Throughout high schools and for many families, getting into and matriculating at a 4-year college is seen as the ultimate definition of postsecondary success. So much of the college and career narrative is about college readiness. The notion assumes that “career” will follow the college degree; rather than being a good viable option on its own.
This conception is reinforced through K-12 schooling. Even elementary schools have college t-shirt theme days. High schools regularly host college fairs, invite admissions representatives to speak with students, celebrate college acceptances on walls throughout the building, and even hold college sports signing days.
And though attaining a 4-year degree is a worthwhile and important goal for many students, it is not necessarily the only and best option. This emphasis on “only college for all” undermines the value and potential of straight to career, junior college, military, or training options that do not take place in a college or university setting.
Shifting the Paradigm
Many students across the nation assume that the only appropriate step after high school is to attend a 4-year college or university even if they are unsure about what they want to study, how they will pay for that degree, or what career aspirations they have after they graduate. For students uncertain about their path, few alternative options are presented to them in middle or high school that seem on par with a 4-year degree. College and career counselors and educators can help change this narrative by offering choices and talking about these non-4-year options as good, worthwhile, and even possibly more financially beneficial in the short and long term for some students.
A first step is to begin giving more balanced attention to the variety of paths possible to students. A seemingly superficial shift of referring to college and career readiness as career and college readiness can help educators, students, and families pivot their thinking. Counselors and educators can be thoughtful and careful not to always equate academic success or intelligence with plans to attend a 4-year college. They can also find ways to celebrate achievement and success beyond the typical academic measures. For instance, schools can shine a spotlight on students who have developed important industry certifications or participated in job shadowing or internships and showcase student work from manufacturing programs or creations from culinary classes.
The Benefits of Career-First Thinking
For many students, a classroom setting is not the ideal learning environment–with some struggling just to complete requirements for graduation. These same students often thrive with hands-on, active, and immersive experiences and opportunities where they can deeply engage with the work. This is exactly the kind of work and practice that many trade professions and training programs include. This kind of learning often feels much more relevant as students can immediately put into practice what they are studying.
Additionally, these kinds of programs are often shorter than four years and have very clear connections to how the training will be utilized in their career. These more direct paths add focus and direction to keep students on track to meet their goals. And, the cost of these programs is often much lower than the cost of 4-year degrees and can still include scholarships or financial aid. Additionally, students who go through these kinds of programs have the opportunity to join the workforce and receive a paycheck much faster than their university counterparts.
Beyond the lower cost and shorter length of the programs, the return on investment for trade school and technical certifications is particularly high in today’s economy. Many jobs in the trades are in incredible demand – from plumbers, to welders, to crane operators, to HVAC technicians, to airplane mechanics. Students who complete the necessary training in these fields can almost be guaranteed steady work, making a living wage, and are usually not bogged down by student loan debt as they enter their careers.
Empowering Students with A Full Range of Choices
Of course, a 4-year college degree continues to be the goal and best pathway for many students. But, we cannot let that fact get in the way of forcing that on students who could benefit much more from a trade school, junior college, military, or other less traditional path. Career and college counselors and educators owe it to these students – for whom this path might be a better fit – to empower them with the full range of postsecondary options.
And, we need to create a culture that ensures that all students who have thoughtfully made plans about their futures feel proud and accomplished about their choices. Educators and counselors can be intentional about applauding the full range of postsecondary success. They can post trade school acceptances on walls announcing college acceptances. They can include junior college, trade school, military, and apprenticeship programs alongside colleges at student fairs. And they can bring in models of individuals who have followed these more direct to career pathways to speak to students and answer questions. These efforts by counselors and educators will go far in making sure that more students are finding productive paths toward fulfilling careers.
Providing students access to explore all of their postsecondary options is a key step in building an equitable environment for career planning. SchooLinks supports all postsecondary paths with a robust career center, including career opportunities.