I remember when the people I looked up to were older than me. These days, I’m looking to the younger generation for inspiration, and hoping they don’t disappoint.

Our futures rest in the hands of today’s elementary, middle, and high schoolers. We need to stop labeling them in sometimes pejorative ways simply because they’re different than us. They are learning in a rapidly changing and global economy where their own parents, teachers and counselors might struggle to understand the new array of technology-driven career opportunities.

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Generation Z–those born after 1996–are 14 percent more adventurous and 19 percent more imaginative than previous generations, and compared to Baby Boomers specifically, they’re two times more politically minded. They want to transform our world into a fairer, freer place, and we should absolutely applaud their ambition.

At the same time, we should also help them better harness their unique gifts, understand the changing landscape around careers, and ultimately make their dreams a reality. That starts with carving out a much more affordable path to success.

The current reality is that one-third of students who start a college degree program don’t finish, and the number is rising: In 2017, 31 million Americans left college without completing their degree, growing by almost 3 million over the previous 10 years. While high school dropout rates continue to decline, we are clearly not doing enough to equip students to make it through those post-secondary years.

Dropping out of college can lead to a decades-long struggle to pay off debt due to lower earnings potential. Student loan debt is a common and expensive problem in America, and defaulting is a personal one, wreaking havoc on students’ credit scores and hamstringing their ability to achieve financial stability.

Even the students who do complete their degrees regret the amount of debt they took on to do so. Why? It’s usually the same reason cited by those who’ve dropped out: They realized too late that a traditional four-year degree isn’t the only path for what they’d like to do someday.

That’s exactly why we need to help students figure out what careers are out there while they’re still in middle school and high school. Then, we need to help them understand the path that will get them there. Some will travel the traditional path, while others will see new paths unveiled from the experiences of those who have traveled the same paths of their interest.

A K-12 education genuinely focused on career readiness does both of those things. First, it gives students a chance to explore a variety of in-demand industries and job options early. Then, once something piques their interest, they can focus on a pathway of industry-specific study. Along the way, they’re presented with opportunities to meet professionals in the field, learn how to market themselves, and engage in work-based learning via internships and job shadow experiences.

The result will be students with a clearer focus on what their futures can hold, and an idea of how they can get there efficiently. Depending on the field, some students can earn certifications or college credit before getting their diploma. This allows them to either enter the workforce right away and start earning money or, alternatively, to start higher education with credits under their belt–or at least a better idea of what, and for how long, they need to study at the collegiate level.

These better-prepared students will not only emerge from college with less debt, they will also graduate with a far sharper sense of what they want to do. They’ll learn how to make themselves an attractive job candidate to employers, and hiring companies will have more qualified candidates to choose from. It’s a win-win for everyone.

I’ve met many students over the years, and I must say I’m impressed and hopeful. They aren’t afraid to think big–not just for themselves, but for the country and the world. Now it’s time for us to think big, too, creating a reimagined K-12 education system that unleashes the potential of our youth and empowers them to transform our world for the better.

About the Author:

Dr. Shaun McAlmont is president of career readiness education at K12, Inc.


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