What are some alternatives to going to college?
August 10, 2013 7:59 PM   Subscribe

What are some options for a bright young man who wants to delay college? It can be volunteer-based, overseas, career ideas, special programs, alternate ideas of how to approach higher learning...anything. The main thing he wants is real-world experience outside of a classroom, something that will help him grow as a person and help him learn what he wants out of life.

My little brother is starting his senior year in high school, and he's decided he'd rather not go to college right away. He's extremely bright (just got his ACTs back: 31) and could probably go to college just about anywhere, but he's keenly aware of how crippling student loans can be, and he feels that the expense is only justified if it's necessary for his career of choice. Right now he has absolutely no inkling what that career might be, so he'd like to gain some life experience and get to know himself. I support him wholeheartedly; I think he is being extremely prudent and brave.

Right now he's considering the ROTC, but not very enthusiastically. (I'll big-sis editorialize here and add that I think military life would not agree with him. I find him to be a sensitive, compassionate person--he was the kid who wanted to be a farmer because he liked animals. He's generally a pacifist with somewhat liberal views on foreign policy. And his older brother's leg was blown off in Iraq, so our mother is understandably terrified at the notion of her baby following his career footsteps.)

I adore my little brother. He's ten years my junior, but I'm the closest to his age in our family, and I know he will listen seriously to any advice I offer him. Please help me brainstorm! And if anyone reading has taken the "road less traveled" in young adulthood, please share your stories. Thanks in advance!
posted by piratesriding to Education (37 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Americorps NCCC might be a suggestion.
posted by graxe at 8:12 PM on August 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've taught at a few schools that had workers from the City Year program. It seems really cool: it's a lot like AmeriCorps, but instead of working on a service project for the year, workers are placed in schools to tutor students, help with small groups, run before- and after-school activities, etc.

It's what Teach for America should be, honestly.
posted by rossination at 8:13 PM on August 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

After I got out of high school, I spent a year working in a book warehouse before going on to college. It was an excellent experience and I'm glad I did it.

The best thing for your brother is to get a regular job, a normal one. (If he can, in this job market.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:13 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Does he like outdoor stuff? I knew a few people at my college who delayed entry by a year or two who did NOLS courses and transitioned to guiding/leaderships roles.
posted by rtha at 8:23 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Smart guy. I wish I'd had a clue what various jobs were really like. It would have radically altered my college choices.

He could get some startup money and then WWOOF, he could get any kind of day job and spend time visiting/interviewing/shadowing assorted family and friends at their jobs, he could try volunteering in various situations through OneBrick or the equivalent, he could try staying with friends and family in different places and finding out about their lives and jobs, he could ... apply to work somewhere with many roles in the same organization (e.g. ticket desk at a museum, entry-level staff at a university)...

And he should remember that if he meets someone with a cool job, it's smart to reverse-engineer the needed experience and training from current job listings rather than the person's own path alone. Requirements change fast.
posted by wintersweet at 8:27 PM on August 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

If he does decide on something military related, Air Force. (There is a reason they call it the Chair Force....)

Barring that, has he talked to his guidance counsellors? They might have some ideas for him.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:29 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Madonna and Bill Gates both dropped out of college. I gave up a spiffy scholarship and dropped out.

Business founders have a fairly high percentage of drop-outs. They often seem to recommend travel. If he wants to do something creative, college per se may do nothing for him. There are some arts school which sometimes matter to get specific creative professions but a lot of creative people (including business founders) are inclined to take classes to specific skills, not for credentialling, and are otherwise too busy creating to bother with trying to jump through the usual societal hoops. Either your stuff sells or it doesn't. The rest is irrellevent.

I would recommend he read "How to survive without a salary" by Charles Long. He tells anecdotes about traveling on the cheap while young and also living cheaply generally. I read it in my teens. I think that approach to life makes a lot more sense than getting trapped in the rat race and needing an expensive car (etc) in order to get to your high-paid job ...so you can make your high car payments (etc).

