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Alternatives to College: A High School Roadmap


Some teens are more interested in going to work or starting a business immediately after their graduation from homeschool. Some want to join the military, take a gap year, volunteer extensively, work on the family farm, or go to vocational or trade school.

You can help launch these homeschooled teens who are pursuing what they want to do with their lives—with alternatives to college degrees.

Smiling young adults in aprons in front of a food truck.

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Benefits of college alternatives

In addition to playing to many teens’ strengths, these paths can make a lot of sense financially. The mikeroweWORKS Foundation says, “Today, the skills gap is wider than it’s ever been. The cost of college tuition has soared faster than the cost of food, energy, real estate, and health care. Student loan debt is the second highest consumer debt category in the United States with more than 44 million borrowers who collectively owe more than $1.5 trillion. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 7 million jobs available across the country, the majority of which don’t require a four-year degree.”

And, direct entry work contributes to the betterment of communities. Infrastructure is improved, valuable services are provided, and people are taken care of.

Practical alternatives to college

Maybe you and your teen know that earning a bachelor’s degree from a traditional college is not the right path but aren’t sure what to do instead. This list of 21 practical alternatives to college can jumpstart your research.

  1. Enter the workforce
  2. Start a small business
  3. Enlist in the Military (including the Merchant Marines)
  4. Learn a trade and get licensed (Examples: welder, plumber, HVAC technician, electrician, auto mechanic, brick mason, cosmetologist, massage therapist, nail technician)
  5. Take adult continuing education courses at a community college (Examples: small motor repair, carpentry)
  6. Pursue online learning through MOOCs and other affordable and free online courses
  7. Get an apprenticeship
  8. Become a public safety officer (Examples: firefighter, police officer, emergency dispatcher, EMT, paramedic)
  9. Earn a healthcare credential (Examples: nurse’s aide, phlebotomy technician, dental hygienist)
  10. Take a career-related course of study (Examples: real estate agent, travel agent)
  11. Improve and monetize an existing hobby or skill (Examples: writing, art, music, coding, sewing, woodworking, photography, graphic design)
  12. Volunteer
  13. Join AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps
  14. Learn to code
  15. Get certified in a fitness-related field (Examples: personal trainer, yoga instructor)
  16. Become a flight attendant
  17. Become a virtual assistant
  18. Get a TEFL certification and teach English as a second language
  19. Become a house-sitter
  20. Become an au pair
  21. Go to culinary school

Customize high school

Alternative learning experiences will help homeschooled teens who are not college-bound identify their interests and gain skills they need for their adult lives. Often, interest-led learning and project-based learning are good homeschool approaches for kids who are interested in entrepreneurship, vocations, trades, and direct entrance into the workforce.

They still need to develop their writing, thinking, communication and computation skills. However, homeschooled teens can be given opportunities to improve these skills in the context of planning, completing, and assessing projects or as part of developing a business venture.

You can shape high school specifically for your kids who already have a specific post-high-school goal or who have strong and enduring interests. Find out the requirements for a particular goal, whether that is taking the military’s ASVAB test, gaining admission to a shipyard apprentice program, or qualifying for a small business loan. For your planning, list experiences and skill practice that will help your teen prepare. Then work them into homeschooling during their high school years.

Cindy LaJoy of Blue Collar Homeschool provides encouragement and resources for parents of homeschooled kids who aren’t going to college—sometimes because their gifts lie outside college prep academics and sometimes because they simply have another path in mind. Listen to the Blue Collar Homeschool interview on the Smiling Homeschoolers podcast.

Support teens’ interests

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a teen’s interests will be enduring and a lead-in to a vocation or whether the interests are serious but more brief and passing.

Support your teen’s interest even though you can’t know the outcome.

Typically, the knowledge and experience gained will have value even if your teen’s interests eventually develop in another direction.

For example, making plans to build a boat in your backyard might be plans that don’t ever result in a boat—but those same planning skills may be valuable for developing another type of project.

