. I, no longer feel that a college education is the most logical step post-high school.

Currently in the United States, outstanding student loan balances outweigh total credit card debit and auto loan debt. Americans owe $870 Billion for their education, according to this report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Nearly 10% of that $870B is delinquent. Of the $85 Billion past due, over half of that is owed by Americans under the age of 40.

As young adults, our teachers, mentors and typically our parents as well have lead us along a path of high school, college then employment in our chosen career field. However, our economy is showing us time and time again that the typical post-high school path can lead to unemployment, debt and disappointment.

The question remains; is a college education a worthy investment?

The answer to that question is ultimately based on what you want to do with your life. Making the decision on your career path is difficult at 18 years old. Taking the time to discover yourself and your options is vital and all avenues should be considered prior to making an expensive decision.

Gap Year

There are a number of reasonable options for high school graduates that do not get enough encouragement from high school teachers, guidance counselors, media or parents. These options could provide young adults with valuable work experience, a skilled trade, and a more comfortable financial future. The concept of a gap year is popular in countries like Australia and the United Kingdom. This year following high school graduation to travel, volunteer and learn is becoming more widely accepted by prestigious universities like Harvard, MIT and Princeton.

[Kevin] When I was younger, I wasn’t so sure of what I wanted to do either, and it was only later that I had the guidance of mentors to help out. Since we can’t go back in time and change our decisions later, I highly recommend seeking out mentors and role models; aspire toward those you look up to.

Volunteering

A great way to discover who you are and what you want to do with your life is to volunteer. There are many ways you can make volunteering work for you. If working part-time while living at home and volunteering in an area that interests you is an option, this is a great way to learn about different career paths. You can also volunteer full time. There are opportunities abroad through the Peace Corps and domestically through AmeriCorps. Both of these options involve a serious commitment, usually a year but it can be as little as six months and as much as 27 months.

Traveling

Not only does a commitment like this provide ample opportunity to grow and mature, it also allows you to see parts of the world that you may not otherwise see. Traveling is a great way to learn about other cultures, discover new interests and meet interesting people. Traveling isn’t an activity just for the wealthy. There are inexpensive ways to travel via work programs like cruise ships, being a nanny or au pair, or through the National Park Service. Through traveling, a young adult may find a career that feels right before wasting time and money on an unnecessary education.

[Kevin] While in school, I would also highly recommend student exchange programs. This experience can be a great way to embrace another culture, and if you stay at a dorm it doesn’t have to be expensive, either.

Trade School or Community College

A post-high school education doesn’t always equal a four year university or college. There are viable options within community colleges and trade schools. These schools are far less expensive and allow you to earn money in a full time career much sooner than a four year degree will. Going to a trade school or beginning an apprentice program is a great beginning to a future career.

If architecture or engineering is a possible career choice then an apprenticeship in the construction field is a great way to learn valuable skills that will be beneficial later in life. While working full time in this field, it is easier to save money for college and take classes one at a time as you can afford it.

[Kevin] I agree with this. A trade school can be a great jump and help one to go further than they could with just a high school diploma.

If medicine is in your future, a possible option is to attend a community college to earn an associate’s degree as a physician or nursing assistant. While working full time in this field, save up for further classes that will allow you to obtain a bachelor’s degree and eventually help reduce the steep bill that is medical school. Completing your education in a manner such as this allows a young adult to learn more about themselves and their future desires than going to school full time without working in the field.

[Kevin] Another way of putting it is that getting an education and getting a diploma are not one and the same. There is more in life to be learned than just passing tests and memorizing notes, and there is a lot of value to be gained from work experience and in trying different paths.

These post-high school years are pivotal to finding happiness in adulthood, and completing your education in this manner may show you that it isn’t necessary to continue onto a university (or even medical school). You may find that your life is full and you are happy working in the field that you began in.

Military

The military is also a valuable option that should not be overlooked. Joining the military prior to college will provide you a chance to learn valuable life skills, gain maturity and discover a field that you may have never considered before. The military also offers a chance to earn money to pay for college.

In the United States, joining ROTC is a great way to pay for college. [Kevin] In Canada, we have the reserves. You attend college while completing training for the military. Once you have graduated with your degree, you agree to serve in the military. You’ll enter as an officer, earning you a higher salary than those who enlist without a degree. The military isn’t for everyone but it should be considered as an option when one is trying to earn a degree without acquiring a great deal of debt.

Evaluating Your Options

Before you make a decision that is going to cost you $30,000 or more ([Kevin] And that is before we consider the opportunity costs) it is important to really think about all the options available to you. If you have no experience in a field that you are interested in or have no idea what you’d like to do as a career, it would be wise to take time off before entering into a college or university. Attending college without a plan will end up costing you both valuable time and money.

If, after working for a few years you are still unable to decide on a career path, consider adding in volunteering or a job change to explore new options. The important thing to remember is that a college education isn’t always necessary and if you aren’t going to utilize it post-graduation, it is not an investment that you want to make.

[Kevin] I personally went through college + university (system up here in Canada’s a bit different), and while the experience was positive overall, I wasted many years of time and graduated entirely far too late. This was due to not exploring other options enough, and not seeking out mentors early enough. It’s a big world out there, and there is a lot to explore! :)

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About

Jessica Streit is a freelance writer, parent and graduate student. She has made many poor financial decisions, including attending college funded solely by student loans. She blogs about those poor choices and overcoming a large amount of debt in her blog, The Debt Princess.

16 Comments Jessica Streit on Sep 24th 2012

16 Responses to “Explore All of Your Options Prior to Attending College”

  1. Honestly, I wish that I had taken a gap year. I would have loved to travel the world, however, I didn’t know that I would have loved it at the time. I was too young to know what I liked. The same goes for what I wanted to do – I didn’t really have any idea. I guess I still don’t:)

    • I’m the same way Greg. 38 years old and I’m still not certain that the masters degree I’m pursuing is what I absolutely want to do with the rest of my life. I have wasted years of my life in secondary education and thousands of dollars. I wish I had had my own advice at 17. I chose college because I was too lazy to go into the Air Force but didn’t know what else to do. I should have taken time off and worked for awhile before starting school.

  2. Great post!

    I think every high school teenager and parent should read this article. As a parent I can understand why some parents push their kids towards college but unfortunately attending college straight out of highschool isn’t for everyone. Not to mention the enormous amount of debt students incur while attending these universities.

    I was lucky enough to have ROTC pay for my tuition. As you pointed out it is not for everyone, but I found that being an ROTC student kept me strong and focused during a lot of challenges that a young man or woman will face as a college student. Not to mention when I graduated, I had a guaranteed job, along with a skill set.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. In my opinion, a college education does not really secure your future. Some people end up neck-deep in debt after graduating from college. I like your suggestion that students should try to work part-time or volunteer in an area that interests them to give them enough time to weigh their options. However, college isn’t the end all be all.

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  9. Mike says:

    Great recognition of the military as an option. Also, service academies in the US provide a top-quality four-year degree followed by a commission as an officer, so they should be considered as well!

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