Explore Your Options After High School

Explore Your Options After High School

After high school, education can take you any direction you wish. Your direction may depend on your career path or the type of skills you wish to build. Have you checked out our Career section? It’s a great place to start when thinking about your future education plans. Ready to start exploring? Check out all the possibilities after high school below!

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Pro Tip

Things to keep in mind - What kind of education does your potential career require?

Career and Technical Education

Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses are one of the most effective ways for high school students to explore potential career options, and prepare for work. CTE programs are academically challenging, and can help students successfully prepare for a range of careers within a particular industry. The industries and the occupations within each industry are known as Montana Career Pathways. Montana Career Pathways can help students plan their educational paths after high school to their desired careers, with many options available at every educational level.

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Pro Tip

Not sure which high school courses will help you prepare for your dream career? Montana Career Pathways can help! Within each pathway, recommended courses are outlined, including courses you can take online through the Montana Digital Academy or through dual enrollment at your high school. Use the fillable course planner to chart your progress and your future plans.

CTE courses are offered in high school, and at all levels of education after high school. Often, students can complete a certificate or associate degree program at a two-year college, and continue toward a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college.

Trades

“Trades” is a term that has been around for a long time, and usually when people talk about trades they are referring to occupations that, in today’s world, are highly technical, lucrative, and typically require shorter training programs to enter the field. It’s a myth that the “trades” are blue-collar jobs that are dirty, dingy, and dead-end.

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Today, the trades encompass manufacturing, construction, healthcare, energy, information technology and more. When learning a trade you build a specific set of skills that is very desirable for that industry. You can build these skills through an apprenticeship, a certificate, or a degree. There are several advantages to pursuing the trades:

  • First, the investment into your education is less because training time is condensed; students typically graduate from a program with little to no debt.
  • You can find a job quickly that pays well. Across the U.S., communities are experiencing workforce shortages, especially in the trades. Depending on the industry, entry level salaries usually start at $35,000 per year (or more!).
  • This is the fastest path to earning a living wage out of high school! The education requirements are not as intensive as a four-year program. You learn only what you need through classes and on-the-job training.
  • Career examples include: welder, carpenter, nurse, developer, machinist, construction worker, radiology technician, payroll clerk, and graphic designer.

What is a skill? A skill or skill set is developed through time, education and experience. Hard skills, which are specific to doing a particular job, are developed through learning and experience. An example of a hard skill is operating a piece of equipment. Examples of soft skills are teamwork, timeliness, and creativity. Employers value skills because they describe what you know and how you work.

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Take a mental selfie

What do you enjoy doing? What gives you a sense of accomplishment? Do you like to work with your hands? Do you enjoy working on projects with defined beginnings and ends? Do you like variety in your work? If so, you may want to explore opportunities in the trades.

Apprenticeships

An apprenticeship combines classroom learning and on-the-job training, and best of all, pays students while they learn. Apprenticeships generally have a predefined pay scale that outlines how much money an apprentice earns as they achieve specific milestones. The time commitment to complete an apprenticeship varies by occupation.

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Where can I find more information on how apprenticeships work? Start by visiting the Montana apprenticeship program through the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

Apprenticeship Quick Facts

  • Hundreds of Montanans graduate from apprenticeship training each year, many of them earning over $40,000 annually while in training. The average wage after completion of an apprenticeship program is over $60,000 per year.
  • Employers have in-demand jobs that need to be filled, so they offer on-the-job training for workers.
  • Workers earn while they learn and experience zero to little debt.
  • Apprenticeships are a combination of classroom and workplace training. Many apprentices also obtain college degrees and certificates as part of their program.
  • Career examples: electrician, auto mechanic, hospital coder, utility technician, construction and more! Apprenticeships are available for occupations outside of the trades, too - like accounting technicians.

Certificate and Two-Year Programs

Certificates and two-year programs are available at many institutions in Montana, including community colleges, tribal colleges, and all schools in the Montana University System. These short-term training programs can help you prepare for specific occupations and provide a starting point for continued education throughout your career.

Certificate Programs and Certifications

What is a Certificate?