I would suggest he use his senior year to decide what he wants to do. Although I declined my scholarship, I initially went to college for a couple of years by default simply because I had no other plans. I got married at 19 and did the military wife thing for a couple of decades. We lived on one salary, got to see the world cheaply and so on. I later stumbled upon a desire to get a career having to do with the built environment and finally picked a major and went back to school. (Health issues and divorce derailed those plans. I have no idea if I will get back to them.)

He could also consider whether he wants a career where apprenticing or some specialized school (not college) would be the path forward. I considered attending massage school. There are crafts, like glass blowing, where a degree is unlikely to matter and you either go to a craft school or you apprentice with a master craftsman.
posted by Michele in California at 8:30 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

James Altucher, always an interesting read, wrote "40 Alternatives to College", available on Amazon. For some reason I can not insert a link, but search for it. Well worth the 4 bucks.
He has thought about this quite a lot.
posted by jcworth at 8:31 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

As an AmeriCorps alum, I strongly endorse that program, especially NCCC or City Year as a great thing for someone in his position. Another weird thing a friend pointed me to this week is this. I don't entirely know what to make of it, but it is different from going to college.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:35 PM on August 10, 2013

but he's keenly aware of how crippling student loans can be, and he feels that the expense is only justified if it's necessary for his career of choice.

I think your brother is making a rash decision.

Because the above is such a bullshit excuse not to go to college as a gifted rising high school senior "traditional" student.

My guess is that he's burnt out on school, overwhelmed with the whole college application process, and would rather retreat into the notion of a gap year than think realistically about his future.

Which is very understandable. But, bottom line, he is a prime candidate for college and he needs to think VERY seriously about what he does plan to do if not college.

And if he's desperate to take time off before college, he needs to think even more seriously about what he plans to do with that gap year. And the fact that you are asking for "ideas" on his behalf is a bad sign about that, in my opinion. If he had already taken the initiative and was focused on a specific constructive reason to defer college for a set amount of time, then fine. If he's starting from "but I don't wanna...", he needs to just suck it up and continue his education.

Student debt is an important issue, and I think it's worth weighing in the sense of which colleges to apply to, what level of debt to accept, and the tradeoff between a prestigious school and the freedom to follow your passion after graduation rather than be chained to a corporate job in service to your debt. But with his ACT scores, I think he stands a decent shot of getting merit-based financial aid, especially for a public school in his home state.

But in my opinion, unless there's a compelling reason to the contrary, the mere existence of student loans out there in the world doesn't justify not bothering to apply to college. Student loans are still going to exist in a year. He's not going to be able to make enough money to save for school in the course of a gap year, and it's highly unlikely that this time off will coincide with him magically discovering his Life's True Passion, thus enabling the student loans he can't justify this year.

I especially think him joining the military purely out of fear of student loans is an awful idea.

Tell your bother to apply to two or three affordable state schools where he stands a good chance of getting financial aid/scholarships and make his final decision in +/- six months, when acceptance letters go out.
posted by Sara C. at 8:54 PM on August 10, 2013 [11 favorites]

Other options include trade school/apprenticeship programs. Seriously, if you can get training for a trade possibly paid for it doesn't really matter if you change your mind in less than a decade.

I don't know what it's like there at this time, but I do regret not having taken an option that many of my friends did: a working holiday visa. It might be different outside of the COmmonwealth but it was pretty easy 20 yearsish ago to get said visa for a place like Australia if you were under 30 and had some cash. The idea being that you can't work much with the visa but you could stay up to a year and it was legal for you to work some. There were some other restrictions geared towards encouraging applicants to move around a bit and see the country.

Depending on the sorts of studies he might eventually be interested in pursuing there may be the opportunity to seek a diploma in a (semi) related field. Picking carefully can maximise one's chances of transfer credit. Certainly one physiotherapist I know who started as an RMT (two, years, easy employment options, relatively cheap) and a physiatrist who started as a physio both have good things to say about having gone the long way around.

