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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

If not college, what?

Often-lucrative alternatives to the four-year degree abound

Issue: "Northern light," Sept. 20, 2008

Last spring, a column about the "Diminished Returns" of some college degrees stimulated a large response. The subject seems to be a hot-button issue among Christians of a certain age: young adults or older adults with teenage children. The "Go-To-College" steamroller that gained traction after the G.I. Bill has begun to slow down as the cost-effectiveness becomes more questionable. Charles Murray, author of Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality, put it bluntly in a recent Wall Street Journal article: "For Most People, College Is a Waste of Time."

Murray's main point is that not everyone is bent toward academics, and the push to enroll as many high-school graduates as possible in higher education has created a shortage in skilled trades. The need for welders and pipe fitters will soon be so acute that Mike Rowe, star of the Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs, is in talks with at least two industrial-supply companies to promote the virtue-and profit-of manual labor.

Suppose your high-school student is looking at the future and wondering what to make of it. If a traditional, four-year college or university doesn't seem a good fit, what are the options?

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For homeschoolers, fast-trackers, and others who want an academic education but are short on time or money, a combination of pre-testing and distance learning may be the answer. For instance, College Plus! (see CollegePlus.org) offers guidance and support by assigning a coach to each student, first to help identify goals and develop a plan. Step two is to accumulate 90 credit hours or more by "testing out" of introductory classes, and finally students enroll in a distance-learning program to complete their degree-possibly even by the time of high-school graduation.

The time-honored option of apprenticeship can work for young people aiming for a particular career. The approach may be no more complicated than asking to be taken on as assistant to an established photographer, or helping out on Saturdays at an equestrian school. The U.S. Department of Labor has an Office of Apprenticeship, as does every state, with efforts coordinated by the National Association of State and Territorial Apprenticeship Directors. Their websites (doleta.gov and nastad.us) may be helpful for getting the lay of the land.

In practical fields such as electrical wiring, paralegal, hospitality, drafting, law enforcement, or information, automotive or medical technology, certification can increase earning power. It's usually best to get an associate's degree at the local community college (for a fraction of the cost of a four-year-institution), then follow up with a period of apprenticeship before taking the certification exams. To find career fields where certification is a better deal than a bachelor's degree, check the Certification and Accreditation Directory at the local library. Or order a copy of You're Certifiable: The Alternative Career Guide to More than 700 Certificate Programs, Trade Schools and Job Opportunities.

Youth is typically a time of indecision, and rare is the teen who settles on a lifetime career so early. Opportunities abound for young people who want some life experience before sinking their teeth into a "real" job. Youth hostels around the world are staffed with young Australians who have delayed higher education in order to backpack from one point of the globe to the next. A less extreme example would be hiring on at a dude ranch in Arizona or a ski resort in Vermont, earning your way and seeing new places while deciding what to do next. See Back Door Jobs (book and website) or check out CoolWorks.com to find job listings for the footloose.

Mission opportunities, though valuable in other ways, don't pay (except for treasures in heaven). But some missionary organizations may be willing to supply lodging or other compensation for volunteers who pay their way to the field. It never hurts to ask.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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