Lifelong Learning Has Created Opportunities for Student Exploration Between High School and College

Listening to the stories of students who feel unworthy because they can’t or don’t want to go to college is heartbreaking. Equally distressing are the ones who come home without completing a degree, wracked with shame and guilt at having “failed”.  I meet with these students and their parents to help them find a pathway through the minefield of cultural expectations. I assure them they are worthy and they are not the failures. Instead, I explain that the education system, with its well-meaning college-for-all mantra, has failed them.  

These students are, in fact, the majority. Thirty percent of high school students don’t go to college and of those who do, 40% drop out or are unable to complete a degree in six years. Until recently, not completing formal education by early adulthood put them at a disadvantage — but they were born into a fortunate time in history. They stand at the precipice of a new economic era that promises them the ability to educate themselves throughout their lifetimes. They can now benefit from a multitude of training, degree and credentialing vehicles encompassing a new concept: lifelong learning.  

What changed? In a word, technology. Like a tsunami without warning, the dizzying and unprecedented pace of change has transformed the character of our economy and the job market with it. In less than 20 years, it has reorganized our lives and defined new rules of order. Luyen Chou, Chief Product Officer at Trilogy Education, put it in perspective:

In the early 1980s, Buckminster Fuller observed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II, it was doubling every twenty-five years. Today, by current estimates, human knowledge is doubling every thirteen months.

Not only does this mean knowledge itself is expanding exponentially, but that the knowledge and skills we learned in the past and count on in our lives are becoming obsolete at an increasing rate. We find ourselves needing to retool and upskill throughout our careers and lives in order to stay productive and relevant.

Our children have been trained since early childhood to prepare themselves for a clearly defined path, taking them directly from high school to college to a career offering social and economic status.  But the economy that promise relied on, with corporate institutions at its core, is not the economy emerging today. In truth, it only really worked for a select number of students who had the family structures and financial support to pursue it, but now even those students are no longer guaranteed successful outcomes. The reality is that the well-worn trajectory to success is no longer working for the majority of students.  

On the bright side, what is emerging is the opportunity to redefine the sequence of the trajectory. Rather than devote an exorbitant amount of energy and money trying to get students directly into college, we can now help them explore areas of interest and develop a focus before they invest in a degree.

Three factors make this strategy worth considering: 1) the changing job market, 2) the maturity of students today, and 3) the time and expense of attending a four-year college.

Changing Job Market

As machines and new forms of communication evolve, businesses are scrambling to keep pace. Rather than hiring generalists, they now require skill-specific workers. Even with the low unemployment rate, over 6  million jobs requiring skilled workers remain unfilled. Colleges were likewise caught off guard by the sudden economic transformation. Their traditional structures have made it difficult to quickly adapt their curriculum. While some argue that the purpose of college isn’t just to prepare students for work, most students attend college for this purpose.

Maturity of Students

Largely guided by parents, teachers and social norms, students today have spent their childhood and adolescent years memorizing data, taking tests and participating in structured extracurricular activities. With schedules that consume more than a traditional work week, it is little wonder that few have been able to develop the maturity needed to be self-sufficient.

Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State and author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, uses the following description for today’s 18-year-olds:

Across a range of behaviors—drinking, dating, spending time unsupervised— 18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds. Childhood now stretches well into high school.

Pushing high school students directly into college and expecting them to find themselves, with limited life skills and no clear career direction, is a recipe for disaster and an expensive one at that. Our protracted college admissions race has not adequately prepared them for the rigors of college, academically or emotionally.

Nationwide, fewer than half of all high school graduates are prepared to earn even a “C” in their college courses, based on SAT and ACT data. About 40 percent of those who enroll in college are placed in remedial classes, where they spend time and money learning skills they were told they’d already mastered. And most who take a remedial class won’t go on to earn a degree.

Historically, college was expected to help students develop a focus. But many colleges today require students to declare a major when they enter. Without knowing themselves or having had time to develop interests, they often change majors, which can extend the time required to complete a degree.

About 80 percent of students in the United States end up changing their major at least once, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. On average, college students change their major at least three times over the course of their college career.