And it’s a good thing that there are so many positive cross-applications of skills and knowledge. Teens do a lot of changing their minds, so your kiddo who has spent years preparing to be a professional dancer may pivot. The years and dollars spent on dance may also provide your teen with insight about themselves and insight about making a living and a life—even if they don’t pursue dance as a career.

Help them keep going.

Find helpful people and experiences

Like any supportive homeschool parent who is embracing the flexibility of homeschooling, you’ll help identify and nurture your teen’s interests through suggesting reading, videos, hands-on work, skills practice, field trips, and projects.

You may have already built community by networking among homeschoolers. Ask those friends and acquaintances for leads on opportunities for your kids. Take your networking up a notch by asking neighbors, relatives, business associates, and your kids’ coaches and mentors if they know of experiences that might benefit your teen. 

Help your kids seek out apprenticeships, mentorships, internships, job shadowing, employment, and volunteer opportunities. They will learn from the networking you do on their behalf, understanding that seeking people and experiences with expertise is part of the game.

Older teens and young adults will begin to network on their own behalf. Networking tip: have them set reminders in their calendars to reach out to connections every six months, so they don’t get stale.

Remember that not all internships are “already established.” Homeschooled teens often get internships because they and their parents work together to ask local businesspersons if they would like to have an intern. Many small businesses have never considered having an intern or would assume that it’s too much of a wild card. However, faced with a polite and eager homeschooled teen who has a supportive parent, a businessperson may see value in the arrangement.

Tips for internships:

  • Ask family and friends for leads on possible internships.
  • You and your teen—or your teen on their own—(depending on age) can send emails or do in-person “cold calls” (when businesses are not busy) to present the idea of an internship.
  • You might have to approach many businesses before you reach one who understands what you’re asking and feels able to have a high school age intern. (We went to seven or eight sole locally owned computer shops before finding a guy who got it and welcomed our  14-year-old son as an intern).
  • Don’t overtax your teen with an internship. One morning or afternoon a week at a business may be a good start.
  • Establish a trial period, and if that works out, have an ending period that can be renegotiated if things go well for both the business and your teen. When a once-or-twice trial is over, a four-week or six-week commitment with a clear end date is helpful. This lets your teen gracefully change direction if needed, and it may also be a point at which the businessperson could consider your teen for part-time employment if they want to keep them around. Sometimes businesses and teens may just want to extend the internship for another specific period.
  • Consider what you know about the adults your teen is invited to intern with and whether your teen can identify and react decisively to inappropriate adult behavior. Most mentors simply enjoy helping teens develop skills and gain experience, but we must be realistic that there can be bad influences and bad actors.
  • Find out if there are labor laws where you live that may impact internships, apprenticeships and employment for teens. This could include what/how many hours they work, job duties, age requirements, pay policies, and equipment they may operate. (Labor laws vary state-to-state).

Encourage career exploration

Share resources to help your teen consider career possibilities. Here are two examples:

Help with job searches

Also? Get specific in seeing that your teen has what they need to pursue an alternative to college. For example, if they want to enter the workforce directly, during high school you could have them learn how to conduct a job search in today’s world.

Help teens learn to:

  • Create a resume
  • Use employment listing sites (“job boards”)
  • Practice completing application forms – online and on paper
  • Learn to write email cover letters and thank yous
  • Request references from adult mentors and teachers
  • Use common computer programs and apps

Help your teen learn how to apply for a job online. For example, teens need to know that resumes may be screened technologically by employment platforms. Resumes that don’t contain the correct keywords for specific jobs may never make it to the hiring manager’s inbox. Help your teen learn to authentically customize their resume with wording that will match potential employers’ needs.

You could spread these experiences over several of your teen’s high school years or arrange many of them into a Careers elective.

Consider community college, vocational, and trade schools

As part of your networking, become aware of the trade and work training programs available in your area. In many states, community colleges offer vocational programs as well as college transfer programs. In addition to associate degrees, your local community college may offer certifications or other types of credentials for skilled trades, technical education, and direct entry job skills.

