Perspective | Considering a gap year after high school? Here are 5 options.

High school graduates in North Carolina face major questions about the future, and generally are presented with three options: enrolling, enlisting, or employment. The first two can require students to take on a great deal of uncertainty and risk, and the latter can feel overwhelming or like an economic and career dead-end.

In 2017, according to data from the North Carolina Department of Instruction, 78.8% of North Carolina public high school graduates planned on enrolling in postsecondary education of some kind — 43.5% planned on four-year institutions and 35.3% planned on two-year colleges. Four percent planned on enlisting, leaving 14% who planned on working. But around half of all North Carolina high school students failed to meet any ACT college readiness benchmarks in 2017, and a majority failed to meet at least one benchmark, according to data from the ACT and cited by the Leaky Pipeline report released by Carolina Demography. The takeaway? Many students plan on college, but most are not ready.

In some poorer counties, nearly 30% of students choose not to attend postsecondary education of any kind. Military recruiters have access to students’ contact information since No Child Left Behind passed in 2002. As a result, many students view military service as an appealing alternative to picking up more hours at their high school fast food service job post-grad.

It can be challenging for many students to imagine possibilities beyond enlisting or enrolling immediately after high school graduation, but those choices are out there. For many students, working, saving money, and building up skills may be a better fit than the tremendous and sometimes risky commitment of a four-year degree or a term of military service. And for students who want to attend college but are unsure what their interests, values, and skills are, taking a few years off can be wise.

Here are a few options North Carolina high school students may have heard less about.

Americorps

I’m biased toward Americorps because that’s what I’ve chosen to do with my post-college gap years, but I do think it is one of the best and most underrated unconventional post-graduation opportunities. Americorps provides one or two-year positions working in many different types of civil service in the United States, with many opportunities in North Carolina.

These programs are great options for students who hope to earn scholarships to fund a college education, in addition to a stipend for living expenses. Successfully completing a year of service will earn you about $6,000 in scholarship funds, enough to pay off about a year’s worth of federal student loans, or even fully fund your North Carolina community college costs. Americorps members work positions ranging from working on a farm to helping with disaster relief to serving in schools. The salary is low but the benefits and experience tend to be quite substantial.

Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are structured, paid opportunities to learn a trade. In North Carolina, apprenticeships are actually regulated by the NC Community College System. Your school’s career and technical education coordinator can help you find workplaces that sponsor apprenticeships, or you can visit a NCWorks location to find out more. You can visit ApprenticeshipNC to find a list of NC apprenticeship programs in fields like manufacturing, construction, health science, agriculture, and transportation companies. Apprenticeships are generally between one and six years long, so they are a better fit for people who know the type of work they want to do.

Community college technical certification programs

Trade and vocational programs can be a great investment in your career. Community colleges offer a wide variety of certificates, diplomas, and short-term job training to people with no previous experience. Programs include early childhood education, agriculture, EMT and medical technicians, automotive mechanics, culinary arts, welding, cosmetology, and massage therapy.

These programs typically lead to professional certification. With every North Carolinian living within a 30-minute drive from a community college, it’s worth looking into. The costs are set by the North Carolina State Board of Community Colleges and the North Carolina General Assembly, with full-time tuition costing less than $2,500 for in-state residents in the 2018-19 school year. A federal Pell grant, generally available to families with a yearly income of under $60,000 who file a FAFSA, can often cover most or all of your community college costs.

WWOOFing

WWOOF stands for “world-wide opportunities on organic farms.” Basically, people work at least four hours a day on organic farms around the world in exchange for housing and food. WWOOFers are considered guests of the organic farm they are visiting. It can be a very inexpensive way to travel and see the country or the world — all you have to do is find a way to get there.

WWOOF is an informal network of farmers and laborers, so it can make you vulnerable to exploitation. Labor-exchange networks like WWOOF are not for the faint of heart, but can be an exciting adventure for young people who would otherwise not be able to travel.

On-the-job training

Many companies in North Carolina that don’t require college degrees offer free on-the-job training, which can then be used to get a more appealing or higher-paying job. These types of training programs are especially common in the manufacturing field, but can also be found in other industries. When looking for post-high school jobs, don’t underestimate the value of this type of training.

Frances Beroset is a Duke College Advising Corps college adviser at Southern Lee High School in Sanford, North Carolina.

Attainment Perspective