Personally I have ended up in a field I never anticipated. Working in a very particular speciality that would have seemed even more remote to a highschool aged me. I have had, like a great many people, opportunities (read: I like to eat so you take the opportunity before you) to try my hand at a number of disciplines. Certainly the 'P'lan never accounted for most of the better things I've built and/or worked on. I can't agree enough with the above comments regarding getting a little work experience. If I had to live with every choice I made as a teenager forever I'd probably have to be committed.

I would also note that as a general rule the volunteer service I've given has not only been appreciated but _every_single_time_ has been both more personally rewarding (and, indirectly, professionally too) than the vast bulk of my post secondary education. To the point that I have advocated on many occasions that professions (such as mine) on the edge between art and science shouhld probably be certified through a mentored apprenticeship.

He may find that figuring out what he most wants to _give_ is the best shortcut to ascertaining what he'd most like to have in this world. I know I certainly did.
posted by mce at 8:56 PM on August 10, 2013

Sara C. does have some good points. It's worth keeping in mind that the first two years can be part of the "figuring things out" (taking lots of different classes), and that junior years or summers abroad can sometimes be school-funded and very educational.
posted by wintersweet at 9:00 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Join the Navy.

They'll pay for college, and he can go into a rating that can benefit him when/if he decides to get out. I went in as an Air Traffic Controller... best decision I ever made. I went from no direction in life to finding a purpose and a career.

There's also a huge amount of benefits to be gained by joining the military; healthcare, housing, and food just to name a few. In addition, there's responsibility, professionalism, and the chance to see the world and really open one's eyes as to how the world works and what other cultures are like. It's not easy and it's not for everyone, but it's an honorable life.

If his grades are good, he could consider going to the Naval Academy. I can point you/him in the direction of a Blue & Gold officer in your region if he's interested.
posted by matty at 9:02 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm a big fan of the Student Conservation Association, which has both month long summer programs for HS students and longer term internships in all sorts of areas (everything from more science-y stuff like "water resources management" to doing historical research and visitor interpretation, and all over the country).

The American Friends Service Committee has also put together some resources on Alternatives to the Military that may be of interest.
posted by milkweed at 9:05 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

he's keenly aware of how crippling student loans can be, and he feels that the expense is only justified if it's necessary for his career of choice

If he's as good as you say, I strongly question this assumption. Truly top students don't pay retail, and often don't have to pay at all. And even mid-range students generally have very low cost options available.
posted by grudgebgon at 9:07 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I also got a 31 on my ACT when I was a senior in high school. I am now a 5th year college student, with 2 years to go still.

I did not really have significant money stress (my parents + scholarships paid for me) but I had no idea what I wanted to do. I picked computer science simply because it seemed like it would result in a decent job after school and I was pretty good with computers.

Turns out, I hated it. I dropped out of school, and went to community college for a year and a half to figure out what I wanted to do. I met some really, really cool people and while I was drunk at a college party I got a random spark from a conversation and I realized I wanted to be a chemistry major.

Life operates in strange ways. Your brother will likely turn out just fine no matter what he chooses. And, consider community college. It is a lot, lot, lot cheaper than a university, and there are some very quality ones out there - some of the hardest classes I've taken I took at CC. And meeting other smart people your age can bring interesting opportunities.

edit: it should also be noted that I was a directionless slacker in high school with a 3.76 GPA (relatively low).
posted by o310362 at 9:46 PM on August 10, 2013

Don't listen to the people saying this is a bad idea, it is a GREAT idea to take time between high school and college to figure out what sort of skills and training you actually want to acquire through your education. (But it's only a great idea if he has a good plan for how he'll spend his time and a concrete end game, not an indefinite "I'll just take time off until I figure out what I want to do..." which may never happen.)