Career and Technical Education (CTE) may be available for some high school homeschoolers at a “vo-tech” center or school that serves public school students. Not all states and not all school divisions allow homeschoolers to participate in their vo-tech programs, but it’s worth checking into.

Examine for-profit colleges and post-secondary vocational schools carefully. They may have programs relevant to your teen’s interests, and there are some good ones. However, there have also been some scams where students do not receive authentic training or assistance with job placement as promised.

Homeschool grads typically do not need to submit a diploma for entry into regionally accredited colleges or universities (they need homeschool transcripts instead), but your teen may indeed need to submit a copy of a homeschool diploma to enter a vocational school such as a cosmetology school, massage therapy school, or an HVAC technician program.

If your teen may be headed in the direction of a vocational school, inquire with the school years ahead of time about whether a homeschool diploma is sufficient for admission. Often, you can create or order your teen’s homeschool high school diploma and include a statement on it about following all home education laws of your state. You can have your signature notarized on the diploma to make it official.

However, there may be some vocational schools that are real sticklers for state-issued diplomas, which can create disappointment. You and your teen will not want to make assumptions about the type of diploma needed to enter these programs.

Help with executive function

You can also help your teen know how to:

  • Use a calendar or planner
  • Create and use a task list
  • Manage wake-up alarms and sleep schedules
  • Plan to meet deadlines
  • Start, focus on, and complete projects—working from smaller to more complex

Provide financial education

Help your teen learn how to manage personal finances. They should learn about:

  • Bank accounts—savings and checking
  • Credit and debit cards
  • Personal budgets
  • Taxes and withholding—how much of a salary is actually take-home pay
  • Health insurance and other benefits

If they are going to establish their own business, encourage them to meet with a mentor from SCORE who can help them create a roadmap for their business, learn about legalities, consider pricing and marketing strategies, and much more.

Since they may consider loans for trade or vocational school, talk to your teen about the impact of education loans.

College, but later

Sometimes our homeschool grads decide to attend college later, after working a few years or serving in the military, for example. This can be a surprise to parents who were fully supportive of their teens pursuing alternatives to college when they were 17, 18 or 19. Often, when young adults spend time working, their career interests crystalize around work they do (or do not!) want to do, and they realize they need higher education for new goals. Going to college later can be a positive alternative to going to college at 18.

Attending community college after homeschooling high school provides a “way in” for those who decide they want to pursue college later, even if a homeschooled high school student did not have all the usual college prep credits at the time. Admissions counselors at the community college can help older students (often called “non-traditional students”) understand what classes they need to take and how to enroll. Students who did not learn chemistry or precalculus as homeschooled teens can still move forward with community college. If students need help with writing skills or math skills, community colleges have classes and programs to give students a chance to catch up.

Counselors can also help students understand how to transfer to four-year institutions where they can get bachelors degrees.

Many colleges (two-year and four-year) offer online college classes for adults that can work for students who are employed and attend college.

Remember, some employers will even pay for some college costs.

Provide transcripts no matter what

Parents: your homeschooled teen may have chosen a vocational path that doesn’t require college, and they are well-prepared to pursue that path. On the other hand, your teen may still be unsure of “what’s next” for them, but they plan to work a job and continue to explore and grow into possible career interests.

Either way, for these students, an immediate jump into college doesn’t seem to be on the horizon right away as homeschooling is coming to a close.

Prepare a homeschool transcript for them anyway.  

Your adult children might need these records for future employment, for background checks or security clearances for some jobs, or because they end up wanting to attend college at 23, 33 or 43 years old. What if you’re not available to provide a transcript for them in ten or twenty years? You want them to have the records they need for any opportunities they want to pursue in life.

Learn how and why to provide permanently accessible homeschool records for all your teens. Every homeschooled teen and every adult who was homeschooled during high school deserves these records.

Launch your teen

There are many ways teens can begin to create a satisfying and responsible adult life. But they’re teens—they don’t necessarily know the steps they should take.

With your greater knowledge of the world and ability to customize, network, and research, you can help prepare them by providing a thoughtful launch into adulthood.

Alternatives to college: a high school road map for homeschoolers.

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