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Answers to Your College Questions

5 Alternatives to a Traditional College Education

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what to do after high schoolReality check: Nearly half of all high school students will not go to college when they finish. The question that remains is: What the heck will they do instead?

There’s one clear answer: They will all spend 12 hours a day on the sofa playing xBox. Every. Single. Day.

OK, we all know that’s not true. The truth is, most young people that don’t go to college will actually get a job, but all young people will wonder what they should do with their lives. That’s completely natural. Especially for those who aren’t taking what’s considered a “traditional” post-secondary path.

Reality Check 2: Many careers are possible without graduating from college. And what’s more promising, many careers that traditionally require a college degree are making way for experiential opportunities instead (i.e. with the right experience, you can get the job).

So, take a breath. Not going to college isn’t the end of the world, unless of course you are playing an xBox game called “University Kingdom 4 HD,” then you have no other choice.

You may not have known, but there are a ton of incredibly valuable alternatives to going to a post-secondary learning institution immediately after leaving high school.

1. Travel

It’s no secret that travel is one of the best ways for people to mature and to learn more about this beautiful planet. Travel offers opportunities for new friends, new experiences, epiphanies, independence, and understanding.

Some travel as a planned gap year as they are sorting out what exactly is next, or to gain life experience before going on to college. Spending time on the road in foreign places has a magical ability to help people realize what they want from their lives. Not to mention, it’s an incredible way to meet new people and open doors for amazing career opportunities.

Advice to students: Take the ten to fifteen thousand dollars it would cost for the first year of school and put it toward airfare. Spend months traveling the world. Keep a journal of experiences. Spend time with locals. Learn from them, their cultures, and their ways of life, and use the time away to make some decisions about a career path.

2. Build Stuff

With the invention of the Internet came an inexhaustible resource of knowledge and information. You can literally find directions on the web to build anything. A-n-y-t-h-i-n-g. (World’s Fastest Toilet anyone?)

There is incredible value in being involved with a process from start to finish and in teaching yourself how to do something then seeing it all the way through. There are a bunch of obstacles to overcome and a ton of lessons to learn.

Advice to students: Take the ten to fifteen thousand dollars you would spend in your first year of college and use it to build something. It could be used to purchase equipment, materials, or ingredients to help you along the way. Blog about the project, film it, take photos, and find a way to document it and share it with the world.

Still trying to decide which path to take after graduation?

Give yourself the power to create your own successful future with Ryan Porter’s Make Your Own Lunch: How to Live an Epically Epic Life through Work, Travel, Wonder, and (maybe) College.

learn more about make your own lunch

3. Level Up

Take a look at your calendar. Notice anything? It’s the year 2014! What does this mean? It means that sitting in a chair on a college campus isn’t the only way to get what you need for a super successful career.

Technology has made it easy to take online classes, obtain certification, and track learning outside of the classroom. Schools like MIT, Harvard, and Stanford offer online courses available for free. Websites like and allow people to track their learning and display accomplishments for potential employers or schools.

Couple these things with some of the other items on this list and very soon, you’ll find yourself developing the deep knowledge, understanding, and skills that prepare you for the career path you’re interested in.

Advice to students: Enroll in one or two online courses that are related to the things you want to do. Complete the course(s) and add them to your résumé. This shows potential employers your dedication, personal drive, and passion for the work you want to do.

4. Volunteer

Volunteering leads to meaningful experiences, meaningful relationships, and most of the time, meaningful work.

There's something irreplaceable about doing work that you’re not getting paid for. Doing it because it's exciting and challenging. Doing it because you’re genuinely interested or care about the work.

Volunteering is one of the best ways to learn about an industry or career field without having the prerequisites to enter that field. The best part? You can volunteer anywhere. If you’re thinking about taking a gap year, volunteering during your year off is a perfect way to make sure you return as employable as possible, with the experience employers are looking for.

Advice to students: Take the ten to fifteen thousand dollars you would spend on your first year of college and keep it in your pocket. Volunteering rarely costs much and can end up making you money in the long run. Not to mention, companies are more likely to hire an enthusiastic, experienced volunteer than an applicant from a stack of résumés.

5. Start a Business

There has never been a time more encouraging and supportive of starting a business. There are unlimited resources online and in the community to help startups become successful. There are government grants, free advice, mentorship programs, blogs, incubators, and countless websites dedicated to starting a business.

Starting a business is a fantastic way to learn about business. From marketing and hiring to distribution channels and finance, running a small business is the greatest way to learn.

Advice to students: Take the ten to fifteen thousand dollars you would have spent in your first year of college and start a business. Any business. Start a sports memorabilia ecommerce site, open a café, start a web design company. It goes down on your résumé that you were the CEO or founder of a business. That experience will pay dividends in your next job interview.

The bottom line is simple. Doing one or any combination of these things makes a person more interesting and gives them more experience, and in most cases interesting + experience > formal education.

Imagine a web developer fresh out of college applying for the same job as the high school graduate who has a couple of years volunteer experience building Web applications for nonprofit companies. Or, how about a recently graduated student applying for a job at a hotel alongside somebody who spent the past two years working at a hostel in Prague?

Taking steps like the ones outlined in this list is not about being anti-college or “sticking it to the man.” It’s about becoming as employable as possible, taking the steps necessary to figure out what’s next, and giving you the tools to pursue those things with passion and excitement.

So now that the xBox is turned off, it’s time to make some decisions.

Thinking college is the right next step for you?

Start getting prepared with Harlan Cohen’s The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College.

learn more about the naked roommate

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At age 21, Ryan Porter dropped out of college to try to answer the question “What do I want to be when I grow up?”. The quest for an answer brought him to Japan, Slovakia, Honduras, Austria, Nicaragua, Guatemala, the Czech Republic, and, eventually, back to college. He quickly discovered that there’s more than one question to ask as we make decisions about our futures, and that there are a bunch of answers.

He wrote the book Make Your Own Lunch to help young people ask new questions, explore lots of possibilities, and discover exciting answers that are right for them.

See Make Your Own Lunch: How to Live an Epically Epic Life through Work, Travel, Wonder, and (maybe) College in the College Countdown store.