Americorps is a pretty good thing to do and provides good, no-risk experience and looks good for college (plus they give you some $ for education). I did it after college, I basically just had a normal job in a government agency and wasn't part of a team of volunteers. Americorps can take many forms, each state may have branches with different emphases (like working in literacy vs. disaster relief vs. general non-profit/local government work vs. outdoorsy conservation work...) so do a little research on their website and job listings. I have problems with the fact that Americorps members are paid less than minimum wage (and qualify for food stamps, etc.). Yes, it's a "year of service" but the low wage means middle/upper class kids with parents who will support them are mostly the ones can afford to do it. But, that aside, it's still great experience if he can make it work financially.
posted by dahliachewswell at 10:03 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

He could teach English overseas. When you learn about another culture, you end up learning a lot about your own culture too as well as about yourself. Doing that is an enriching experience.
posted by Dansaman at 10:10 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm 32, took time off before getting my degree at 24, and STILL don't entirely know What I Want To Do With My Life.

However, having a college degree enabled me to get a job that pointed toward a career rather than a downwardly mobile flipping burgers/bagging groceries life path.

If your brother knew right now that he wanted to be an entrepreneur, or knew that he was destined for a life as an artist, or that he was only borderline college material and might be better off in a trade, that would be one thing. But for an academically gifted person with potential in a variety of areas, a college degree is still a very good option.
posted by Sara C. at 10:15 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Get a working holiday visa and come to Australia for a year.
posted by robcorr at 10:42 PM on August 10, 2013

I don't know if they do internships for high-school grads, but now would be a great time as it gets harder to work for free the older you get. When I was his age I was also that bright kid who didn't know what I wanted to do, and college didn't help simply because nobody actually told me anything about what kind of jobs actually exist out there outside of academia - because they didn't know, and didn't care. I had to find that out a lot later, and only because I started googling something I found myself interested in. At that point I wished I had known about all of this stuff earlier, that someone had told me there was more to life than being an English Lit professor or college administrative desk person. Then I had to go back to school and spend a bunch more money to replace my previous useless degree with one that might actually help. But even that wasn't as good as starting way earlier would have been.

So yeah, I agree with you that he's being very smart and considerate here and lucky to have a sister like you. I would see if he can get any internships - I think any experience in the working world will immensely help clarify what he likes and doesn't like (which is equally as important). If he can swing any international travel while he's at it, that would be great too, just because he might not get the chance later.
posted by bleep at 11:23 PM on August 10, 2013

Year Up, if he qualifies for it.
posted by Violet Hour at 11:26 PM on August 10, 2013

All of these are excellent ideas. And Sara C., while I agree with you that he sounds like the sort of student who would really benefit from college and probably fund a good deal of the ticket with scholarships, he's not going to get the best results if he's conflicted about going.

A year off won't kill him, and may make him much clearer and more motivated about what he wants and where he wants to do it.

I'd love it if my students all spent a year working full time before coming to first year.
posted by jrochest at 12:45 AM on August 11, 2013

College isn't the only way to 'success' any more than the oven is the only way to bake a cake. About the only advice I can give him is: be clear about what he wants.

There is always a pathway to where you want to go, as long as you know where you want to go. It doesn't have to be college. What are his strengths? Weaknesses? Loves? Likes? What does he see doing day in and day out? Some paths are only able to be completed by going to college-- science, medicine, etc.

He needs to figure out what he wants to do, even if he doesn't want to do it yet. He'll float around otherwise. But a gap year is a great idea for him to find himself. I second the year abroad thing. I think it would be great-- it will open his mind, educate him, and be a great experience. Don't underestimate the power of a working holiday-- saving money will benefit him in the long run too. I don't think ROTC is for him but I don't know much about it.

It's good he's kinda wary about the student loans -- debt is a big deal. The student loans shouldn't frighten him, but it's prudent he's keeping it in mind. And can screw up your life. I have an extremely talented friend in the US who owes about 22k or so on loans -- and they are accumulating interest which he can't really repay. He's off min wage, but just barely, and although he has a decent job, it took him a long time to find. Moreover, the job had nothing to do with his major, even though he managed to advance to some duties that pertain to it. He works like a dog and is super exploited at his work. Meanwhile, one of my best friends dropped out of college, and makes 90k a year as a programmer.

