I feel a rant coming on…

Today did not start out as a good day. This morning I woke up to the news that the Department of Education is withdrawing support to school libraries. We say we want our schools to be the best–like Finland. Is this how you do it? Then, the information that threw me over the edge was announced as I ate my breakfast.

Matt O’Donnell (6ABC-pictured above), announced that of college graduates over the past several years, only 50% are employed full-time and of that working 50% the average salary is $30,000.

The idea that college is the only route to success is one of my issues.

“Among recent college graduates, a growing number each year leave college with student loan debt, a degree, and no job. Many ultimately join the ranks of “gray collar” workers–workers who are employed in jobs that are not commensurate for their education and pay too little when compared to the cost of these degrees. It is estimated from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (1993) Baccalaureate and Beyond study that as many as half of all baccalaureate graduates find themselves in this situation.” Getting Real: Helping Teens Find Their Future  -Ken Gray, Penn State University

Dr. Gray wrote this in 2009–before the “great recession.” This is not new information, it’s “just” getting worse. Why are so few educators and school counselors talking to kids and their parents about alternative avenues to success? And of those who are, why is no one listening?

Disclosure (why I know what I’m talking about):

1. I work in a high school.

  1. Too many students have no idea why they are going to college. For some it has become “13th” grade.
  2. Teachers and school counselor’s are well-intentioned but are still pushing college as the only way to succeed.
  3. College’s protect their dirty little secrets: (1) only 20% of students who begin a four-year degree program will graduate within 5 years and (2) only 11% of students who begin at a community college will have a four-year degree ever. (National stats)

 2. I have two children.

  1. Child #1: 2007 graduate of a prestigious New England Liberal Arts college; magna cum laude; Pi Beta Kappa and now a Fulbright Scholar; interned every summer during college at prestigious institutions related to field, etc., etc…
  2. Child #2: 2010 graduate of a prestigious North Eastern private comprehensive university (because Penn State, our “public ivy” did not offer her major-I know, strange but true); summa cum laude; won best in major award three out of four years, studied abroad (in one of the few rigorous study abroad programs); interned every summer during college at prestigious institutions related to field, etc., etc… 

Both children left college with promising jobs only to be down-sized, laid off, or whatever you want to call it. Both children are now cobbling together a living working several jobs and volunteering in their fields. It isn’t easy to work long hours at various places and continue searching for full-time work but somehow they are “doing it all.” There is no doubt about it, times are tough for the “20 somethings.”

The point of bringing up my own children’s experience is this: they did everything right. Studied hard in high school, discovered a passion for their field of study, worked hard in college and graduated in four years. They had what Dr. Gray calls “career maturity” when they graduated from high school. Educators know that few students graduate from high school with career maturity. In fact, it’s relatively rare (at least in the Philadelphia suburbs).

What happens to kids who don’t have career maturity when, in today’s world, even driven students struggle? (Remember I work in a high school.) As educators who care about student success after high school, what can we do?

  1. Encourage students to determine their goals. Do they want college or college and a career?
  2. Expose students to all career gateways: postsecondary education (community college, business/tech college, 4 year college or university), military, workforce (full and part-time jobs, contract work), internships and entrepreneurship.
  3. Explain to students that there are many avenues to the same goal. They need to be flexible and resilient.
  4. Teach students and their families to view post-secondary education as a costly business decision. Ask them to approach it in the same way they would in buying an expensive car. Buyer beware-most colleges are in a buyers market. Use this as an advantage.
  5. Inform parents about remedial education in college. They deserve to know that colleges admit students who cannot do academic work at college level. Parents should also know that remedial education may be a second chance for some teens; but for most teens right out of high school it is a strong predictor of dropping out.
  6. Help students develop a plan B-the one they will pursue if plan A doesn’t work out.
  7. Students (and their parents) need to understand the importance of a career focus. Most teens drop out of college in the sophomore year when a college academic major must be selected. (Gray)
  8. Explaining high priority professions in your region is also helpful to students and parents when they are trying to focus on a field of study. Introduce the ideas of career clusters , related occupations and career ladders.
  9. Get students out! Informational interviews, shadowing, interning, working, invite professionals into your classroom to help teach a particular topic and explain how and why it is important-ask your community to help students connect to their passions and learning.
  10. Send your teachers out to shadow. If a teacher has been in education their whole working life, they may not know how their subject matter is used outside of school. I have seen a teacher shadow day reconnect teachers to their academic passions. When this happens great things happen in the classroom.

