Take it From Me…You Need to Figure Out What Comes Next (Part 1)

March 14, 2022
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Regular tips and advice to help you better navigate young adulthood from someone who had to learn some of this stuff (way too much of this stuff) the hard way

Many of you are quickly approaching important life milestones like high school, two-year, or four-year college graduations or end of a job’s or service year’s term. If you’re one of those people, first of all, congratulations on your accomplishment! Second of all, you’ve probably been asked things like what will you do next several times, and you may or may not have an answer to that question (or may or may not have changed your answer over time). Whether you’re about to reach one of these milestones or are just at a point in your life where you’re looking for a change, this post will (hopefully) help you think about your next steps, learn more about some of the many options you can choose from, and help you come to a decision that you will be happy with. So, the question is: to school, or not to school?

This post will focus on different ideas if you’re thinking about continuing on to a post-secondary academic or training program.  

To School…:

Utilize AP, Dual Credit, and CLEP as a high schooler or soon-to-be high school graduate. If you plan on attending a two-year or four-year college someday, you’ll enter already having college credits thus decreasing the amount of time (and hopefully the amount of money) you’ll have to come up with. If you’re a rising junior or senior reading this, find out how you can register for classes next year that will give you the potential to earn college credit like AP (which you’ll receive credit for if you score a certain amount of the test (the number varies on the college/university you may one day transfer to, so make sure to check)) or Dual Credit sections (which does not involve a test to earn credit, but you may need to take a college entrance exam like the TSI if your SAT/ACT/STAAR scores aren’t high enough). 

You can still earn college credit without having to take the course by CLEPing out of courses. This works well if you know you’re strong enough in a subject or subjects to test out of having to sit through a semester of classes, but online resources like Crash Course and Khan Academy can also help you prepare to take the CLEP test (I’ve worked with students who have used these options to help with AP and CLEP prep, and they have scored high enough on these tests to test out of certain subjects, thus allowing them to move on to major-related courses sooner). 

  • For exams that cost money, you may be eligible for a fee waiver, so check with your counselor, advisor, or online to find out the eligibility requirements.   
  • If you did not graduate high school but would like your high school diploma, you may be able to re-enroll in a high school in your area depending on your age and how far you made it before leaving school. If not, you can look for GED Prep classes in your community to get you ready for the exam or study on your own before taking the four-subject exam. 

Two-year college to take care of your gen-eds: there are several benefits of attending a two-year college to earn freshman- and sophomore-level credits. For one, it’s a fraction of the cost to attend a four-year college or university if you’re not able to get enough financial aid to cover your costs. Another benefit is the fact that you can get your general requirements out of the way. These are classes you’d have to take no matter where you go and what you major in (like freshman composition, at least one math class, and lab sciences). Even if you’re not sure what you want to major in, getting your basics out of the way will allow you to get closer to starting major-related classes once you decide what you want to do and where you want to go. Having at least a few classes under your belt will also better prepare you for the rigors of university. If you graduated from high school without AP tests or Dual Credit, starting at a two-year college may make financial, schedule, and location sense for you.    

If you feel like you’re ready to go to a four-year school and are prepared to handle class expectations, financial costs, and time obligations, go for it. Even better if you already know what you want to major in, but depending on how many (if any) hours you transfer in, taking care of your gen-eds will take your first few semesters. Hopefully by that time, you’ll have a better idea of what you want to major in. If you’re still completely at a loss, talk to an advisor, make a meeting at your campus’s career center, or think about some potential career paths or people you look up in positions you’d one day like to hold and find out what they majored in. Another option could be your school’s General Studies or Interdisciplinary Studies programs, which allow you to earn a bachelor’s degree while being able to explore several fields instead of having to focus on only one or two.

Alternative/Continuing Ed Options:

Depending on what you would like to do, you may not need an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Several colleges offer continuing education sections of credit courses that will allow you to gain educational experience and expertise in a particular field like business, education, and public health and safety without having to take other classes that do not relate to what you currently or hope to do. There are also options like LinkedIn, IBM Skillshare, and ed2go that offer free classes or courses/certificate programs that cost less than earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree but will still allow you to gain necessary skills without the full cost of college or university.   

Career paths like cosmetology, early childhood education, culinary arts, and the trades have their own training programs. While some paths allow for on-the-job training, others will require you to complete a training program before officially licensing you. If you’re still in high school, check to see if your school or school district has training available for high school students. If you’ve already graduated, look for colleges or schools with programs in the field you’d like to enter. 

Some career fields may necessitate continued training after earning your bachelor’s. This may include additional classes if you’re looking to enter the medical field, a teacher training program if you hope to become an educator, law school, med school, or grad school. If this is you, picking the right program and mode (fully online, hybrid, in-person only) can be quite stressful (and this is in addition to the application process, which offers stressors of its own). You should think about if it makes sense for your planned career before jumping in, but now may be a good time to make the jump since many schools are still forgoing graduate entrance exams (which can save you some time and money in the process). For some, it may be a requirement, but for others, work experience may be more important. If you do decide to go forward, decide on things like how will you afford it, are you willing to relocate to attend a school, and how will this benefit you in the long run as soon as you can. Some companies will provide tuition assistance or reimbursement for employees continuing on in their education as will some colleges and universities if you work on a campus. 


If you’re thinking about returning to school or continuing on, find out if your present (or perhaps future) employer provides these perks. If not, search for programs known for their generous, non-loan financial aid offerings (like graduate assistantships/research assistantships/instructional assistantships, scholarships/grants, etc.) or plan to pay-as-you-go as a part-time student if you’re afraid about the costs of entering a post-bac program. Programs like law schools and graduate programs in the medical sciences are notoriously difficult to find time to both study and work (which is why a lot of people take out loans to complete this program then use their first few years in the field to pay them off), but even doing something along of the lines of Uber/Lyft, delivering food and/or groceries, and other side gigs that do not require you to have a vehicle can help defray at least some of the costs without taking too much time away from your primary focus.   

Is school not a part of your short-term future? No problem. The second part of this two-part series will focus on non-academic paths you can take as you decide what you may want to study (if you’d like to return to school one day) or do as you prepare for a long-term job or career if an academic program is not in your future.