What exactly does getting a ‘higher education’ mean? Is it a degree, a certification, or a training course? Can it be all of the above?

Those are the questions we’re diving into today in honor of today’s holiday, National Higher Education Day, celebrated each year on June 6.

U.S. education system structure


As we all know and remember, education officially begins at kindergarten. It begins at such a young age that we don’t even call it school yet; it’s preschool. Fun fact: Kindergarten originally started in Germany but didn’t take hold in the U.S. until the 1850s.

Elementary school

When we’ve successfully completed the transition from home to school life, we say goodbye to days full of play, singing, and drawing and say hello to our first formal education – primary school. Primary school in the U.S. is also referred to as elementary school. It’s the place where we’re first introduced to learning about real-world skills like reading, writing, and math.

Middle school

After primary school, we move on to intermediate school, more commonly referred to as middle school. This is where we build on what we’ve already learned and start exploring the deeper complexities of things like language, technology, health, science, and art. It’s also the first place we’re introduced to learning about critical life skills such as cooking or finance management.

A large prestigious library with many books, arches, and white marble busts.
The prestige associated with attending a four-year college has been around since the 17th century.

High school

Once we’re done with the sixth to eighth grades of intermediate school, we move on to the ninth through twelfth grades of secondary school – also known in the U.S. as high school. In this segment of the education journey, academic performance becomes critically important. The grades we make in classes and on tests are now being judged, compiled, and averaged out for a plethora of reasons. Public high schools are rated on how well their students perform in classes, and students are now starting to build an academic resume for their future.

College and beyond

Once we’ve graduated secondary school, the U.S. education system gets a little confusing from here. We’re told that higher education is our next step in the academic ladder, but oftentimes the full range of opportunities actually available to us are overshadowed by expectations of four-year colleges or universities.

Preconceived expectations have set the tone for education for centuries.

Turns out, there are quite a few more options people have today.

What exactly is Higher Education?

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of higher education is:

An education beyond the secondary level; especially at a college or university.

The first part of that definition is abundantly clear. It can be any sort of education acquired after a high school diploma. However, the second part of that definition isn’t quite as clear. In fact, it’s not even a definition, it’s an expectation.

Preconceived expectations have set the tone for education for centuries.

The prestige associated with attending a four-year college has been around since the 17th century with the first college in the U.S. opening in 1636 – Harvard University.

Every high school student can attest to the expectations placed on them of attending college after graduation. These expectations greatly dictate every aspect of the college experience – from the highs and lows of acceptance letters to setting up financial aid.

Changes to education in 2020 and beyond

We all observed the world change in many facets with the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the largest global examples of that was the impacts to educational institutions – from elementary school to universities. Practically every school in the U.S. shut down in some form for a period of time. Then came the challenge to turn everything virtual.

Up until then, almost all technology used in education was secluded within the four walls of in-person institutions. Despite 92% of households having at least one computer in their homes, rarely did students find themselves participating in schooling at home via online portals, video tutorials, or through peer-to-peer video communications.

The world was forced to face a reality that was available all along – virtual work and education can be done from home. Being physically present for learning was and is no longer an absolute requirement for success.

The higher education resources we have today

To say that you need a four-year college education to be successful is blatantly wrong. While it’s a common path, it’s become hugely expensive and often impractical for many. If you know what you want to do and are focused, there are efficient and faster ways to satisfying careers.


While not all certifications are created equal, many that are nationally recognized and can immediately signal expertise in a given area. There are many certifications you can start preparing for right out of high school. These certifications often require training, but that doesn’t mean going to a four-year university. Here are some examples:

  1. Medical coding – Medical coders are often overlooked but incredibly important to the medical and insurance industries. This profession require training, but not a formal four-year undergraduate degree.
  2. Google CertificationsGoogle offers many free and paid course certifications in a variety of areas. Getting Google-certified can be a step towards landing that first job in a specific field:
    • Marketing
    • Cloud-based
    • Google Adwords
    • Project management
  3. Advertising portfolio schools – Often portfolio schools will offer a certificate upon completion rather than a traditional degree like an MBA. Most have no requirements other than a high school diploma or something similar. You graduate with a certificate in a given area and a stellar portfolio that will land you a job at a big name agency.
  4. IT – IT Certifications are becoming increasingly popular as our IT infrastructure gets more complex. CompTIA A+ is an early-career certification that recommends (but does not require) 9-12 months of experience. It’s a highly regarded IT designation that can lead to jobs as a help desk tech, field service tech, or junior systems admin.
  5. Fitness – fitness certifications have a tendency to be unregulated, but if you know what you’re looking for you can avoid the lesser certifications. Getting certified as a Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) only requires a high school diploma or GED equivalent. There are dozens of specialized certifications from nationally recognized associations for fitness professionals.

Associates Degrees and Trade Schools 

Most two-year degrees are often referred to as Associates Degree. Focused study for two years is a good way to spend less on tuition and get started in your career earlier. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average public university student borrows around $30,000 to attend a four-year school .

Trade schools are another important path. Many of these careers focus on on-the-job training, but a degree of classroom instruction is also required. Mechanics, construction, or masonry, are all examples. The length of trade school varies by profession but typically ranges six to twelve months.

What are popular careers for these types of higher education? The list is long, but here are a few examples:

  • Dental hygiene – Dental hygienists spend three years in school for an associate’s degree. All states require licensure (similar to the MBLEX below).
  • Wine turbine mechanics – This field is projected to grow by 68% in the next ten years. Windtechs, as they are commonly called, complete coursework, on-the-job-training, and often get certifications in wind energy technology.
  • Nursing – Getting an Associates Degree in Nursing (ADN) qualifies one to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam. All registered nurses must take this exam before they can practice nursing.
  • Occupational therapyOccupational Therapy Assistants (OTAs) work in hospitals, rehab settings, schools, and home health settings. OTA programs are typically three years.
  • Massage therapy – massage school can take anywhere from five months to two years depending on the student and program. All therapists are required to take and pass the MBLEX before getting licensed in their state.

These examples are just scratching the surface of what’s possible with certifications and focused schooling outside of a four-year degree of masters program.

Higher education, in all its forms, has immense value. Finding the right path is the hardest part.