PPEC blended pathway

Could these 3 burgeoning nontraditional pathways be a boon for traditional institutions?


Unconventional education organizations say recent high school grads flocking to nontraditional pathways; could this be good for college and university admissions?

If Malia Obama’s doing it, you know it either is, or will soon become, a popular trend among the young crowd: opting out of a traditional 4-year college experience immediately after high school graduation to pursue nontraditional pathways to postsecondary education.

The eldest Obama daughter is choosing to take a gap year for self-directed learning experiences—a nontraditional pathway that the New York Times says is becoming an increasingly popular option among recent high school grads.

But that’s not the only non-traditional pathway to postsecondary education that’s popular among the young folk these days, say three education organizations.

According to a recent brief from Coding Dojo (a coding bootcamp), Noodle (an ed website aimed at helping parents and students make better learning decisions), and UnCollege (a program aimed to equip young adults with skills to succeed both personally and professionally post-high school), there are three distinctive nontraditional pathways students seem most inclined to pursue…and for good reason.

“College costs keep growing and student debt is over one trillion dollars,” explained Richard Wang, CEO at Coding Dojo in a statement. “These alternative education options can help keep student debt under control, while providing individuals with real-world experience and skills employers are looking for in job candidates.”

But should traditional colleges and universities be worried…or excited?

(Next page: 3 popular nontraditional pathways to postsecondary ed; what they mean for colleges and universities)

3 Burgeoning Alternatives to the 4-Year Experience

According to the new brief, there are three increasingly popular nontraditional pathways available to students looking to save money and gain workplace-needed skills:

1. Gap years, internships and self-directed learning: According to the brief, this pathway immediately following high school graduation lets students explore areas of personal interest while also learning the skills needed to succeed in the competitive job market; rather than being forced to pick a career path without having experienced it first.

2. Online resources and learning: Thanks to the growth of online learning opportunities, everything from degrees and certifications to micro-credentials and enrichments can be found at a lesser cost for a more tailored postsecondary skillset. While some may choose to completely replace in-person classes altogether with these options, some are choosing to complement and enhance their traditional learning with these opportunities. Students in K-8 are also starting to look into these options in order to get a head start in their education, notes the brief.

3. Immersive hard-skill programs: Students are increasingly foregoing the college route entirely, says the brief, and instead favor a direct route to developing technical skills, training and real-world education provided by programs that dive into technical careers (i.e. web development, user experience/user interface [UX/UI], digital marketing, and entrepreneurship training). Many other students are using these programs to get a head start before making the plunge into a four-year college or university pathway.

What These Pathways Mean for Colleges and Universities

Though nontraditional pathways may seem like a threat to traditional four-year programs, institutions (like Harvard) are increasingly supporting these alternatives immediately post-high school graduation as a way to not only help students better focus their career aspirations and personal interests, but gain skills that could help them perform better academically.

For example, the brief notes that many students taking a gap year choose to learn a new language abroad, or internship at a company that helps teach interns basic computer science or STEM-related concepts.

These skills born from a student’s own personalized learning could also be a boon for college and university admissions looking to attract the best fit of student in order to improve retention rates.

“As a result of these educational developments, I refrain from spending all of my counseling hours talking about grades, classes and test scores,” writes Alex Ellison, education consultant and founder of Dunce Labs, and editor of  The Dunce Cap. “Instead, I dedicate time with the students with whom I work to explain the values starting a blog, creating an independent project they can be proud of, and building a unique portfolio of all the cool stuff they have done over the years. For the college-bound, these pieces are immensely beneficial in the college admission process…But perhaps the most important benefit of this kind of out-of-the-classroom work is to the students themselves, who can say they have both skills currency as well as a greater sense of purpose in a world where grown adults still struggle to find such a thing.”

For more information on the pathways offered, read the full brief, “College 2.0: New Pathways to Higher Education.