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Is college always the right path? Given that we are dedicated to helping students through the college admission process, it may seem odd that I’m writing a blog post questioning whether a student should always go to college. But I think we all know high school students who see their academic classes as a slog but light up in other areas of their life. My high school group was full of students in honors and AP classes, all motivated to go to college, including some of the most selective in the country. However, one friend, although very smart, was an indifferent student. Classes were a chore for her. She earned Bs, largely, but she never enjoyed the classroom the way the rest of us did. However, in all other areas of life she was the most competent person we knew. If a dinner or birthday party needed to be organized, or if a complicated dish needed to be prepared, she was always the best one for the job. She had competence as a 16-year-old that I only achieved as an adult in managing others, surveying a situation, and understanding quickly what needed to be done and how to do it.

In spite of her indifference as a student, she went to college because that is what her older brothers had done and what almost all her friends were doing. And, to be fair, college seemed exciting. Upon arriving, she got a part-time job at a local restaurant chain to help pay her bills. Her remarkable organizational skills were soon noticed, and she was promoted quickly and steadily through the ranks, eventually becoming manager of the chain. Recently, when the owner decided to retire, she bought the chain from him and has continued to make it a success.

Along the way, she dropped out of college only a few credits shy of her degree. However, it’s clear that this college drop-out is a wonderful success story. So why am I telling you about her? Because I see her in some of the students I encounter. They bring many skills to the table, including a curious mind, but perhaps chafe in an academic setting. Their parents are anxious to help them in life, and they think sending them to college is the way to do so. And they have some good data to back this up. After all, on average, college graduates make $54,000 per year, while high school graduates make only $35,000 per year. But people are not averages, as my friend demonstrated.

So what kinds of options are there for people without a four-year degree? Well, often those options do include some additional education or training. For example, students who earn a one-year certificate in a variety of computer fields can expect an average income of $72,000. Another strong option is in the skilled trades, where you go through an apprenticeship but are paid while learning on the job.

How do you find out about these opportunities? We suggest going to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. It’s a wonderful resource that allows you to research the number of new jobs projected in a given field, the level of education required, on the job training offered, and even median pay. But remember to start with who your student is. What are they good at? What do they enjoy? As my friend’s story demonstrates, those things don’t have to be academic.

Subscribe to “The Insider blog to be kept informed as we explore more specific alternatives to a four-year degree over the coming months.

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Written by Sally Ganga
Sally Ganga is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Prior to joining College Coach, Sally was a senior admissions officer at The University of Chicago, Reed College, and Whittier College.