The timeless expectation has been for high school students to pursue a traditional 4-year college degree. However, today’s economic realities are causing many families to question whether that one-size-fits-all approach still makes sense for their teen. There are compelling trade school and certification alternatives that deserve thoughtful consideration as well.

The Changing College Dialogue

For today’s high schoolers, following their friends to college is no longer the default next step after graduation. I’m having more in-depth conversations with clients about closely evaluating whether a 4-year university is truly the best fit for their child, or if a shorter-term career training program may better align with their interests and professional goals.

Even public schools are establishing partnerships with technical institutes and local businesses to give students practical workforce experience in addition to traditional academics. This allows teens to gain marketable skills in specialized fields that are perpetually in demand. With the right program, graduates can launch quickly into solid middle-class jobs without saddling themselves with extensive student loan debt.

Consider Your Child’s Unique Strengths and Interests

As a financial advisor also guiding my own kids through this process, I’ve realized that the ideal post-high school path differs vastly for each individual. A cookie-cutter approach does not work. My academically-inclined daughter thrived at a large university and graduated on time with multiple job prospects. However, I now see that route would have been completely wrong for my son, who learns best through hands-on work.

After researching options tailored to his interests, we found a two-year specialized program at a technical college that was a perfect fit for him. He’ll receive specific job training and certifications that will position him for immediate employment with great earning potential and high job satisfaction.

The key takeaway for parents is objectively looking at each child’s innate strengths, skills, personality, and passions to determine the right type of learning environment. For more mechanically-minded, independent learners who value real-world experience, a trade school or technical program can provide the ideal launchpad while minimizing student debt.

Aligning Education with Workforce Needs

Our country is at an interesting inflection point where we face a mismatch between retiring baby boomers leaving the workforce and available skilled workers to fill the void, particularly in essential trades. Funneling the majority of high school graduates into generalized liberal arts degrees at 4-year universities won’t actually solve that pressing shortage.

Students who instead gain focused vocational expertise through certificate programs, technical schools, or apprenticeships will graduate job-ready, with in-demand skills. This allows them to smoothly transition into careers such as construction, plumbing, electrical, healthcare services, automotive technology, IT, and advanced manufacturing. They can earn solid middle-class wages immediately with huge growth potential over time as they master their craft.

To meet evolving workforce dynamics, we need to shake off outdated social stigmas viewing physical trades or technical training as somehow a “lesser” path. These should be presented to students as equally smart and valid alternatives to the “college or bust” mentality that no longer aligns with reality.

It’s Never Too Late to Evolve Your Skills

Whichever route students initially take after high school, learning doesn’t suddenly end at graduation. Community colleges, certificate programs, on-the-job training, online courses, bootcamps, and seminars allow people to continuously add skills and knowledge throughout their career. Even soft skills like critical thinking, emotional intelligence, communication, and collaboration can be continually honed through real-world experience in virtually any role.

The ideal education journey starts with developing a technical skillset or hands-on abilities that create an employable foundation. As careers progress, ongoing education and training gives professionals the opportunity to specialize, advance, or change directions along the way according to their evolving interests and priorities.

Guiding Your Teen’s Future in a Rapidly Changing World

The “right” path after high school looks far different today than a generation ago. At iWealth, our financial advisors help parents make smart trade-offs maximizing college savings plans and strategically funding their child’s education. We also provide guidance on calculating expected return on investment for different academic options given current job market dynamics.

Please contact our office for personalized guidance specific to your family’s situation. With an adaptable plan and accountability along the way, you can ensure your teen gains skills to propel them toward a fulfilling career aligned with the world ahead.