The pressure people place on young people, in my opinion, is not justified, and it tends to make things worse sometimes. If someone is pressured and doesn't want to deal with huge life decisions, forcing them to decide at all costs their future path won't really benefit them, because it will kind of lock them into something that will make them miserable. Yeah if you want a "good job" and "a good life" you should.... and... then you start to break things down into what a 'good life' really is and what it means... and it really only means: Being challenged, fulfilled, safe, being able to provide for yourself and hopefully being content. There are lots of ways to get to that eventuality-- which is different for everyone-- even if some of those paths are looked down upon, and college isn't the only one.

College is a tool to utilize in the path to the life you want. Nothing more. It's not the end all and be all, and it's not for everyone. My other piece of advice is, don't let anyone make him feel bad for wanting to do this-- it's damaging thinking. He's not a failure, even if he decides he wants to go be a farmer forever and doesn't live up to his 'academic potential'.
posted by Dimes at 3:54 AM on August 11, 2013

If he's going to take a gap year, be sure that he is admitted to college *first*. Almost all colleges allow students to defer admission for a gap year, and the Ivies actually encourage it. But he should not wait until after his gap year to apply to colleges, because he will then have to go through the whole process without the help of a counselor.
posted by myitkyina at 5:03 AM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I recommend this in every thread like this, but in addition to NCCC, and SCA, check out the various conservation corps available. I personally recommend the Montana Conservation Corps, but there are other great ones out there and I'd be happy to make other recommendations as well. Many many folks in the Corps during my season were either taking a break in the middle of school or time off before starting up. If he likes nature or the outdoors, this is an amazing way to get paid to spend time in it and to pick up some great new skills and a healthy amount of emotional resilience. Feel free to memail me if you'd like.
posted by Polyhymnia at 6:53 AM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think taking some time before college is not a bad idea. Of the recommendations made so far, I'd lean towards taking a few years to learn a trade. If he goes to college eventually, he'll always have that skill to fall back on if needed. Also like the idea of taking a year to travel if this is a realistic option. I'm 45 and just now trying to see more of the world. Although a great experience at any age, wish I'd done more of this when I was younger.
posted by pescadero at 6:55 AM on August 11, 2013

I think taking a gap year before college is a great thing to do. It may not help clarify what he wants to do, but it will help him better understand the world, his place in it, and therefore the value of college and education.

I strongly recommend he look for something overseas. Living in a different country and culture is one of the greatest educational experiences you can give yourself.
posted by Joh at 7:52 AM on August 11, 2013

If he can get a job as an apprentice in a trade like plumbing or electrician, it's 1. good work (also hard work), 2. good pay, and 3. when you go to college after spending a few years getting your license for the trade you have a *very* lucrative part-time job available.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:06 AM on August 11, 2013

I did city year Chicago between college and high school in 06-07, it was a great experience for me personally. Feel free to send me a memail if you want to know more about it. It actually is an AmeriCorps program, and as such he'll get 5500 toward his tuition paid if he finishes te year. A word of advice on that: my family doesn't make a lot of money so I got a ton of need based aid. When I used the education award, they decreased it by 5500. I wish I'd waited and applied the money to my loans instead after I'd graduated (you can do either). If you're in a similar situation, keep that in mind...

Seconding that he should apply to colleges now and defer. It's much easier to track down the references and transcript and things like that, and he'll have some idea of his financial aid. The deferment process for me was as easy as checking "deferring for a year" on a postcard and mailing it back to the school.
posted by geegollygosh at 9:24 AM on August 11, 2013

He should definitely apply to college during this school year and defer his admission, this is totally acceptable to most schools. It'll be much easier for him to motivate himself while his friends and peers are going through the process, he's got the support of his school and counselors and he's already in the academic mode to churn out those essays and what not.
posted by dahliachewswell at 9:56 AM on August 11, 2013

How about working at a national park or similar place where resident and transient staff is the norm? With some research (a targeted AskMe post perhaps?), you/he can find some that would be more suitable than others.

