Understanding Options After High School

Featuring expert advice from:

Paul Mitchell

Paul Mitchell, Assistant Professor in the Reynolds School of Journalism and Coordinator of Recruitment and Retention at the University of Nevada, Reno

Paula Umana

Paula Umaña, Director of Institutional Engagement at the Hope Center

You might have been told there's one "best" way to begin your adult life: a four-year college degree. Well, that's not your only option. Here are just a few things you could do after high school.

Do I Need to Finish High School to Earn a Living?

Generally, you need to finish high school or earn a GED to make a living wage. As of 2021, those without diplomas or GEDs earned an average of $626 per week ($15.65 per hour). This is below the living wage for a family of four in nearly every state.

In August 2022, the job website Indeed created a list of 17 jobs that don't necessarily require a high school diploma or GED. The fields those jobs are in are, generally:

  • Car maintenance
  • Construction
  • Customer service
  • Delivery work
  • Food service

All these jobs are highly physical and may be rough on your body in the long run. If that doesn't sound like your cup of tea or you want to increase your chances of moving into management, you should finish high school or earn your GED.

Entering the Workforce After High School

People can enter the workforce directly after high school and earn a living. The average weekly pay for someone with a diploma or GED is $809 ($20.22 per hour). This meets or exceeds the living wage for families of four and individuals in more states.

We don't want to dismiss working immediately after high school. It can be done, and you can be successful. It could take longer to achieve higher earning power without any kind of further education, though.

You can start many jobs soon after high school. But not all can be started immediately because they require licensure or certifications. Some lucky high schoolers could take courses as part of their programs. For others, this is where trade and vocational school comes in.

Trade, Technical, or Vocational School

To work in a skilled field and avoid the time and cost of a degree, a vocational license or certification could be right for you. And there are tons of options! The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) offers an Occupation Finder. Choose "Postsecondary nondegree award" under "Entry-level Education." This will show you over 800 careers in this category.

Call us biased, but we can't help but point out that some of our favorite careers are growing "much faster than average" between 2021 and 2031:

Barber jobs are also growing faster than average, according to the BLS. However, their job growth rate is combined with cosmetologists’.

The beauty industry isn't the only trade with rising job numbers. Craving the open road? Try getting a commercial driver's license to become a commercial truck driver. Want to give the medical field a try? Go for a certified nursing assistant or medical assistant program.

Associate Degrees: Can I Really Get a Job With One?

The career fields you can enter with an associate degree are endless, though the job titles may not be. People work in medicine, law, education, customer service, technology, art, and more. You could also make a good living with an associate degree. For example, dental hygienists earn about $96,000, web developers earn $77,000, and paralegals earn $57,000. These careers generally require only associate degrees.

Associate degrees are often offered at community colleges and only take two or so years of full-time study to complete. An added benefit is that these tend to be more diverse than four-year colleges. Instructors often have experience working with all sorts of students, and peers may have life experiences like yours. Class sizes are generally smaller, so you could more easily form relationships and get assistance.

Bachelor's Degrees: Are These Really Necessary?

Whether you need a bachelor's degree depends on your chosen career. For example, you need at least a bachelor's degree to be a teacher. But if you simply want to work in education or aren't sure you want to teach, other training could get you a relevant job. For example, a paraprofessional works in classrooms, frequently helping students with special needs. This job often needs a certification or associate degree. School office workers, custodians, or cafeteria workers can begin with high school diplomas.

Is Online School Worthwhile?

As with any other type of school, there are pros and cons to online learning. That said, especially after 2020, online education is becoming more understood and accepted.

Few vocational certifications or licenses are available online. Still, you may be able to take part in some coursework on your computer, even if an entire program isn't available. Associate and higher degree programs are more often available solely or mostly online, probably because the material is less likely to require hands-on instruction.

The idea that online school is always cheaper is a myth, though. You may save on transportation, work, and childcare costs if the classes aren't in real time. But the program tuition can cost as much as tuition for an in-person school, so compare fully before you assume.

Easing Yourself into Postsecondary Education

If you have knowledge gaps, consider remedial classes or other ways to fill those spaces. The word "remedial" may have some stigma, but it's unwarranted. It's a variation on "remedy," meaning "fixing," and has nothing to do with intelligence. It's all about fixing a specific problem. There's no shame in admitting you need help.

Paul Mitchell has found many BIPOC students were left behind in at least one academic area—and not due to a lack of intelligence or drive. Overcrowded classrooms limiting teachers' abilities to dig in with students play a role. But teachers' and peers' unconscious biases (and, sadly, conscious biases) may also be at play. Teachers may think a student of color isn't as capable of success. Or, they expect more from them, particularly if a student is Asian. Both can be detrimental. And if peers commit overt or microaggressions, feeling safe is nearly impossible. This results in learning becoming challenging.

Even if you don't plan to attend a degree program, you may need a solid basis in language arts, math, and science. For example, you may have to read and write English at a 10th-grade level for cosmetology school. You also have to be able to understand and explain scientific topics for certificate programs in medical assisting or esthetics (skincare).

Some colleges offer summer programs for incoming freshmen to prep them for the school year, which may include remedial courses for subjects students are weaker in relative to the rest of the incoming class.

During the summer, you want to get acclimated to going to classes, you want to get acclimated to the schedule of lifting weights, of eating, of studying … just that whole grind, before you even go to college as a full-time student. You do that part time during the summer just to get that experience.

Students who are deficient in math or English have had some challenges. This is when you go and get that out of the way. So when the fall semester starts, you're in the same classes everybody else is in… where you're now on par with everybody.

–Paul Mitchell

If you plan to head to a four-year school, you could also consider attending a two-year school first. There are tons of benefits to this. For instance, class sizes are generally smaller, and the costs are often much lower. You can usually complete general education courses and transfer those credits to a four-year school. This may save you a lot of money and give you access to more one-on-one help.

Further, if you speak English as an additional language, many community colleges have classes to help with college English.

If you can't attend a community college, consider looking at your local library, a K-12 school system, or online. Though courses with feedback and help are best, if those don't work for you, you can look at video lessons and practice along.

Explore more of the BIPOC Student Success Guide

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