Times have changed. Not just normal evolutionary change, but a dramatic reshaping of our lives. The World Economic Forum calls it “the greatest transformation human civilization has ever known”. We are entering a cyber-physical world where the number of corporations is declining and person-to-person commerce is increasing. Old systems are crumbling, while new ones are just beginning to form. Our schools, from kindergarten to college, have not kept up with this rapid transformation, leaving students mentally exhausted, financially strapped and without the necessary skills for success–even if they hold a degree. This Fourth Industrial Revolution is redefining pathways to well-paying jobs and challenging the way we need to prepare our students for their future.
We are so focused on college admissions that we are not looking at what happens once students are there or whether the substantial investment of time and money is worth it for all of them. Sadly, progressing every student through the same educational funnel is not working for the vast majority. Of 100 students entering ninth grade, 57 will go on to college and only 28 will graduate with a degree in six years. Accounting for the 12 who are likely to be underemployed, this means that only 16 out of 100 students are making it to a job that requires a degree. Whether they earn the promised higher income is not guaranteed. It depends on their personal character, chosen field, social competence and increasingly, technical abilities.
In today’s work environment, there are B.A. holders who earn more than those with an M.A. degree, A.A. holders who earn more than those with a B.A. and many certificate holders who earn more than any degree holder. College is an “IF and WHEN” decision; students need to attend if it is required for their field of interest and they can now choose when to attend. Forty percent of undergraduates are adults over the age of 25. Completing formal education right after high school is no longer required or even necessary, although some form of post-secondary training is essential. New educational pathways allow students to save time and money by staging certificates and degrees to suit their needs and circumstances.
This generation of students, particularly those in high school, have been caught between two worlds and we have no time to lose. We must help them gain real-world exposure to new ways of working and create opportunities for them to develop the necessary skills. The standardization of our K-12 school system has resulted in students who know how to conform, individually achieve and interact in structured environments with same-age peers. These abilities will not serve them well in an economy that values adaptability, collaboration, and problem-solving.
Luckily, the traits they need are decidedly human ones, learned through a broad spectrum of experiences and relationships. Difficult trade-offs need to be made to create time for critical real-world exposure. Part-time jobs, CTE courses, apprenticeships, internships, job shadowing, and even meaningful volunteering can provide insight into new ways of working and inspire students to find a focus. Although each family will determine their own priorities, limiting extracurricular activities and reducing course loads–such as AP and honors classes–are good ways to begin.
We need to discard the funnel and start looking at how we can expand opportunities for all students to pursue pathways that best fit their personal interests, individual characteristics, and life circumstances. Rather than blindly following what has been done before, we have to pay attention to our changing world and the new economic prospects it has to offer. The mental health and financial stability of a generation of students depend on it.