Five Alternatives to College for Students with Unique Learning Needs

Five Alternatives to College for Students with Unique Learning Needs

By Susan Giurleo PhD


In many communities high school staff and students are focused on getting into a “good” college. However, as I work with many teenagers with unique learning styles and needs, it is clear that going staight from high school to post-secondary education is not appropriate for everyone.

I find myself often saying to parents and students, “there is no rush.” There is no rush to finish high school, go on to more education or reach any particular academic goal.

Future success is not defined by the age at which you take Algebra 2 or physics.

Often, when teens aren’t ready for college, families can be confused about what to do as their teen sorts out their next steps. Should they work? Volunteer? Help around the house?

Yes to all of that. I am not in support of a high school graduate sitting at home with no schedule nor structure for any amount of time. This complete lack of focus can lead to depression, anxiety and a 25 year old perpetually living in your basement. That isn’t good for your child and it isn’t good for you as a parent.

Many of you reading this may think that this post-secondary life conversation is too early for your child. However, planning for what comes after high school should start in your child’s freshmen year.  It can be too late to take advantage of special programs or unique opportunities if you wait until senior year to consider options.  Also, it can be too easy to fall into the march toward college with the rest of the crowd if a family doesn’t mindfully consider equally viable, useful options well in advance of the college frenzy that starts junior year.

With that in mind, here are 5 alternatives to college to consider for your child:

  1. Work. This may sound obvious, but many families do not consider this as an option for various reasons. Some students have social weaknesses that make working  a challenge. Others don’t like their options for work which are most often service oriented and pay at a minimum wage. Personally, I think everyone should work for minimum wage as a teen/young adult. The work experience isn’t so much for the money as it is for developing work ethic, employment skills, and the social growth required to be gainfully employed with a diverse group of people as co-workers, supervisors, etc.
  2. Volunteer in an area of interest. Again, this may seem obvious but isn’t often considered for students who may have weak social skills. Volunteer work can be more “forgiving” than paid work in terms of flexibility of schedule and expectations. Volunteer work should have a schedule and be consistent (several times a week) for your student to benefit from the experience.
  3. Develop a hands-on skill. Think cooking/baking, electrical, carpentry, auto repair. These are skills that can’t be outsourced and are in demand in every community. There are many classes available at reasonable prices at local technical institutes which result in a certificate that many employers will value. A student can also ask to apprentice for a local bakery or tradesperson to learn the ropes in a very hands on way.
  4. Start a small business. It can be very inexpensive to start a small business, either online or in the community. Whether it be mowing lawns or selling crafts on Esty, an enterprising young person can make some decent money and develop some strong work skills by starting a micro business after graduating high school.
  5. Use online tools to teach or entertain. Creating a vibrant online community where one can use social media, such as YouTube, to create instructional videos, presentations or entertainment on topics of interest can develop the tech skills required for many jobs and can generate some income. This is a great way for tech/screen oriented kids to start to use technology to create something, rather than just passively absorbing it.

All of these experiences can inform a young person’s ideas and direction as they consider how to become independent and eventually gainfully employed as a young adult.

The fact is, college is not a good fit for everyone, nor is it the only path toward a successful, fulfilling adulthood.

I hope parents and students will consider the above, as well as other options, as alternatives to college. Often unique learners need unique career paths. Honoring that will help them be healthier and happier in their adult years.