What Happens After High School? Know Your Child's Options

The next big step may feel overwhelming, but understanding these paths can help.

Medically reviewed in June 2022

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Although high school graduation can seem like an endpoint, every new grad walking across that stage—and their parents—knows that this is the start of a brand new life phase. What happens next can have a major impact on your child’s long-term career prospects, and the breadth of options can feel overwhelming, emotionally and financially.

But understanding the nuances of your major choices can help. Evaluating paths that might be right for your child will assist the whole family in anticipating what’s next, reducing the stress about what happens after high school. Here are some factors to consider when making the decision.

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A Four-Year College Degree

According to one study, those with a four-year college degree make $17,500 more annually than people who don't have one—and that number has doubled over the past few decades. What's more, unemployment is four times likelier for people with no degree.

But that doesn’t mean a four-year degree is the default option for everyone. Instead, evaluate whether college will provide the academic starting point needed for a chosen career path. Have your child think about goals, personal strengths and weaknesses, and level of motivation.

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A Two-Year College Degree

If your child is unsure about a potential career path, a two-year college may be a great option. It can help your child build valuable study skills if she decides to switch to a four-year college, or prepare her for certain professions, such as nursing, that require a two-year degree.

When thinking about college options, dig deep into financial assistance resources. Tuition costs can cause sticker shock during initial college searches—and fear over college debt can leave families wondering if it’s worth the cost. But many kids are eligible for financial help, including low-interest student loans and federal aid.

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Vocational Training

The U.S. is currently experiencing a shortage of skilled workers, which is pushing wages higher in trades like construction, carpentry, electrical, plumbing, vehicle repair, healthcare and many others.

Unlike college degrees that might take years to achieve—and put a student into debt at graduation—vocational training programs are much shorter, and graduates can earn a robust paycheck quickly. It's estimated that in the U.S., there are about 30 million trade jobs that earn an average of $55,000 annually.

Another factor in favor of vocational training is job placement. In many trades, there are far more openings than candidates to fill them. For example, the U.S. Department of Education found that between now and 2022, there will be 68 percent more infrastructure jobs available than there are workers training to take them.

As older employees retire, it’s estimated that the gap between job opportunities and available skilled workers will keep growing—a situation that’s likely to keep wages trending upward for those with vocational training.

If your child gravitates toward hands-on learning and shows an interest in a trade, this could be a great option to consider for a future career.

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Military Service

For those who thrive on structure and physical activity, military service may be a good fit, especially since service in the armed forces can lead to a specialized job or college-level education.

Also, the military’s tuition assistance programs have been a valuable resource for many looking to pursue an education without incurring additional debt. For example, the GI Bill pays between 40 percent and 100 percent of tuition at in-state public colleges, depending on how long you served.

Your child could also consider a military academy, which are colleges run by the U.S. military, where students don't pay any tuition, but receive military benefits and even get a salary.

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Making the Decision

As you and your child evaluate what feels right as the next step, keep in mind that each of these options can be a launching pad, not a final destination. For example, military service can lead to a college degree, or your child might learn a trade and then join the military in a few years.

Some new high school grads decide to take a “gap year” before making a decision, spending that time to travel, do community service or work full time to save more funds for college or vocational school.

Look at what seems like the best fit for right now, with an understanding that other options will always be there as future possibilities.

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