After High School Options

Education can give you the kind of knowledge and skills that lead to more job and career opportunities. There are many jobs and careers that don’t require specialized education or training; however, others do. If you are interested in pursuing higher education or learning new skills, you have many program and school options. To better understand where to start and what to do, there are several questions you should consider.

When thinking about your educational and career goals, you may want to consider opportunities, degrees, and certifications offered at vocational schools, apprenticeship programs, community colleges (junior college) or four-year institutions. Considering your needs and exploring your options can help you reach your career goals and avoid debt that may jeopardize your future financial wellbeing.

Getting Started

To get started, consider the kind of work you enjoy and think worthwhile. What interests you? What comes naturally to you? And what’s your idea of an amazing challenge? Taking a career interest assessment can be a good first step. After you’ve identified some careers that interest you, see what kind of education and training is required and how the salaries match up with your financial goals. When thinking about your educational and career goals, colleges and vocational schools often opportunities and certifications that can prepare you for the job market and help you reach your career goals.

Program and school research is an investment in your future and a way to increase your chances of landing that dream job and avoiding excessive student loan debt. There is no right or wrong decision. Considering your needs and goals, these questions can help you determine the best choice for you:

  1. What academic or career pathway am I interested in?
  2. Which topics and skills do I enjoy or usually excel?
  3. Does this profession require a degree, certificate, or advanced education?
  4. Is there a test or certification required? What organization regulates the test or certification?
  5. What is my financial situation? Is there funding or support available that can help pay for my educational expenses? Will the salary be sufficient?

After Identifying Your Career

Once you identify the career, you might have more than one option for getting the education you need to enter the industry. Each education option will likely have different lengths and costs, which could have a bearing on your future job success and financial wellbeing, so it is important to evaluate your choices before making a decision. If you have an industry or career in mind, begin your research by learning more about the jobs available and required training. You may also want to talk to employers in the field to find out which programs they recommend and what skills and experiences are in demand, as well as attend local job fairs to learn more about options. Together, these steps can help you identify the right career for you and the skills required.

  • Consider whether the career is in demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is a good resource for industry and career forecasting.
  • Find out about the job duties. Learning about the duties (including practical, administrative, etc.) will help you have a more realistic expectation.
  • Research the type of degree, certification, or post-graduate licensing required. Some careers may not require certification but may improve job prospects. Your local department of education may be able to share information on tests and licensure required in your state.
  • Talk with employers to learn more about the job you want. Even if a position is not available at the time, employers may offer an informational interview. An informational interview can help you learn more about the training programs that they recruit from, the equipment and software you need to be familiar, and important soft skills that you should develop.

Educational Options

A recent Georgetown University1 report suggested that 65% of jobs will require some education or training after high school. There are many educational options including certificates, certification, licensing, apprenticeships, associate and bachelor degrees; however, these options are not one size fits all. It is important to understand the differences between these options as well as the pros and cons.

Vocational, Technical, or Trade schools

Vocational schools (also called career, technical or trade schools) can be a great way to get training for a variety of jobs. These schools provide an option for students who are interested in postsecondary education and technical job training for a variety of skilled jobs including automotive technician, computer aided drafting and design, computer programming, construction laborer and inspector, criminal justice, culinary arts, hair stylist and cosmetologist, heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), internet network security and information technology, medical and dental assistant, paralegal, plumbing and landscaping trade, truck driver, and web design. Trade schools can be highly valuable for those students who know exactly what profession they want to work in and don’t have the interest in general education classes. Vocational programs are relatively short – usually one to two years – and offer employment opportunities in many practical fields.
There are many benefits of enrolling in a reputable vocational school3:

  • Streamlined curricular approach that develops a particular skill set
  • Offers associate’s degrees, diplomas or certification in a trade
  • Cost less than many 4-year universities (as long as the programs is reasonably priced – many for-profit schools are not)
  • Partnership and network with local companies, trade unions, and professional organizations to provide classroom training and on-the-job experience for skilled workers
  • Research suggests that individuals who possess a postsecondary certificate earn nearly 40% more than a high school graduate when they work in the field they studied. However, over the past few years, for profits colleges and trade schools have come under increased scrutiny for marketing false job placement rates, using misleading recruitment practices and making fraudulent accreditation claims, all while charging students high priced tuition and fees for degrees that prove worthless after graduation.

Apprenticeship programs

Apprenticeship programs, a part of the public workforce development system, are proven and structured “earn and learn” models that provide paid, on-the-job learning with related technical classroom instruction in various career fields. An apprenticeship is a job with traditionally excellent retention rates, according to the Department of Labor. In fact, a recent report estimates that 89% of apprentices are still working at that same job 3 years later. The U.S. Department of Labor describes apprenticeships as opportunities for immediate employment for job seekers that usually pay higher than average wages and offer continued career growth. Programs are offered by thousands of employers, employer associations and labor-management organizations that use the model to prepare highly-skilled workers ready to meet current industry specifications. More information is available at the Office of Apprenticeship within the Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration.

In a nutshell, apprenticeships involve an employer, are customizable based on the employers’ needs, create a career ladder, and provide an opportunity to build an industry recognized credential. As an alternate pathway to college or career, the U.S. Department of Education considers apprenticeships an on ramp to college.

