My oldest has never really fit the standard academic mold. She is a creative dreamer. She is gifted in art, and her singing voice has moved many people to tears, not just counting family. She’s obviously bright, inquisitive and finely tuned-in to people’s emotions. She’s charismatic, extremely tenacious and super social. Yet, the luck of the draw gave her dyscalculia, a math learning disability. Add on memory retention issues, and traditional schooling has been a struggle for her.

We are lucky to live in a school district that has provided extremely good support. You would not be able to tell by her report card that she has worked as hard as she has. Her tenacity has served her well, and we also count ourselves lucky to have found a very talented tutor to round out her support system. But, this has just been elementary school. My husband and I worry about what middle and high school will look like. And, because we are parents, we worry about what education will look like for our girl after high school graduation.

Our daughter is not drawn to math or sciences. She’s a great writer, but that is not where her passion lies. We see her in a profession that is less desk and more hands-on. Less paperwork and more artistic freedom. Less traditional and more free-flowing. So, what is best for those types of kids? Is a traditional four-year college the right path? Is it the only way to experience success?

The Higher Education Bump

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2016, a higher percentage of young adults with a bachelor’s or master’s degree worked full-time year-round in comparison to high school graduates – 79 percent versus 69 percent. Having a college degree is also directly linked to future earnings. In 2016, the median earnings of young adults with a master’s degree or higher was $64,100. For those with a bachelor’s degree, earnings were $50,000. However, for young adults with only a high school degree, median earnings were a much lower $31,800. This pattern holds true for both males and females and across all races.

A college degree is necessary for easier employment and a greater salary. That is the message that our children are receiving, but is it all that matters? There are, of course, always people who will not fit that formula. Steve Jobs dropped out of college after one semester, and no one can argue that it hurt his earning potential! We can also all probably think of one over-educated person we know, or have heard of, that has struggled to find or retain employment.

Many young adults find success by enrolling in a technical college where students can select career-driven courses that teach very specific skills. For example, a person might choose to focus on electrical work, with the goal of becoming an electrician. All courses she would be required to take would relate to that area of focus. In other words, there would be no requirement to take extraneous classes, such as a physical education course, often required by most four-year colleges.

A community college, offering an associate’s degree or certification, is another good alternative to traditional four-year schooling. Community colleges tend to provide a very good value and, like technical colleges, they also offer targeted programs. For example, in just two years, a student could earn an associate’s degree or a certification as a dental hygienist, veterinary technician or even a web developer.

Other young adults choose to enroll in the military to take advantage of its competitive salary, free health care and little-to-no living cost. The military will also pay tuition costs, should an enlistee take higher education classes while in service.

Redefining Success

So, what do you do if you are a parent of one of these “non-traditional” students? It can be scary to set aside the belief that a four-year degree is necessary and to be open to the possibility that happiness and success can be found by taking a different path. We need to ask our children what they are interested in and what they hope to do someday, and then show them that we will listen with acceptance to their answer.

Many kids have trouble realizing what they are good at, so we can support them in finding their strengths by exposing them to varied experiences. And, we can help them to find what motivates them. If your child shows an interest in something, you can support her in expanding on that interest. For example, if she likes to sing at home, you can encourage her through voice lessons and help her to find opportunities to sing in front of a crowd.

Most crucial, though, will be your belief in your child. It will be important to support his dreams and accomplishments in whatever form they take, even if his path is different from what you had imagined for him. If our voices telling our children what they “should” do are louder than their own, they will have a hard time listening to their own callings and finding what is their true definition of success.

Alison Bogle is an Austin-based freelance writer and mom of three.

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