  • Certificates are designed to provide students with an occupational skill credential as they enter the workforce.
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  • Some certificates are more for completion purposes while others are required to perform the job, but most certificates require around 30 credit hours.
  • Certificates are narrow in scope, which allows you to focus on exactly what you need to know and bypass electives.
  • Students can quickly elevate their resume as most programs are only a year long, sometimes less.
  • Career examples: dental assistant, emergency medical technician, paralegal, network administration, computer programming, welding, construction, pharmacy technician, and more!

What is a Certification?

  • Certifications are credentials that you earn to show that you have specific knowledge or specific skills. They are usually tied to an occupation, technology, industry.
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  • Generally, you need to pass a test to earn a certification. Many schools offer certification preparation training to help you pass.
  • Earning a certification can give you a big leg up in the job market. Some employers require a certification in order to apply for a job, and it is a key item that hiring employers look for on resumes.

Some examples include: Phlebotomy, Automotive Service Excellence, National Center for Construction, Certified Nursing Assistant, Microsoft Office Specialist, Commercial Driver’s License.

Two-Year Programs

Two-Year Programs

Montana’s colleges have many two-year programs to choose from. When attending a college within the Montana University System, the credits from a two-year college can easily transfer to a four-year college. If starting at a private institution, always have a conversation regarding the feasibility of transferring credits to and from other institutions.

Advantages to Completing a Two-Year Program:

  • Students gain meaningful education and skills employers are seeking, and because tuition is generally less at a two-year college, students accrue less student loan debt.
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  • Students who live at home and attend a two-year college save even more money, because they do not have to pay room and board to live on campus.
  • The courses taken at community colleges, tribal colleges, and Montana University System (MUS) two-year colleges can be transferred to MUS four-year programs. Visit the MUS website to learn more!

What Degrees Can You Earn at a Two-Year College?

  • Two-year programs offer associate degrees, such as Associate of Arts, Associate of Science, or Associate of Applied Science, all of which range from 30 to 72 credit hours.
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  • Associate degree programs are career-focused and electives are minimal, which helps students enter the workforce quickly.
  • Career examples: paramedic, substance abuse counseling, accounting, network support, webmaster, law enforcement, and more.
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Pro Tip

To save money, many students start at a two-year school to complete their general requirements or prerequisites and then transition to a four-year school. You can even take classes at a two-year school while you are enrolled in a four-year school, which saves you money!

Four-Year Programs

  • A bachelor's degree is awarded upon completion of a four-year program of undergraduate study, totaling 120 credit hours.
  • The national average for in-state public university education costs a $21,370 a year for a four-year degree program. Luckily, in Montana, we’re below the national average at $17,429 a year.
  • Career examples: engineers, journalists, farm, ranch and livestock management, biologist, K-12 teacher, chemist, forestry, social worker, and more.

Have a few schools in mind but it comes down to costs? Check out costs at each college within the Montana University System here.

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Pro Tip

Do you know what field of study you want to pursue, but not sure where to start? Login to Montana Career Information System and check out the School Sort tool, under the Education tab, How to Choose a School. This tool allows you to narrow your list of schools to those that match your preferences for location, size, programs of study, and other factors.

Types of Education Programs and How They Differ
Types of Education Programs and How They Differ

Montana students have different types of paths to choose from and each option has its own set of benefits.

Education Stories, A Cautionary Tale
Education Stories, A Cautionary Tale

Listen to four students talk about their experiences, and what they would do differently if starting over.

Explore Montana Schools

We’ve gathered school information from across Montana to help you explore your options. Things to keep in mind when doing your research:

  • What is the cost of attendance?
    Several factors go into the cost of attendance at a college, including tuition, fees, books, housing, meals and more.
  • Would you feel lost or thrive in a big campus setting?
    A large school can feel like a tiny city, which may overwhelm some students. While on the other hand, someone might feel claustrophobic at a small school. If you can, visit the campuses you are considering to decide which is the right fit for you.
  • Do you need the support of faculty (teachers), or are you okay being on your own? The institution you choose to attend, as well as the major you pursue, will impact the amount of support you receive from your faculty.
  • Do they have the courses you need to take for your career path? Take a look at the websites of the schools you’re considering to see which programs and courses they offer.
  • Do they have opportunities like internships or international studies that you may be interested in? College websites offer lots of information about internship and career services, study abroad programs, and more.