For teens, developing career maturity does not mean forcing them to make a decision about the one perfect career or locking them into a decision by age 18. The hope is that there will be a narrowing down process based on personal interests, passions, skills and aptitudes, during high school and not at great financial cost in college or with enduring disappointments in the labor market.

Your students may change their mind later, but if they make good decisions now, the next time their new interests should relate to current interests leading them to even better decisions.

“Career maturity is as important as academic maturity. Both predict post-high-school success.” Thanks Dr. Gray for your research and wisdom.

And for my own children? Does anyone need a passionate arts administer or talented interior designer?


10 Responses

  1. This is so true.

  2. The big issue here is that the world has changed and education has not kept pace. We continue to teach students traditional subjects and overlook things that might be more relevant. We try to send everyone to college where majors are irrelevant and inadequately prepare students for the work world. My daughter just graduated from a major college with a degree in IT and feels like she needs to supplement with all kinds of additional course work and certifications to be prepared to work in her field. Sending the majority of high school students to college is the biggest scam in the world.

    • Lynne,

      Dr. Gray also read my post. This is what he wrote:

      Hi Sue. Tnx for thinking to forward the posts. I suspect our argument was always the correct one but folks were not ready to hear it. The pendulum is now swinging the other way. I always said things would not change unless the economy got very bad and individuals and the government would have to get real. Tnx again Ken

      I think all students need more schooling after high school but a traditional college program is not the answer for all. Wow-a degree in IT? Your daughter must have the world on a string. Congratulations on her success!

      Thanks for reading.


  3. Congratulations on these comments…..I like! Here are my two bits….as we all know learning is a lifelong event. I am now in my third career….started off as a medical technologist…then on to hospital administration….and then I chose counseling as my retirement career! I tell my students to not be discouraged if they do not know what they want to do after high school…also, my daughter worked for four years prior to college…this enabled her to determine if she enjoyed her chosen career….she is graduating this year and now has the advantage of having work experience as well as being qualified…best wishes to all!

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your story. You reminded me of the “High 5”: (1) Change is Constant, (2) Learning is Ongoing, (3) Focus on the Journey, (4) Follow your Heart and (5) Access Your Allies. You and your daughter have followed this theory of career development to success!

      For educators: the High 5 comes from the Get Real curriculum.

  4. I enjoyed this article.

  5. Great article – this discussion needs to begin before HS though. I work in a Middle School and each year we give the 8th graders the Explore Test (ACT prep) and review the results when they come back. For me, the most exciting part is the career interest inventory – where hopefully they answered honestly. We then do career searches on the internet to get an idea of what their interests are leading them to. Not everyone of them need college, or at least a 4 year degree right away.

    The biggest problem I have is this notion that everyone needs to go to college and the oft-repeated “fact” that college graduates earn $1million more over their careers than do HS grads – this may be the case, but this doesn’t factor in costs of the education (student loans, etc…) and the fact that just going to college doesn’t guarantee success.

    This is awesome again, thank you!

    • Thanks for reading. You’re preaching to the choir. In PA we have Career, Education and Work standards that begin in elementary (with benchmarks at 3, 5, 8 & 11). Few SD’s pay attention to this before middle school and at that level it’s spotty. You should read Other Ways to Win by Gray. Dr. Gray addresses the problem with “everyone goes to college” and offers research based strategies for new ways of doing business. The PA CEW standards can be found at http://www.pacareerstandards.com.

      • Thanks – with school here starting tomorrow (I’m in Oklahoma) new resources are always helpful!

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