School is back in session, and that means it’s off to college for many of our nation’s young people. For them, high school is over and the world lies ahead. But parents and educators would be right to ask a simple question: Is college the right path for every student?
College has long been ingrained in our national consciousness as the surefire route to a good life. The narrative goes: Get a degree, get a high-paying job. Generally speaking, it used to be true. And while it’s still true for some careers, the employment landscape has shifted beneath our feet.
Many viable, living-wage positions in rapidly evolving fields like aviation, engineering, healthcare, advanced manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, and more are now “middle-skilled” and require specialized technical competence, represented by an industry certification or credential rather than a college degree. A report by NCCER states the 1:2:7 ratio: “Only one job out of 10 requires a master’s degree or higher. Two out of 10 need a bachelor’s degree. And the remaining seven? These only need an associate degree, certification, craft training or credential.”
It’s clear that new challenges in our automating, globalizing workforce are demanding skills beyond what a traditional college education often delivers.
Is college right for my child?
How can young people and their parents determine the right post-secondary pathway? It starts with an open mind and a series of conversations to empower the young person to navigate this decision with confidence. Here are some constructive ways to approach the college and career question:
1. Let go of the idea that college is the only way to win: Everyone wants the best for their children. But when we automatically equate “best” with “college,” we may be doing our kids a disservice. College debt, currently totaling more than $1 trillion among 19 to 29-year-old Americans, is many graduates’ biggest regret. Some 43% of recent college graduates are underemployed in their first job out of college. And that’s among those who graduate. The national six-year completion rate for students at two- and four-year schools is just 58.3%.
2. Explore a wide range of post-secondary pathways: Often, we just don’t know what we don’t know — and our kids are no different. How can they make the best investment in their future if they don’t have all the information? We all have an awareness gap to some extent. Start with an online search to explore the possibilities and gather the information to help young people determine their direction.
3. Support a wide range of experiences: Experience is everything with today’s younger generations. They live for new and exciting experiences that deepen their enjoyment of life. That’s why parents and educators should make career exploration as experiential as it can be. Let young people get their hands dirty and their feet wet. Let them visit the workplace they’re interested in. Let them shadow a professional in that field. Make time and space for experiences to drive the career exploration process so young people can learn about not just the career, but about themselves and where their strengths, talents, and interests lie.
4. Start career exploration as early as possible: Earlier career exploration starting in the middle school years lays the foundation for a focused post-secondary pathway. Ideally, the school district should spearhead a robust career exploration mindset, alongside parents, who have the greatest influence on their children’s future choices.
5. Take the pressure off: Advocate the “for-now” decision strategy that helps young people move productively toward their future without locking them into a lifelong decision. Encourage the young person to pick a career direction in high school to start pursuing and planning for, with the freedom to change his or her mind tomorrow, next week, or next year. Anxiety about making an irrevocable choice can cripple young people, but reframing it as a “for-now” decision takes the pressure off and keeps them moving in a positive direction.
6. Remember that the real competitive advantage today combines academic, technical, and professional skills: In a 2016 Wall Street Journal survey of more than 900 executives, fully 89% stated they have a very or somewhat difficult time finding hires who possessed soft (or professional) skills. Professional skills include a strong work ethic, communication, confidence, ability to accept feedback, leadership, flexibility, integrity, critical thinking, problem-solving, work-life balance, punctuality, stress management, and many more. (Reduce list by half) Young people who develop these skills are in high demand, and the candidate who combines professional skills with strong academic knowledge and valuable hard skills brings the complete package.
College can be a great choice, but only for those who go with a clear purpose and plan to enter a viable profession once they graduate. There are high-paying, high-demand careers in many fields that require specialized training, an industry credential, licensure, apprenticeship completion, and other industry-specific training. And these careers are not “lesser” than those that require a four-year degree.
We must think twice before defaulting to college for every student. The “college for all” mindset isn’t helping the young people who would excel in alternative pathways—and one of those students might just be your child. Challenging the college-centric narrative means showing the next generation the full range of pathways they can pursue out of high school and beyond.
Mark C. Perna is the author of the award-winning bestseller Answering Why: Unleashing Passion, Purpose, and Performance in Younger Generations that Publishers Weekly calls “perceptive … reasonable and thought-provoking.” Mark is the founder and CEO of TFS and has over 20 years of experience in coaching educational organizations and businesses on today’s unique intergenerational workforce and the hiring, training and retention of the newest generations.