Learn More...

School visits and college fairs provide a great opportunity for students to learn more about the schools they are interested in.

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College Fairs

  • Each fall, MontanaColleges.com hosts college fairs in high schools across Montana. This is a fantastic opportunity to visit with colleges in Montana (and beyond) in one place.

Schedule a Tour

  • What a better way to get a feel for a campus than to tour it. Campuses offer group and individual tours all year round so that students can get a personal feel to see if the college is the right fit for them. Tours are led by students, for students, so you can ask them real questions and get honest answers. What’s dorm life like? Did you get homesick? Are professors easy to talk to?
  • Many tours occur during spring and summer. If you have a road trip coming up, consider including a campus tour. Even if you don’t think the college is the right fit, tour it anyway. This is the best process to discover what you like and don’t like about campuses.
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Pro Tip

When your school is hosting a college fair, think of questions to ask beforehand. Things to ask are: what areas of study are you known for? Are there lots of scholarship and financial aid opportunities? What is your student to teacher ratio? What are your student housing options?

Applying for College

General Requirements for Montana Colleges:

  • Complete an online application. Application costs can range from $30 - $65. For public universities, students should take advantage of College Application Week, where eligible students can apply for one college at no cost or deferred cost, and receive college application guidance. To learn more about dates and how the program works, visit our friends at Montana Gear Up.
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  • High school transcript - Colleges like to see both the unofficial transcript, which is the record of grades up to your junior year, as well as an official transcript following high school graduation. The unofficial transcript is sent in conjunction with the college application and the official transcript is sent at a later date.
  • ACT/SAT scores - Colleges may ask for a self-reported score or results may be sent to the school directly from the testing organization. When you take your test, you will have the option to list the schools you’d like to receive your test scores.

Possible Additional Requirements:

  • Letters of reference are typically from individuals you have worked with in and outside of school. References could be an educator, a counselor, an employer, or someone you help through volunteering. This is why volunteering matters!
  • Essays - Schools may require an essay pertaining to why you want to attend their college or why they should choose you for admission. Include in your essay your academic strengths and achievements, athletic participation, time management skills, character strength, volunteer hours, or something you’re passionate about. You may also be able to use these same essays to apply for scholarships and grants.
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Pro Tip

Whether you plan to go to college in Montana or out of state, check out the admission requirements for your specific college. If you have questions, call the admissions office.

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Take a mental selfie

Reflect on how long you want to go to school. What education option supports your future career? If undecided, what’s your plan B?

Undecided?

You’re not alone. Choosing a career and education path takes time and self-reflection and is not something that should be rushed. It’s okay to not have everything figured out. Many students enter college without knowing their exact career paths or interests, and use their courses to help them find their passion. Just don’t leave your future to chance. There are things you can do to discover your interests and pick a path. Have a “Plan B” – just in case you change your mind!

Concerned about costs? Check out our resources to help you understand college costs.

Interested in exploring options other than the traditional college path? You have many options to choose from, and it’s smart to understand the possibilities.

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Options to Consider:


Taking a Gap Year and Doing it the Right Way

Excited about education after high school, but want to take it slow? Taking a year off – known as a gap year - is an option, but it’s not for everyone. It’s important to consider all the pro’s and con’s of this path, and if you take a gap year, to do it mindfully.

  • Make a plan to do something meaningful. Whether it’s volunteering, doing an internship, working, or more, seek out opportunities that support exploring your career options.
  • Working during your gap year can give you a better idea of where your interests lie and the courses needed to support that direction. Save as much of your earnings as you can, as saving money for college is a frequent reason students decide to take a year off between high school and college.
  • Continue applying to colleges and scholarships. Stay focused on the big picture of college and how you might pay for it. Keep the scholarship hustle going because you’ll have to work harder to find free money for school since you’re neither a high school senior or undergraduate student - yet.
  • Complete the FAFSA when you are ready to start your education. Visit our Pay for School section to learn more!

