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College isn't for everyone: Schools, parents celebrate grads with other plans

These kids are not wearing the college sweatshirt, and their parents and high schools approve.
/ Source: TODAY

Although he thrived in Advanced Placement (AP) and dual enrollment classes and was a leader in his high school marching band's drumline, Brendan Adair, 18, is not attending college.

Instead, last week, he left his his mom and little sisters at their home in Richardson, Texas, for nine weeks of basic combat training as part of his four-year enlistment in the U.S. Army.

Brendan's mom, Katie Meek, was thrilled for him — even if she did sob through his going-away party.

"I worry about his safety, obviously, but I’m so proud of him for following through and finally making some goals and trying to better himself," she told TODAY Parents.

Katie Meek herself suggested the U.S. Army as an option to her oldest child, Brendan Adair, 18, when he struggled to find direction after high school. But it was a teary goodbye when she had to say goodbye to him as he left for basic combat training.Katie Meek

Meek is part of a growing number of parents and schools who are celebrating high school seniors choosing not to "wear the college sweatshirt," as one mom recently described it on social media. Instead of going straight to college, these students are finding different paths to their future by way of the military, gap years, or trade schools.

While that's not a new idea, the amount of support and enthusiasm for these alternatives is.

Public school districts like that in Henrico County, Virginia, for example, have begun holding "career and technical letter-of-intent" signing days like those traditionally held for athletes for students heading to jobs and trades after graduation.

Mac Beaton, director of Henrico County's Certified and Technical Education program, told TODAY Parents his county schools began celebrating vocationally-oriented students to emphasize the value of their choices.

"How many parents can say, 'My child has full health insurance, two weeks of paid vacation, and will be making $40,000 a year' when they are graduating from high school?" Beaton said.

In East Rutherford, New Jersey, the administration at Henry B. Becton Regional High School decided to hold a military signing day this year for similar reasons. Becton High senior Sebastian Cardona, who is heading to the U.S. Army after graduation, spoke to North Jersey Record reporter Nicholas Katzban about the ceremony and why he thought alternatives to college were important for teenagers.

"Going straight from high school into college is usually something you do just to have something to do. When you graduate high school, you don't know what will help you in the future. You're basically spending money to learn things for a career you might not follow," he said.

"In the Army, they show you what you can do with yourself."

That was what drew Brendan toward the Army. After high school, he struggled to determine his next steps. He took a few classes at community college, but he didn't know what his college or career path would look like.

"He needed some direction, and I didn’t want him just sitting at home working odd jobs and taking a class here and there," his mom said.

Last winter, Meek suggested her son consider enlisting in the United States Army, just as his father, uncle, grandmother, and grandfather all had. The plan is for him to train and serve as a combat medic.

Brendan does plan to get a college degree — paid for by the Army — but Meek said she believes he will benefit even more from this experience. "I hope he gets to see the world and make lifelong friends along with the pride of wearing the uniform," she said.

A family friend made Army-themed cookies for Brendan Adair's going-away party when he left for boot camp.Katie Meek

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Even kids who are ready to go straight to college and believe they know what they want to study are pausing before diving right into the campus scene by taking a gap year between high school and college with the enthusiastic support of their families.

An aspiring journalist, high school senior Annie Lord, 18, intends to take the next year to explore several interests — from volunteering with the Immigrant Defense Project in her hometown of New York City while living at home to interning on a working ranch in the middle of the mountains of Argentina so she can strengthen her Spanish language skills. Afterward, she will head to Brown University in the fall of 2020.

Annie told TODAY Parents she expects some parts of the gap year experience to be challenging. "I think in the beginning, it will be hard when my friends are going to college and they're meeting all their new friends and they are starting this next chapter of their lives. I might feel a little bit like I am in limbo; I might feel lonely sometimes," she said.

But she is confident the year will be invaluable. "I have had a really great four years in high school, but it's been really tiring," she said. I'm down to my last three weeks and it's hard to find my motivation. I'm not just tired physically, but also just feeling kind of spent. My creativity and my ideas don't feel like they're coming as naturally as I want them to."

"I know I'll be even more prepared going into college after having created this year for myself."

Students, parents, and schools seem to be recognizing a need for time before college — or maybe no college at all.

"At 16, she saw. She saw the tension and stress of her classmates. She saw the harried decisions to find a path that didn’t fit with her. So, she talked to me and told me her truth. We don’t know what’s to come," wrote an anonymous mother in a viral Facebook post for the website Grown and Flown. "She wants to work, learn something more about the world, and figure out who she is right now. Her path may not end in a degree in four years, but it will be one of value and worth.

"To all of our children going to college, trade school, military, work, or staying home, know that you are valued and strong. Your worth is not your accomplishments in these short years you’ve been here."