Comparing the Costs of College vs. Work After High School

What Parents and Teens Need To Consider

A family sits and talks around the dinner table
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Before you even become a parent or guardian to children, you’re likely swamped with how to pay for everything they need. Whether that’s medical bills, adoption fees, or child care, taking care of kids is expensive—and so is their college education. But what if your child is thinking of taking a different route after high school?

If your high-schooler wants to put off college by taking a gap year, or they decide college isn’t the right path for them, make sure you both weigh the pros and cons first.

Key Takeaways

  • College can cost up to $50,000 or more per year and can lead to student loan debt.
  • The costs of working after high school can add up, with transportation, food, supplies, and more.
  • A gap year could cost money for things like work, travel, or other activities, and it could impact lifetime earning potential.
  • Having a serious conversation with your teen before they decide which path they’ll take may help you both be financially prepared for the costs associated with it.

Costs of College

College is expensive. When you include tuition, fees, books, and room and board, it costs students and families in the U.S. an average of $35,720 per student, per year, according to data compiled by EducationData.org. With student loans and the loss of income, the site estimates the cost of a bachelor’s degree can cost students more than $400,000 in the end.

Here’s another look at how the average cost of tuition alone for different types of schools stacks up, according to data analyzed by College Board.

Type of School Tuition Per Year (2020-2021)
Public, 2-year, in-district $3,770
Public, 4-year, in-state $10,560
Public, 4-year, out-of-state $27,020
Private, non-profit, 4-year $37,650

These costs are just the price of tuition. Room and board or an off-campus apartment could push the price to more than $50,000 per year, depending on the school. You’ll also need to consider any school supplies, such as a computer, and other costs, such as transportation.

If your child goes to college full time, that may mean working full time is out of the question. In the second quarter of 2021, the median weekly earnings for full-time salary and wage workers was $990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not working could mean that type of income loss, and any job they do get will likely need to be flexible with their school schedule and studies, which also limits how much they can earn. But on the flip side, they could earn more in the future after getting their degree, which may help make up the difference.

When reviewing the total cost of college with your teen, it’s important to go over every line in your college budget to determine who is going to pay for what.

Short-Term Costs of Working

Working after high school gives your child the chance to enter the workforce and gain valuable experience. They not only get the opportunity to earn money right away, but they also get to see what it’s like working full time for a living. If your child hasn’t done this before, they might not realize the costs that come with earning money.

For instance, what will your teen be financially responsible for when they begin working full time? Consider costs such as:

  • Rent, whether paying you a portion every month or living on their own
  • Utilities
  • Phone bill
  • Car payment and insurance
  • Gas
  • Food

Any costs related to the job, such as paying for a uniform, commuting, and other expenses, also need to be considered. If your child is working to save up for major purchases, like moving out or eventually paying for school, discuss what both of you are responsible for in the short term.

Some industries and careers may not require you to go to college to qualify for a steady job. For example, your child may be able to work in the retail industry, moving up from a sales associate to a store manager over time. Talk to your child about where they see themselves in the future, and help them determine the best path to achieve that dream, whether it’s through work or college.

Helping your child understand how much money they could make working now compared to what they could make by going to college first and then working may help them pick the right path.

Long-Term Costs of Skipping College or Taking a Gap Year

There are many paths to take after high school. But if your child plans to take a gap year, enroll part time, or skip college altogether, they could be limiting their earnings for the rest of their life.

According to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), those with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of about $1 million more in their lifetime than those with only a high-school diploma. On an annual basis, the difference in earnings is about $32,000, according to the APLU. The longer your teen puts off graduating, the more money they could miss out on.

If you’re planning to support your teen during this transition, make sure you’re considering your own financial repercussions. For example, will you be paying for any of their necessities? Will that money come out of your retirement contributions, debt payoff, or something else?

If you have the extra cash to help your child, this might not be a problem. But if these decisions mean retiring later or putting you further into debt, you might want to reconsider how you can help your child.

Helping Your Teen Decide

If your teen is thinking about putting off college or skipping it in order to work, have a reasonable discussion with them about what those scenarios look like. Why do they want to skip college and start working? Does it align with their career goals? What does that mean for their future? And if they want to delay college, what do they plan to do during that gap year? These paths won’t look the same for each family, so it’s a good idea to explore every possible outcome.

If you’re struggling to talk to your teen about their decisions, try to get on their level and see things from their perspective. Show them you understand their feelings and want to learn how to navigate these options with them.

If you need more help, bring in a college or career counselor, or a therapist who can guide the conversation so that it’s productive. Books, podcasts, and videos may also help you find the right words when talking to your teen.

No matter what happens, life after high school really is whatever your child makes of it, and you can help them get there by analyzing the costs and being financially prepared.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What jobs can you get with just a high-school diploma?

There are many jobs you can get with just a high school diploma. Some specialties may require training in an academy, or you may be able to enroll in a vocational or trade school to gain the skills you need. Other jobs you can often get with just a high-school diploma include hotel managers, plumbers, police officers, mail carriers, and more.

Should my child wait a year to go to college?

A gap year may give your child the opportunity to explore different career paths before enrolling in college. If your child knows what they want and has a plan for getting it, foregoing a gap year to start college might be the right move. It all depends on your child, finances, and opportunities as to whether they wait a year to go to college or not.

How do you pay for college?

You can pay for college a few different ways. The FAFSA may help your child qualify for loans, grants, or work-study placements. Scholarships through businesses, nonprofits, the school they’re attending, and other organizations may also provide funds to pay for school. Other federal and private student loans are also available. And if you can afford it, your savings is always an option.