For years, the reigning ideology among many high schoolers and their parents, teachers and counselors has been: attending a traditional four-year college or university will be a guaranteed ticket to a good career and financial stability. No matter what the student’s career goals, or even if they have any specific career goals, college is often seen as the best, most prestigious, and most secure postsecondary option.
In today’s economy, though, scholars and educators are beginning to rethink this approach, to determine whether this unceasing emphasis on college for all is really the best way to guide students towards success.
College skills aren’t life skills
Having a college degree in an employable field can certainly expand students’ job opportunities and salary potential. However, simply getting any degree from any college is no longer a guarantee of financial success. Many employers are beginning to recognize that the skills students learn in a four-year college are often not directly transferable to most jobs–in fact, 50% of employers feel that graduates aren’t prepared for the workplace.
Although college can be a great place to refine critical thinking skills, encounter a diverse set of worldviews, and explore a variety of academic interest areas, it is not a good substitute for hands-on job training. Employers have to spend lots of time and money training their new hires on how to actually do the job they’ve been assigned, and as a result, hiring managers are placing less value on applicants simply because they possess a diploma.
And here’s an even more debilitating reminder that college skills aren’t the same as life skills: according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 43.7% of recent graduates (age 22-27 with a bachelor’s degree or higher), are “underemployed,” meaning that they’re working in jobs that don’t require their degrees. And 34.4% of all college grads, age 22-65, are underemployed.
With student loan debt ever on the rise, many of these underemployed graduates are faced with mountains to repay for a degree they never even end up using.
College students are rarely career-focused
One cause of this perennial underemployment is that college students often put finding a career at the bottom of their priority list. Many students decide where they want to go to school, based on location, prestige, where their parents went, or a variety of other factors. Then, once they’re in school, they decide what they want to major in. And only after that, often well into their junior or senior year, do they decide what career they want to have and start thinking about jobs they may want to apply for.
This decision-making process is antithetical to the real goals of education. Education for education’s sake is certainly valuable in its ability to broaden students’ minds and sharpen their logical reasoning. But, the real reason most people spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on a college education is so they can get a “good job.” Students should have this job goal in mind, and then select the university (or two-year technical college or apprenticeship program) that can help them achieve that goal. Otherwise, we end up with a lot of students choosing majors that are difficult to find relevant employment with, and not thinking practically about job prospects until it’s too late, leaving them scrambling and forced to settle for underemployed positions.
There are many alternatives to traditional four-year colleges
Luckily, opportunities abound for career-focused students who want to explore pathways beyond traditional universities. There are technical colleges that offer highly employable skills (that often lead to well-paying jobs). The perception that all university graduates automatically earn more than all trade school graduates is misleading. While university graduates earn more on average, there are many occupations where trade workers earn more than degree holders. The average secondary school teacher (which requires not only a bachelor’s degree but sometimes a master’s or additional teaching certificate) earns just $59,000. All seven of the highest-paying vocational jobs pay more than $59,000. Plus, trade school takes less time to complete than a bachelor’s degree, allowing graduates to start earning income faster. When taking into account the significantly lower debt trade graduates are faced with, vocational schools may be the more financially stable option for many students.
School counselors and advisors should help students find the path that’s right for them, not just the path that’s traditionally seen as the most prestigious. And, of course, apprenticeships and work-based learning are a huge part of finding these pathways. How can we expect our students to identify a career path before selecting a college or trade school, if they haven’t been given ample opportunity to explore a variety of career paths in a hands-on environment?
As early as possible–certainly high school, but even middle school or junior high–we should encourage our students to pursue apprenticeships, internships, unpaid work opportunities, shadowships, and other methods of gaining real, practical understanding of job options and developing employable skills and industry connections.
Strategies for helping students
Luckily, the Perkins V act and other legislation have increased national and statewide emphasis on career and technical education and work-based learning in schools. Make sure your school or district has a robust work-based learning platform. Start talking with students as early as possible about career paths they may be interested in, and work to break down the perception of apprenticeships and trade schools as less prestigious than traditional universities.
Modify school curricula to make courses more career-relevant. Many students complain that it’s hard to see the relevance of what they’re learning in the “real world”--so by ensuring that all topics are applied to practical, job-based situations, you can both better engage students in the coursework and get them thinking about postsecondary options. Bring in speakers or take your students on work site field trips to encourage them to connect with industry professionals. If a student has no idea what they want to do after high school, encourage them to take a gap year and do an apprenticeship or take online courses before deciding on a college or university.
We still have a ways to go to ensure all our students are truly college AND career ready. For educators, the most important thing is granting these students as much exposure, and as early as possible, to a variety of postsecondary options, and helping them identify their goals and find the right strategy–whether that’s four years at Harvard or a six-month certificate program–to achieve them.
To learn more about how our Transeo College platform can help transform student readiness in your district, get in touch with us today!