Start with a Two-Year Program

Montana’s colleges have many two-year programs to choose from. When attending a college within the Montana University System, the credits from a two-year college can easily transfer to a four-year college. If starting at a private institution, always have a conversation regarding the feasibility of transferring credits to and from other institutions.

Transfer Students

Started at one college, and want to finish somewhere else? No problem, transferring between colleges in the Montana University System is easy.

Common Course Numbering (CCN)

The Montana University System implemented common course numbering to make it easier for students to transfer credits between colleges. Equivalent courses are transferable – for example, WRIT 101 at Helena College is the same as WRIT 101 at Montana State University. You can check out the CCN Course Guide to see how courses you’ve taken transfer within the Montana University System.

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Keep in mind that not all courses transfer to all programs, however. For example, credits from an accounting course may not be applicable to a psychology degree program (though the credits may count as elective credits, if needed).

Gen Ed & MUS Core

General education credits – typically earned through lower division courses (100 and 200 level) – can be transferred within the Montana University System. There are three ways to accomplish this type of transfer:

  • Complete a specific campus’s lower-division general education requirements;
  • Complete the MUS Core general education curriculum; or
  • Obtain an Associate of Arts (AA) or an Associate of Science (AS) degree (see below).

Learn more here.

AA & AS Transfer Degrees

These degree types are specifically designed for students who want to transfer to a four-year degree program. Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degrees are not transfer degrees; rather, they are designed to prepare students for jobs.

2+2 Honor Scholarship

Eligible students who graduate with an associate degree from a two-year campus of the Montana University System or Montana Community College can apply for this scholarship to waive undergraduate tuition at any four-year unit of the Montana University System.

More Options

Not sure what do right after high school? Getting hands-on experience through job shadowing, internships, or apprenticeships is a great way to explore your future path. You can also gain experience by serving your country through service in the military, AmeriCorps, or Peace Corps.

Job Shadowing

Stop imagining what a job might be like and see it firsthand! Job shadowing helps students learn valuable lessons, see the responsibilities of the profession on a day-to-day basis, and compare a variety of occupations. Check with your counselor to see if they have partnerships with local individuals or organizations that offer job shadowing. If you know someone who works in the occupation you are interested in, ask if you could shadow them on the job.

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Pro Tip

It’s perfectly fine for you to reach out to a business and ask about job shadowing, even if you don’t already have a connection there. Be your own advocate!

Internships

What is an internship? An internship is a period of work experience, usually lasting a few weeks to a few months, offered by an employer to provide students exposure to working in an office or industry setting that relates to their studies or interests. Internships are coveted opportunities because they give students opportunities to connect with mentors and test drive what it’s like to work in a particular field.

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Internships are a great way to gain real-world experience and businesses are realizing that building relationships with high school students can help them grow their workforce.

Some internships are paid, and some are not. The biggest advantages of internships are exposure to careers, learning new things, and listing the experience on your resume and college application. An internship can even lead to a permanent job!

Apprenticeships

An apprenticeship combines classroom learning and on-the-job training, and best of all, pays students while they learn. Apprenticeships generally have a predefined pay scale that outlines how much money an apprentice earns as they achieve specific milestones. The time commitment to complete an apprenticeship varies by occupation.

Read More

Where can I find more information on how apprenticeships work? Start by visiting the Montana apprenticeship program through the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

Apprenticeship Quick Facts

  • Hundreds of Montanans graduate from apprenticeship training each year, many of them earning over $40,000 annually while in training. The average wage after completion of an apprenticeship program is over $60,000 per year.
  • Employers have in-demand jobs that need to be filled, so they offer on-the-job training for workers.
  • Workers earn while they learn and experience zero to little debt.
  • Apprenticeships are a combination of classroom and workplace training. Many apprentices also obtain college degrees and certificates as part of their program.
  • Career examples: electrician, auto mechanic, hospital coder, utility technician, construction and more! Apprenticeships are available for occupations outside of the trades, too - like accounting technicians.

