McNerney: Multiple Paths to a College Degree

By Neil McNerney, Parenting with Purpose

This is the time of year when high school seniors begin making their decisions on where they will be going to college next year. It is a time filled with anxiety and worry about whether they will get into their dream school. In my work with students and their families, I have learned that there are multiple paths toward a degree. I would like to share with you a menu of options that might be a better path for your student. 

Path 1: The Traditional Path

The traditional path entails doing as well as possible in high school, participating in activities and clubs, getting into the school of your choice, and finishing a college degree. I won’t spend any additional time on this path, as it is the one that we all know very well.

Path 2: Transfer

Let’s assume that your student didn’t get into their dream school but got into a few other schools. Most assume that their path to a degree must lie in their second or third choice. This is not necessarily the case. I am a perfect example of this. To put it mildly, I was not a high achieving high school student. Entering my senior year, my GPA was under a 2.0. I dejectedly applied to ten schools and got one acceptance letter from a private school that probably needed the tuition. My guidance counselor told me to go, do well, and transfer. I did well enough my first year to transfer to James Madison University. Since I did well my first year in college, my high school grades were much less of a concern to the admissions department. I happily finished my bachelor’s and master’s degree from JMU. 

Path 3: Community College, then University

I recently met a local community member, Tori Truesdale, who is a big advocate for starting at the community college level. Tori told me: “I considered community college primarily due to the cost. I started out my first semester at Virginia Tech and after taking out a $2,500 student loan, I decided I didn’t want to have that much in student loans when graduating.” Tori returned home and began her studies to earn an associate degree at Northern Virginia Community College. She then transferred to James Madison University through the Guaranteed Admission Program.

The Virginia community college system has an amazing program called Guaranteed Admission. Basically, it is an agreement with 40 universities that will accept students based on their GPA after completion of an associate degree. For instance, James Madison’s minimum GPA is 3.0, and William and Mary’s is 3.6. No other requirements are needed. SAT scores don’t matter. No essay is needed. 

What about the quality of teaching at the community college level? Here is Tori’s opinion: “I thrived at NOVA! I’m still connected through Facebook to three of my professors. Many of them also teach at George Mason University which is super cool to have the best of both worlds- small class sizes with university professors.”

The cost savings is significant. Tori estimates that she saved almost $40,000 by going to community college. This savings has allowed her to launch a successful business as a home organizing coach.

Path 4: GED, then Community College, then University

The path that is most encouraging is the GED path. GED is short for General Equivalency Diploma. Instead of finishing high school and receiving a diploma after 4 years, students can test for the GED as early as 16 years old (restrictions apply for students under 18). 

Once the GED is obtained, it is a simple process to begin classes at a community college and then transfer into a university. I have had students as young as 16 pursue this path. One of my graduate students at Virginia Tech just finished his master’s degree in family therapy. He struggled with mental health issues in high school and needed the flexibility that a GED provided. 

This path is ideal for those students struggling with health issues that make it difficult to succeed at their regular public school.

As you help your middle and high school students navigate this path, keep in mind that there are many ways to finish college, and many students need alternative routes. As Robert Frost reminds us: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out! and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at

One thought on “McNerney: Multiple Paths to a College Degree

  • 2022-03-17 at 10:44 am

    As usual, Neil McNerney gives great advice. I also think it’s fine if a high-school student wants to bide their time & not jump into college right after graduation. They have their whole lives ahead of them. I went into college right after high school. It was a great experience. But I respect young folks who want to learn more about themselves before committing to college. Happy St. Paddy’s Day Loudoun!

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