Which would you choose, if given the opportunity: College or $100,000? This year, 24 people under the age of 20 will opt for the latter, thanks to a new fellowship program founded and funded by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. The young Fellows will embark on “innovative scientific and technical projects, learn entrepreneurship, and begin to build the technology companies of tomorrow,” according to The Thiel Foundation’s press release. They will also receive “mentorship from the Foundation’s network of tech entrepreneurs and innovators.”
As the debate over the “value” of a college education heats up, it’s no wonder why some very over-achieving young adults, like the ones picked for Thiel’s program, are opting out of the traditional college experience.
While only 6% of applicants were selected, there are many ways to meaningfully spend the immediate years following high school years if college isn’t your thing at the moment — or ever.
Long-Term Volunteer. High-school graduates can choose from a wide number of volunteer opportunities, both within the U.S. and overseas. For example, those 18 and older can join American Field Service (AFS) and volunteer to work with local community groups with different missions ranging from child services to human rights. Programs span more than 20 countries. City Year is another organization where high school graduates can enter a year of full-time service as a tutor and mentor in schools, youth leadership programs, and camps in different communities. Volunteers get a small living stipend, as well as $5,550 education award that may be used towards a college degree, graduate school or existing or future student loans. They also get basic health insurance and a free cell phone plan during their year of service.
Pursue Managerial Work. If you already have a few years of work experience at a retailer or restaurant, you may have what it takes to apply to be a local manager or assistant manager. A year of managerial experience and pay may help you to better afford college at some point, if you decide that’s the right path for you. Or, you can — like a number of high-ranking execs have done — try to climb the ranks of the company and get them to pay for your education while you work. Karen King, President of McDonald’s Corporation’s Eastern Division began her career at the fast-food giant at age 19.
Explore Developing Countries. Investing in a year abroad, learning a new language and experiencing a different culture, could make you a hot commodity upon your return to the U.S. Touring countries like China, India, Singapore and Brazil, in particular, will prepare you well for the business world. As their economies continue to strengthen, U.S. companies will increasingly want to find ways to build trade partnerships and invest in those countries. Of course, this won’t be totally free to pursue, but it can certainly cost less than the average annual college tuition. Plus with web sites like AirBandB and InnerDinner, you can find local lodging and meals for free as you travel around.
Self-Teach. Earlier this year I interviewed Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business. He’s teaching thousands of Americans how to nix the $100,00 tuition cost and self-teach their way to an MBA. His lesson is that anyone can become a self-taught expert at minimal cost. “Books are enormously valuable. Authors spend years — sometimes decades — recording their hard-won knowledge and experience… and you can take advantage of that wealth of accumulated wisdom absolutely free with a library card,” he told me. Beyond the library, you can find free online classes at top universities including Harvard, MIT and Carnegie Mellon.
[Related article: 8 Ways to Ease the Student Loan Burden]