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Moving Beyond High School: Which Path Is Right For You?

What are your plans after high school? If you're a senior, you're hearing this question all the time - usually accompanied by the expectation that you'll name a 4-year school. But the thought of attending a 4-year college is stressful for many students and sometimes people overlook the fact that this not your only option.

What are your other choices? The paths you can take after graduation are more varied than ever before. Whether you're looking into a full-time job, apprenticeship, gap year, trade school, community college, or four-year college or university, there are three questions you can ask yourself that will help you navigate the decision:

  1. What are your interests and passions?
  2. What kind of experience would you like to have?
  3. What kind of income does your desired lifestyle require?

Here is a list of options that might help you determine which path may be the best fit for you:

Work Full-Time

If you can follow your passion and earn a living wage without any additional schooling, why not work full-time in your chosen field immediately after high school? This option may be right for you if school just isn't your thing and you can work in a field that allows you to support the lifestyle you choose. While this is a viable choice, it's important to note that people with only a high school degree earn $17,500 less per year, on average, than those with a college degree.


Apprenticeships combine on-the-job training with related instruction, allowing apprentices to earn while they learn. Most formal apprenticeships are registered with the U.S. Department of Labor, ensuring they meet government standards. Some of the most popular apprenticeships are for carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and painters, but apprenticeships are also available for computer programming, health care, logistics, insurance, and accounting. When apprentices complete their training, they receive a nationally-recognized credential which allows them to work in any part of the country. Apprenticeships last from 1-6 years. Starting pay averages $15/hour and increases as certain benchmarks are reached.

Gap Years

Gap years are a great way to discover your passions or hone in on the field you would like to study. Typically a 12-month period between high school and college (or during the college years), this gap can be used to travel, volunteer, or work in various fields. The goal of the gap year is to obtain some cross-cultural experiences that expand a young adult's horizons about their future work endeavors. For some this is a time to get refocused on their goals and ambitions; for others, it's a time to explore parts of the world they may not get to see otherwise. 

Community Colleges 

Community colleges vary in size and program offerings. There are small local community college branches, and then there are massive, sprawling campuses that feel like traditional four-year schools. Going the community college path allows you to take general education requirements as well as explore courses that would potentially apply to your future major. The degree you'd receive from a community college is an associate degree, and the course credits will often transfer to a four-year school where you could finish your bachelor's degree. (Many community colleges also offer degree programs that make you immediately eligible for certain jobs without pursuing a bachelor's degree.) From an investment perspective, the community college path can be very affordable, since the average credit hour costs nearly 1/3 of the price of a similar course at a typical four-year institution. However, be sure to do your research; students transferring from community colleges to 4-year schools often run into roadblocks when not all of their credits are accepted or they receive less financial aid from the second school than they would have if they began there. In some cases, this can delay graduation and dig students deeper into debt.

Community colleges are a good fit if you:

  • Aren't quite sure what you'd like to study and want to explore your options
  • Are interested in living at home (though some community colleges offer on-campus housing)
  • Want to "test the waters” of college before jumping into the deep end
  • Know you don't need a four-year degree to pursue your passion
  • Want to minimize your overall college costs, and have done the research to be sure community college will help you save money

Four-Year Colleges or Universities

Four-year colleges and universities also differ in size, stature, and offerings. You could choose a very small private college with as few as several hundred students or you could choose a giant state university that has tens of thousands of students. The four-year path typically provides you with a "traditional college experience.” That means living in the dorms, eating in dining centers, experiencing daily campus activities, and being part of a larger campus community. The classes you'll take will focus on general education the first couple of years with a more intense focus on your chosen major after those are out of the way. It's not uncommon for students to have to take out student loans to finish their degree due to the size of the overall investment. You would typically finish a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree by following this path, though not everyone finishes in just four years, making this path one of the most expensive.

Four-year Colleges or Universities are a good fit if you:

  • Definitely want the traditional college experience
  • Know the area of study you'd like to focus on
  • Need a bachelor's degree to pursue a job in your chosen field
  • Want to live away from home
  • Are interested in attending a wide variety of campus activities, sporting events, concerts, and speakers

Trade Schools

Trade schools are different from community colleges and four-year institutions in a few ways. First, the education you'll receive is geared toward a particular career field, with little to no time spent on general education requirements. Second, because you're focused on a particular trade, the length of time in school is compressed. Most trade school programs are 12-18 months, and graduates are often recruited into well-paying jobs upon graduation. Finally, the amount you'll pay for a degree from a trade school will be far less than that of a two- or four-year program.

Trade schools are a good fit if you:

  • Know the career path you'd like to take and it doesn't require a traditional degree
  • Are interested in earning a good living as soon as possible
  • Consider yourself more of a hands-on learner
  • Are concerned about having to borrow massively to pursue a degree
  • Don't feel you need to have the "college experience” of dorm life and campus activities