College Isn't the Only Option

President Obama has called for every American to pursue some form of education beyond high school, but that does not mean college is right for every student — including many who enroll in four-year programs.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 58 percent of first-time students attending four-year institutions full-time in 2000-2001 completed a bachelor’s degree within six years. Coupled with college tuition, this means many students incur significant debt without gaining a degree.

 Earning Potential

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the median annual earnings of full-time workers ages 25-34 for 2006 was $24,000 for high school graduates and $41,000 for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

High school graduates with work that requires only on-the-job training average about $20,000 annually, while some jobs requiring a two-year degree, such as a radiology technologist, can pay $50,000 annually.

“College may not be the right avenue for everybody,” says Bill Travers, chair of the guidance department at North Penn High School in Lansdale, PA. Several options exist for students who might not be college bound. These choices can leave the door open for attending a four-year college later in life.

Post-Secondary Vocational Training

“We need people in the trades or we can’t function,” says Travers. We’ll always need plumbers, construction workers, hairdressers and other trade workers. Many of these jobs require post-secondary training, and numerous vocational schools offer it. However, research is important.

Many vocational schools charge a hefty tuition, so students need to determine if there is demand for the job for which they’re training and that the wages they’ll make will be sufficient to pay back any loans they take on. Rather than taking a school’s word that a job is in demand, check your state’s department of labor website to find out what fields are hiring and their average earnings. (See sidebar.)

When looking at vocational schools, Travers says, “Ask about job placement. They have to give you statistics on job placement of their graduates, and be sure to ask if the placements are in the areas they were trained for.”

If the cost is a concern, “Look at publicly funded options,” advises Dolores Szymanski, EdD, superintendent of the Burlington County Institute of Technology (BCIT) in Westampton and Medford, NJ. Public schools such as BCIT not only offer free education in the trades to current high school students, they also offer training to high school graduates in various skills for a fraction of the cost of private vocational schools. “For example, our full-time practical nursing and cosmetology programs are one-quarter to one-half the price of a private post-secondary vocational school,” says Dr. Szymanski.

Fastest-Growing Jobs Not
Requiring a 4-Year Degree

  1. Home health, personal and home care aides.
  2. Skin care specialists
  3. Physical therapist assistants and aides
  4. Dental hygienists and assistants
  5. Veterinary technologists and technicians

Note: Some of these jobs require vocational training or a 2-year degree. Source: U.S. Department of Labor.


Many students want to make money right away after high school. While work that only requires on-the-job training generally pays less than other jobs, some employers offer the potential for advancement.

“High school graduates can often find work as a checker or stock person at a food mart and move up the ladder,” says Travers. “The problem now is that with nine to ten percent unemployment, people who have lost their jobs are also seeking these jobs. The pool of competition has changed, making it a little more challenging for someone with just a high school diploma.”


“A good place to find direction is in the military,” says Sgt. Steven Chillas, marketing NCO with the Delaware Army National Guard. “It has great benefits and the earning potential is pretty good. It will also help pay for college if someone eventually wants to go.”

While the military can help high school grads develop skills that may lead to a career in the military or outside, it’s important to consider the possibility of fighting in an armed conflict.

For More Info

State Labor Departments

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

U.S. Labor Department
career-planning tools

A Year Off

Taking a year off from studying is an option for students who don’t know what they want to do or who need a break before tackling college.

One choice is a year of service. AmeriCorps, Student Conservation Association and other organizations offer the opportunity to spend a year restoring and maintaining national park land, mentoring children or working to improve communities close to their home or across the country.

Some service organizations pay for travel, housing and insurance, and reward participants with money for higher education. These opportunities can help students explore interests, develop skills, build savings and find direction.

Students interested in travel abroad may want to consider an international program in which they learn about a foreign culture and a second language, though these programs can be expensive. Working abroad as an au pair or in the tourism and hospitality industry can provide pay and the chance to travel. Opportunities for work, travel and volunteering abroad are available at

Susan Stopper is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

Categories: Secondary Education