"I Don't Want to Go to College," Better Homes and Gardens, vol. 78, August 2000, pp. 72, 75. Copyright © 2000 by Betsy Rubiner. Reproduced by permission.
Not all people benefit from four years in college, nor do they need a college degree in order to succeed in work or in life, writes Betsy Rubiner. In fact, there are many good jobs available that do not require a bachelor's degree, she writes. However, this does not necessarily mean that teens can forgo education after high school. Many jobs require a solid high school education and some form of vocational training or education that is available through community colleges or technical institutes. Rubiner is a freelance writer who specializes in writing about children and families. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and other publications.
True, going to college for four years can be an enriching, eye-opening experience. True, a bachelor's degree is still an asset if you're trying to make it in America. It's also a must for many créme de la crème careers.
But not all kids are cut out for college, despite the expectations of their parents or teachers. And, especially in the brave new world of the 21st century, not all kids need to go to college right after high school—or ever—to succeed, says J. Michael Farr, author of America's Top Jobs for People Without a Four-Year Degree.
"The mythology here is that everybody has to go to college to do well. Not true," says Farr. "This generation is a little bit better off than ours. But there are so many more options. It's more complex now."
A boom economy coupled with dramatic changes in technology have created entirely new jobs and expanded opportunities in age-old professions. Many of these occupations—from computer programmers and Web page designers to chefs and police officers—don't require a bachelor's degree. Neither do many good jobs in the arts, crafts, skilled trades, construction, service industry, science, and health fields. Such jobs include: aircraft mechanic, cardiovascular technologist, electronic technician, law clerk, registered nurse, sales rep, secretary, travel agent ... the list goes on.
Jenna Norvell, 21, is now full of career ideas thanks to a ten-month cosmetology program she attended this year  at the Aveda Institute in Minneapolis. She paid $9,865 for tuition and about $6,000 more in expenses, including rent for a one-bedroom apartment she shared with another student. Although Norvell got lots of career leads from salon recruiters at a career fair hosted by the institute, she didn't meet any from California—where she wants to live. So she plans to find a job out West on her own, perhaps in television or maybe doing makeup for fashion shows. Or selling cosmetics. Or managing a salon. "You'd be surprised how many occupations there are in this field," says Norvell.
High school students often don't understand there are so many options available to them, says Farr. "That's a shame. People who are interested in various things really can earn a decent living even if they don't want to go to college."
It's still true that people with more education, on average, earn more money. But 28 percent of workers without a four-year degree earn more than the average worker with a bachelor's degree, according to Harlow G. Unger, author of But What if I Don't Want to Go to College?, a guide to educational alternatives to college. And more and more computer-savvy young people are skipping college to join the high-tech revolution as computer network engineers, Internet entrepreneurs, and game designers.
Don't get the wrong idea. This doesn't mean you can waltz right into a great job straight out of high school with no skills, training, or effort. To get a good job without a four-year degree, you still must have at least a solid high school education. "Even if you think you're not going to college, you still need to pay attention," says Farr. "You need to know how to be part of a team, how to communicate effectively verbally, how to learn."
And chances are, you will need training after high school through some form of alternative career education. Only four of the fastest growing occupations in the United States require a four-year degree or more, says Unger. But many of the others—home health aides, building maintenance, teaching aides—require post-high-school training.
Which vocational education and training you'll need—and the cost—depends upon the vocation you choose. Public community colleges offer some of the best vocational training, often specializing in areas such as the graphic arts, hotel and restaurant management, and building trades, according to Unger. Fulltime tuition averages $1,200 a year, although the range from state-to-state is $600 to $3,500. Vocational training at technical institutes will be costlier. Private junior colleges average $7,000 a year, according to Unger. Tuition for private-for-profit trade schools that usually specialize in one field, such as hair-styling or auto mechanics, varies widely, and Unger warns students to be wary of unethical operators.
Not just any vocational education or training will do. The trick is to find reputable, high-quality programs and to avoid con artists and dead-end programs, advises Unger. Look for programs that are accredited, offer in-depth academic and vocational instruction, teach real skills for real jobs, provide hands-on work experience, help students in job-hunting, and are linked to potential employers.
Too often, Unger argues, parents push their reluctant children to go to college. Many drop out. "We are forcing hundreds of thousands of kids to go to college and they clearly do not want to be there," he says.
What High School Students Can Do
What about high school graduates who don't want college and don't know what to do next? Start by visiting your school guidance office or library to thumb through The Occupational Outlook Handbook published every two years by the U.S. Labor Department. It offers nuts-and-bolts descriptions of jobs and the training required.
Think about what interests you—sports, music, gardening, whatever—and what jobs let you pursue that interest, advises Unger. Visit people who do these jobs. Ask questions.
For example, a high school graduate who loves animals might find a great job grooming dogs in a kennel. But she may outgrow the grooming job. That day, she may decide to go to college to become a veterinarian. "A lot of kids who say they don't want to go to college wind up going anyway, later on," says Unger.