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What to do after graduating high school

College?  trade school?  straight into the workforce?  

“So, what are you going to do after graduation?”

“Where are you going to school?”

If you’re about to graduate or have recently done so, you’ve likely heard these questions…multiple times. Maybe you’ve got a clear idea of where you’d like to go in your career. Maybe the “traditional” college route feels way too expensive? Or maybe you’re just trying to find the best option to allow you to move out of your parents house and find new independence!  

Whatever your decision, it’s definitely going to be a big one and this guide is for you.

“The story of how I got to where I am today was not a linear pathway. It was full of twists and turns that I would never have expected as a high school senior.”

Here we explore 4 options:

For many years, attending a 4-year college was considered to be the default option for students looking to continue their education. However, just because it’s right for some, doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for all!

While the decision is entirely yours, the important thing is that you educate yourself on all the relevant facts before deciding. This decision should come after considering the following:

  • size of the institution
  • location
  • programs of interest
  • length of the program
  • costs
  • financial support available. 

1. Private 4-year college

While private 4-year colleges might often offer smaller classes and community, this is the most expensive option. Earning a bachelor’s degree gives you a good foundation for the area of work you’re interested in, but does not always guarantee employment or earning potential after graduation. 

  • PROS:
  • Smaller class sizes

    A tighter sense of community.

    A good place to gain knowledge and skills in your area of interest.

  • CONS:
  • Most expensive option.

    Does not guarantee employment or earning potential after graduation.

    Longer time investment.

2. Public 4-year college

Public 4-year colleges often offer cheaper tuition for students applying in-state, and are generally cheaper than private 4-year colleges. These colleges will often provide the big community and alumni associations, but again, does not guarantee employment or earning potential after graduation.

  • PROS:
  • Cheaper in-state tuition than private 4-year colleges.

    A wider network of alumni and community.

    A wide selection of majors to choose from.

    A good place to gain knowledge and skills in your area of interest.

  • CONS:
  • Generally bigger classes than private 4-year colleges.

    Does not guarantee employment or earning potential after graduation.

    More expensive than trade schools or community colleges.

    More time investment than trade schools or community colleges.

3. Trade Schools

Trade schools offer education that is geared toward a specific skilled trade. While the cost of trade schools are comparable to community colleges, trade schools offer the added bonus of being able to work in the trades and earn income while attending school full-time.  You can expect to earn certifications after 1-2 years at a trade school.

  • PROS:
  • Education geared toward a specific skilled trade.

    Costs comparable to community colleges.

    Can earn income and gain practical experience while receiving full-time education.

    Can earn certifications in 1-2 years.

  • CONS:
  • Does not offer a 4-year bachelor’s degree.

    Does not necessarily require general education classes beyond a high school degree.

    Should know your general area of interest before you begin (it’s pretty hard to learn construction trades at a culinary school!).


4. Skilled Employment, Military, or Self-Education

There are a number of jobs that only require a high school diploma. This option may require a little more research and leg work, but is cost-effective, since you won’t need to pay for more schooling. Self-education is readily available with the help of the World Wide Web (and blog posts like this one!), friends, family, and community organizations and networks, if you’re willing to do your own learning and ask lots of questions. The military is also an option that offers many perks directly after graduation, and even offers tuition reimbursement and support if you decide you want a college education as well.


  • PROS:
  • No additional costs of education.

    No additional time for schooling.

    Potential to receive pay and perks immediately after high school.

    Open opportunities for education later on.

  • CONS:
  • Requires lots of research and self-motivation.

    No additional degrees received.

    Pay will generally be start at minimum wage and increase slower than other ptions. 

    Less variety in work opportunities available.

"Try before you buy"

If you’re intimidated by the price tag and time commitment of these options, you’re not alone! No one knows the daily ins and outs until they try it out. For college options, reach out to your high school counselor or college adviser, as they will provide you with more detailed comparisons on degree options, costs, campus life, and everything else you’re curious about. They may even provide campus tours or other opportunities for you to experience the college firsthand.

It’s best to have at least some idea on your area of study before you enter into any of the above options. If you’re not sure, connect with your counselor, teachers, and community network to ask questions and to look into internships and job shadowing opportunities. If you’re interested in WMCI, you can contact the institute directly to get a better idea of what high school work based learning and/or post-secondary options are currently available. 

Why a Skilled Trades Education Might be Right for You

“People who are often most successful in the trades are those who think sitting in an office at a desk sounds boring.” According to West Michigan Construction Institute’s Director of Education – Jasmine Weston. If you are inclined to move around, ask questions about the world, and learn through hands-on experiences, trade school might be your best bet.

“Unfortunately…there’s been kind of a ‘one path to success’ story that high school students have heard, which is if you want to be successful, you have to go to college,” says Weston. While college may very well be the option for you, Weston cites a severe shortage in skilled trades employees that is set to continue worsening over the next 5-10 years. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in concrete or carpentry or plumbing or electrical…if you’re interested and you’re willing to work hard and learn, there’s a really wide open job market for anyone.” 

If a skilled trades education sounds enticing, WMCI offers opportunities for high school students to explore various trades while earning high school credits. 

With professionals in the industry providing talks, demonstrations, and shadowing opportunities, you can get a head start before you even graduate high school. What’s more is you’ll graduate with WMCI and nationally recognized NCCER certifications. Being level 1 certified by the end of high school means that you’ll only need to spend an additional year to get level 2 certified if you choose the trade school option after high school.

More from the blog:

A Year in Review Looking back at WMCI’s craft trade training progress in 2023 and ahead to the plans for growth in 2024. “As I think about who and what WMCI is, I am proud