To learn more visit

Community college or Junior college (typically two-year programs)

If you are interested in a liberal arts education but are unsure whether a four-year colleges is right for you, consider obtaining an associate degree (typically two years of study) from your local community college. Tuition at a community college costs less than tuition at a university. In addition to being less expensive than a four-year college, a recent Georgetown report suggests the value of an Associates (AA) degree provides an increased salary of $500k over the lifetime as compared to high school.
Nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States benefit from the accessibility, affordability, and flexibility of community colleges. Community colleges help make education more attainable for diverse communities and reduce the costs for bachelor degrees by allowing you the opportunity to transfer your credits over if you decide to continue your education3.
The American Association of Community Colleges suggests that on average, a student can reach a community college campus within 30 minutes. There are over 1100 community colleges within the United States with an average annual tuition of $3,430 (2015-2016 rates for in county residents)2. This relatively low tuition may be the reason that the majority (60%) of community college students graduate without student debt. To accommodate the needs of working students, representing nearly 66% of community college students, multiple modes of instruction are offered, including online, evening, weekend, and blended instruction. Additionally, in terms of flexibility, many community colleges offer relatively small class sizes of 25-35 students, dual enrollment for youth, and programs in geographic demands based on local or community needs.
These schools play an important role in higher education around the country. Their open admission policies, relatively low tuition, and accessible locations make them an important route to postsecondary education and job training for many students. Additionally, vocational and job training programs are available at many local community colleges and are often less expensive than vocational schools.

College or University (four-year programs)

For those interested in a four-year college degree, it can broaden your understanding of the world around you. Given your educational and career pursuits, it is important for you to choose a college or university that directly applies to your major, field, or career ambitions. While the Department of Education estimates that 40% of college students drop out of school, the College Board estimates that a college graduate earns an average of $1.2 million more in their lifetime than a high school graduate.
There are many four-year institutions, which include colleges and universities. These institutions typically have more rigorous admission requirements than vocational schools and community colleges4. While all colleges and universities offer bachelor’s degrees, some schools are larger and offer more majors and degree options—bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Some colleges have special focuses; for example, liberal arts colleges offer a broad base of courses such as literature, history, languages, mathematics and life sciences and can prepare you for a variety of careers or for graduate study. There are also specialized mission colleges, including historically black colleges and universities (HBCU), Hispanic serving institutions (HSI) and tribal colleges. Additionally, other specialized institutions include religiously affiliated, single sex colleges, and arts colleges and conservatories.

  • Public colleges are funded by local and state governments and usually offer lower tuition rates than private colleges, especially for students who are residents of the state where a college is located.
  • Private colleges rely mainly on tuition, fees and private sources of funding.
  • For profit colleges offer a variety of degree programs which typically prepare students for a specific career. They tend to have higher costs and all credits earned may not be transferable.

Things to Check

Once you have identified your career pathway and your options, you are ready to decide on which program or school to enroll. A helpful tool, The College Scorecard (, allows you to search for schools by program and location providing information on size, cost, graduation rate, and graduate salary. Before committing, be sure to check:

  • Admission requirements: Do you need a GED or high school diploma? Are there age or residency requirements?
  • Program or degree length: How many semesters, quarters, or months are required to complete the program?
  • Available accommodations: Does the school offer language learners or learning disability accommodations? Are you responsible for any supplies, tools, costs?
  • Supplemental training: Will the program expose you to equipment or software needed by employers?
  • Qualifications of instructor: Are the faculty well-known or well-versed in the field?
  • Program success rate: Reading the marketing materials from the school or program is a good start but you should also do some additional research of your own.
  • Is the program or school accredited? Accreditation is the process of evaluating colleges, university and trade schools to ensure they meet quality education standards. Many schools are accredited by both regional and national organizations; however, depending on your field of study, programmatic accreditation may also be important.
  • What percentage of students complete the program? How long does it take?
  • How many graduates find full-time paid jobs in their chosen field? What is the starting salary? How long does it take? Are areas or programs more successful than others?
  • What percentage of students borrow money to pay for school? What is the student loan repayment and default rate?
  • Will the school provide a list of recent graduates for you to talk with?
  • Facilities: Are the facilities up-to-date?
  • Cost: When looking at schools, consider the total cost for the program; including tuition, enrollment fees, a computer, books, and other class materials. Also, consider the additional costs associated with attending school such as transportation, housing, childcare, and meals.
  • Complaints: Check with your state attorney general’s office (, the state department of education in the state where the school is based, as well as national agencies to ensure there are no known investigations/wrongdoing: U.S. Department of Education, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and the Better Business Bureau. While lack of complaints doesn’t ensure the school is without problems; this research will help you make an informed decision about your future.
    Experts agree that having education and expertise makes you more marketable… think of education as an investment in your future. One thing for sure is that postsecondary education can give you skills that you’ll use for the rest of your life, no matter where you live or what job you do.


  1. Van Der Werf, M. (2017). Failure to Launch. Georgetown University. Center on Education and the Workforce.
  2. College Board. (2015). Trends in College Pricing: 2015
  3. Consumer Action. (2016). Finding the Right Job Training School.
  4. College Board – Big Future

Additional Resources:
Job Training Schools
Occupational Outlook Handbook
Federal Student Aid (2017)
Prepare for College Checklist
U.S. Department of Education
Federal Trade Commission
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)
Better Business Bureau
The College Scorecard