Military

For some students, the military is an option to consider. This option requires a high level of dedication as most enlistments require a four-year active duty commitment and two years of inactive duty. Explore this option by visiting todaysmilitary.com, a site produced by the Department of Defense that includes all the military sectors.

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Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, is another option for students to consider. ROTC is a program of study taken in addition to regular college courses. The program includes leadership, management, and professional knowledge classes as well as “hands-on” experiences. Students make a commitment to the military and in return, they earn scholarships that cover the cost of college attendance. For more information about ROTC options in Montana.

Service Learning: AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and More

From environmental stewardship to supporting community development, service learning opportunities are excellent options for students to make the world a better place. Through hands-on learning, service members develop leadership skills and address real-world issues. In addition to experience, some service learning opportunities provide education awards that can help pay for college or pay down student loan debt.

AmeriCorps

AmeriCorps provides service learning opportunities in programs throughout the country. Service time ranges from a minimum of 300 hours, up to a maximum of 1,700 hours (or three to twelve months). You can apply to serve in your own community or choose to serve somewhere else. Programs are available in all U.S. states and territories, and serve a wide range of community needs, including:

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  • Community and Nonprofit Development
  • Disaster Services
  • Economic and Workforce Development
  • Education
  • Energy and Conservation
  • Health and Nutrition
  • Legal Assistance
  • Tribes and Native American Affairs
  • Veterans and Military Families
  • Youth Development and Mentoring

AmeriCorps members earn a stipend while serving to help cover basic costs of living, and receive an education award upon completion of service.

  • National Service in Montana: There are 15 different AmeriCorps programs and projects in Montana. To learn more, visit Serve Montana, the Governor’s Office of Community Service.
  • National Service outside of Montana: Explore hundreds of AmeriCorps service opportunities by visiting nationalservice.org

Peace Corps

Interested in service on a global scale? The Peace Corps might be an option for you. Being part of the Peace Corps is a great way to learn more about the world, expand your horizons, and serve a community in need. Some positions require a college degree. If you don’t have a degree but do have some education and a few years of job experience, you may still be eligible to serve. You might also need to be fluent in a foreign language for some service assignments.

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While serving, Peace Corps volunteers receive a monthly in-country living allowance to pay for basic expenses. Volunteers also earn a monthly readjustment allowance that they receive as a lump sum upon completion of service.

Service time in the Peace Corps is a two-year commitment, plus three months of training.

Learn more at peacecorps.gov.

Other Ways to Get Involved - Volunteer

You can serve your community anytime, and find ways for your service to fit your interests and availability. Volunteering and being an active member in your community will make people notice and appreciate you. As you transition from high school to being on your own, opportunities will arise for you to showcase your big heart and community spirit.

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  • Scholarships
    Some scholarships require volunteer hours, and your time spent giving back to the community can provide the perfect story for a scholarship essay. Volunteering can set you apart from the competition – giving you an edge when it comes to earning free money for school.
  • College Applications
    Colleges want well-rounded students who excel in and out of the classroom. One way to enhance your college application, especially if your grades are average, is to detail your volunteer hours. Demonstrate that with your smarts, comes a big heart!
  • Resume
    Your resume comprises your education and work history. Include your volunteer experience on your resume to help demonstrate the knowledge and skills you’ve gained through your experience. The organizations you served can also be used as employment references – just make sure you ask first!

Finding volunteer opportunities. Now that you’re interested in giving back because you’ll gain so much in return, volunteer opportunities are easy to find! Check with your school counselor regarding local volunteer opportunities. Join clubs like 4-H, National Honors Society, Business Professionals of America (BPA) - they have lots of volunteer opportunities! VolunteerMatch.org is a great way to search for local and national opportunities. Also, try a Google search for where you live or search for non-profits in your community and approach them about volunteering. You could help walk dogs at your local animal shelter or take meals to the elderly. There are tons of opportunities out there for you!

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Pro Tip

Track your volunteer hours - you’ll be glad you did when it comes to applying for scholarships and colleges. Use our handy tracking sheet to log the number of hours you're given back. You’ll feel really awesome when all those hours are added up!