A few examples: Yellowstione National Park houses staff in dorms at its different locations. A few of those locations are open year round and it's possible to stay on for long periods.

Chena Hot Springs is open year round, located on the edge of Alaskan wilderness at the end of a long road. They house an international staff in a variety of jobs.

Antarctica! Probably less of an option at his age without some very specific skills (e.g., search and rescue experience, dog handling, kitchen experience), but they may have more options for young and strong folk than I realize.

Jobs like this vary (e.g., restaurant/hospitality, visitor center staff, landscaping, office admin, tour guide) and can be menial, but they can also expose a person a bit more to what's out there. The job itself is generally not the reason to take this kind of job. It's an adventure in a new location, sometimes an exhilirating trip outside one's comfort zone, a chance to meet a ton of new people from all over the world, to observe, and to piece together aspects of this job and that, all things that may help a young person identify his/her interests and next steps in life.
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 12:07 PM on August 11, 2013

I'll third the suggestion to investigate City Year. As geegollygosh and rossination mentioned, it's a program that falls under the AmeriCorps umbrella. It was initially created with the express purpose of giving graduating seniors real-life experience as they were trying to figure out their next steps (junior year.. senior year.. city year). It's expanded somewhat and now people do it before/as a break from/after college.

I did City Year in Boston and had a really positive experience. I had an interest in teaching and had some assorted experience in the past. At CY, I was on a team of 8 that worked full time at an underserved, underperforming Boston public school. I was in a classroom all day, helping do small group lessons, reading/writing assessments, and lunchtime mentoring sessions. We also ran an afterschool program and put on community events. On the weekends, we'd do service projects like painting a huge mural or building planter boxes.

It was a big change from being in college (or high school). The days were long and I was commuting on multiple forms of transit. It was hard sometimes to feel like I was making progress. Everything was done in teams, so it required a lot of collaborating with peers. That said, I learned huge amounts about life outside school. I learned how to navigate a foreign city. I lived and worked with people from wildly different backgrounds and places. And I felt, ultimately, a sense of pride in what I was doing. I didn't do AmeriCorps with the intent of "serving my country", but that's what I came to appreciate. It's a very powerful feeling to watch 160 young people in matching red jackets arrive at a derelict school on a Saturday morning and have the entire place repainted and relandscaped by that afternoon.

I'm a big fan of AmeriCorps in general, and the City Year organization in particular. Definitely feel free to MeMail with questions or to chat more about the specifics of what it was like. Props for being so involved with your brother and best of luck in the search!
posted by Mr Yak at 12:12 PM on August 11, 2013

Just make sure if he travels that he has all the college paperwork sorted out so you can send it in on his behalf. A lot of college application cutoff dates are surprisingly early, like December or January.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:52 PM on August 11, 2013

this is a good thing for him to-do. Look at working with your hands, mechanic - HVAC - landscaper - carpenter - any of these will give him a feel your satisfaction in a job well done
posted by alfanut at 2:12 PM on August 11, 2013

Response by poster: Once again, AMF pours liquid smart into my head. These suggestions are awesome, even the tough-love ones. I think there's a ton of great ideas here, and I've sent him the link so he can peruse your suggestions on his own.

Thank you SO much everyone!!
posted by piratesriding at 1:27 PM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with a working holiday visa to Australia: entry-level jobs are pretty easy to get (low unemployment) and pay better than the US, he'll be able to do some travelling and exploring on his own, and he'll be able to try out a few job types and see what suits him. I also think having a deferred college admission would be good for his applications to jobs here, in applying for the visa, and to keep his options open.
posted by quercus23 at 5:48 PM on August 13, 2013

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