High School graduates are often encouraged to attend community college in an effort to save money and develop maturity. But sending students to community college is not improving their higher education outcomes. Although 80% want to earn a bachelor’s degree, recent research shows that only 14% transferred to and graduated from a four-year university in 6 years.

The Time and Expense of Four-Year College

The expense of obtaining a college degree is well reported, as is the underemployment that still plagues many graduates. However, a more important piece that significantly affects the cost (and debt) to students is the fact that only about 40% of students graduate in four years. It is astonishing that government statistics now use 6-year data when referencing four-year college graduation rates.

A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted the issue:

An additional year of school in a public four-year college will cost $22,826, on average, according to the nonprofit Complete College America. Then there is lost income to consider. Students who stay in school an additional year miss out on about $45,327 in salary, on average.

All told, Complete College America estimates that an extra year of college can cost as much as $68,153.

And if a student attends a private college, that number can be upwards of $92,000. It is no wonder that the debt numbers have skyrocketed. And it isn’t just student debt; parent debt now exceeds student debt and that doesn’t include mortgage loans.

This cost must be compared to the expected salary of the graduate, which will vary widely by choice of major. In many cases, these numbers just don’t make sense and the emotional toll of the debt burden can have lifelong consequences on mental and physical health.

A Strategy for Minimizing the Time and Cost of a Degree

The large unmet demand for new skills has opened up new pathways of learning. By spending the time gaining maturity and focus before entering college, students are better able to minimize the cost and time invested in pursuing a degree. According to the 2018 McGraw-Hill Education Future Workforce Survey:

Non-traditional students, those who didn’t enter college within a year of completing high school, were more likely to feel prepared than traditional students (49 percent vs. 34 percent).

Determining an area of interest is the first step in developing a strategy. Interest is the key to finding fulfilling work that is sustainable. There are now free online career tests that can help guide students, including and CareerOneStop . This process will just provide a starting point.

The next step involves finding the shortest-term, most cost-effective way to test out the type of work they would like to explore. Depending on the student’s circumstances, many of these can be done while working. Online or in-person programs include:

    • Community College Certificate Programs. In recent years, the offerings have expanded dramatically to include areas like criminal justice,  architecture and entrepreneurship. Internships are often part of the certificate program.
    • MOOCs. These Massive Open Online Courses provide by Coursera, edX, Udacity and others offer courses and certificate programs for little or no cost. All are geared to working students. From a single course to specialized credentials, they target in-demand skills like  IT training, virtual reality and digital marketing.
    • Apprenticeships. Federal and state governments are investing heavily in this arena in an effort to fill the skills gap. Some programs even start in high school and involve more than just the traditional trades.
    • Career and Technical Training Schools. These are particularly helpful to student interested in healthcare or technology.
  • Gap Year Programs. Universities and private enterprises are starting to develop more formalized programs targeted at student growth and development.

All of these options can still lead to a college degree. But more importantly, they allow students to test out their areas of interest without incurring significant debt or losing time in the workforce. It also gives them time to gain the maturity they need to function in the adult world.

Ideally, this process would start in high school and in some states it has already begun. Public schools, including charters, are leading the way by introducing Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs that can help students explore interests and gain exposure to the workplace before graduating. Hopefully, the strong cultural headwinds pushing everyone directly into college will subside so that more students can take advantage of these opportunities.

With our economy in flux and new jobs appearing while others disappear, one could argue that taking small, short-term steps could prove more advantageous to students. It would allow for both a quicker response to emerging opportunities and the ability to pivot to a new area of interest without too much investment of time or money. Also, with as fast as higher education is transforming, there may soon be a lower cost vehicle for their area of interest. Depending on the field, certificates and AA degrees can now pay more than BA degrees.

Most importantly, we must affirm the value and worthiness of a generation of students who have been guided on a path that no longer ensures them a secure future. The standardization of our education system, which ignores the unique qualities inherent in each of our children, has been detrimental to their mental and physical well being. We now have an opportunity to provide them with the time and space needed to develop critical life skills and to discover a fulfilling career without incurring lifelong debt. With advanced training programs creating new pathways and an economy that is redefining itself, these students can now find their rightful place in the world.