The road to college can be a rocky one. Between SATs, ACTs, tough courses, teacher recommendations, a cutthroat pool of applicants, extracurriculars, college essays, and everything in between, it’s an exhausting journey. So what should you do if your child says she doesn’t want to take the trip? First, take a deep breath. As a parent it’s natural to want the best for your child. And for many parents, college is more than the best choice; it’s the only choice. But before you tell your child she’s grounded for the rest of her life, consider the cold hard facts: College may seem like the ticket to success, but getting your kid there is only half the battle. It’s completion that matters. And only 2 out of 5 students who enter a public four-year college manage to snag a degree within five years. For two-year colleges, the graduation rate is even more abysmal (28.9% in 2007). While it’s taking many students more than five years to graduate, many students aren’t graduating at all—nearly 30% of all students who enter college don’t return for their sophomore year. That hurts. Because the cost of college is anything but cheap. According to The College Board, this year’s average price at a 4-year private college is a whopping $23,712 per year. Public 4-year colleges rang in this year at $6,185 per year, and public 2-year colleges at $2,361 per year.

So, as painful as it is to hear that your child doesn’t want to go to college, it may be less painful than it would be a year from now, $23,712 poorer and no closer to hanging his diploma in the den. Sending a kid with no interest to college is like sending a kid who’s not feeling hungry to an all-you-can-eat buffet… a waste. Most worthwhile careers require education. But they don’t all require a college education. Some train future workers through apprenticeships, some through hands-on experience, others through specialized training programs. The most important thing you can do as a parent is help your child figure out what he cares about, what makes him tick, what he’s passionate about. The college classroom is not for everyone. Here are 6 great ways for high school graduates to spend some time off, or find their life’s calling outside university walls:

For Nature Lovers

Not everyone dreams of life behind a big corporate desk. For kids with fresh air running through their veins, the Student Conservation Association might be just the ticket. Can you see your teen traveling through 18 national parks as a member of the National Park Service’s Exotic Plant Management Team? Giving tours of Native American archeology sites along the Knife River? Working to monitor endangered birds with conservation experts in Hawaii’s Hakeakala National Park? Trolling the vast reaches of the Alaskan backcountry? Well, brush up their resume! Those were some of the jobs SCA had available when this article went to print. In addition to providing housing, health insurance, and travel expenses to and from the site, SCA interns get a living allowance of $160 per week, and an education award of $1,200-$4,725 once their gig is up. But more than that, SCA gives teens a chance to explore a career in over 30 conservation related fields. 

For Kitchen Mavens

Dinner at home isn’t what it used to be. People are simply too tired to cook. Somebody’s got to take care of the “prepare” in “prepared foods”, put the “bake” in “fresh baked bread”, and the “home” in “just like homemade”. And that somebody might be sitting under your roof right now. The food service industry is the largest private sector employer in the country, second in public employment only to the U.S. government.  If your kid dreams of becoming a private chef to the stars, starting a catering business, or hosting a show on the Food Network, training is paramount, and college won’t necessarily help as much as culinary school and job experience. The unofficial Ivy League of cooking schools includes The Culinary Institute of America, The French Culinary Institute, California Culinary Academy, The New England Culinary Institute, Johnson and Wales, and the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute. For chefs with big dreams, but smaller bank accounts, there’s the American Culinary Federation’s Apprenticeship Program, a 3-year training opportunity that allows students to work full-time (and earn money doing it!) under the watchful eye of a chef mentor.  

For Healing Hands

When it comes to healing, Western medicine is barely out of puberty. Much of what America dubs “alternative” has been around practically since the dawn of civilization.  According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 36% of Americans above the age of 18 use some form of alternative or complementary medicine. In fact, in 1997, we shelled out $47 billion dollars for it. Alternative medicine has been growing at an astonishing rate. If you’ve got a kid with interest, some areas to explore include acupuncture, homeopathy, naturopathy, massage therapy or bodywork, and ayervedic medicine. Another very interesting field is Traditional Oriental Medicine (TOM). Although students need about two years of community college credits, the coursework then segues into hands-on study in everything from oriental herbs to tai chi. Check out the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, the National Center for Complementary or Alternative Medicine, or The American Massage Therapists Association.

For Itchy Feet

Sometimes a little wanderlust can lead to some major personal growth. And the good news is, your kid doesn’t need a trust fund to traverse the globe. All he needs is a little ingenuity and a willingness to work. Some of our favorite programs? Teaching English in Ghana through Interexchange (Program cost: $2,945 for the year, but food, housing, insurance, and other services provided), rural hospitality work in the Australian Outback through Alliances Abroad (Program fee: $2,200, but room, board, training, travel expenses, a jetlag recovery weekend at Australia’s Rainbow beach, and close to $900 a month salary included), volunteering on organic farms from Turkey to Taiwan, Brazil to Bulgaria, through (no fees and no pay, but room, board, and great hands-on experience), or the Rotary Youth Exchange program, which has been functioning for 75 years in 80 countries, completely through the club’s network of volunteers (no fees for placement, applicant pays for airfare, health insurance, and visas, but room and board and $50-100 a month in spending money is included).


For Future Tradesmen

The best way to learn is by doing and there are a ton of programs out there that will pay your kid to learn hundreds of skilled trades. Since 1937, the U.S. Department of Labor has been on a mission to establish apprenticeship programs across the country in everything from auto mechanics to accordion making. They last anywhere from 1 to 6 years, with the average being 4. You may not think much of the guy who comes to wire your office or the construction worker whistling Dixie from a highway overhang, but they might be having the last laugh. While much of corporate America is withering away behind a desk, they’re working sane hours for good wages. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America both offer very selective programs. The cost? Absolutely free.

For Dabblers

Got a kid with no idea what she wants to do with her life? Consider the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), a residential program for 18-24 year olds with campuses in Colorado, California, Maryland, and Iowa. Modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, NCCC is like college without the homework: participants live in dorm rooms, eat cafeteria grub, and interact with a group of ready-made friends all 24 and under. They move from project to project and from state to state—doing everything from helping the American Red Cross with hurricane relief efforts, to building low-income housing with Habitat for Humanity, to helping combat soil erosion with the U.S. Forest Service. They get trained in CPR and first aid, and a bird’s eye view of environmental, education, and public safety non-profits that serve as partners. Many of them end up getting hired down the road by the nonprofits they serve and everyone gets room, board, stipend, and a $4,725 education award.

So there you have it. A place to begin when your child says she doesn’t want to go to college. You’re thrown for a loop. We get it. Just remember that saying no to college may be the right decision for your child, or it may be the right decision for now. Many students who drop off of the education conveyer belt, skipping college in favor of something else, end up on campus eventually. Believe it or not, several top universities, Harvard included, encourage students to take time off before they settle in for freshman year. That’s because students who explore the world a bit before entering college tend to be more focused and mature. While many of their classmates come to campus ready to party, they come ready to learn.