COVID-19 has caused a marked shift in attitudes toward higher education, particularly among high school students who are rethinking their options as they look ahead to a future career path that remains in flux due to the pandemic’s impact on the workforce and economy. While exacerbated over the past year, this was a trend we were seeing in the United States even before our nation went under lockdown.
Data from ECMC Group’s Question The Quo surveys fielded throughout the pandemic show more than half of students are open to something other than four-year college and the majority want to forge their own educational path.
In addition, while more than half of teens believe they can be successful with education they can complete in three years or less, a majority feel uninformed when it comes to their options, with 63 percent wanting their high school to provide more information about the variety of postsecondary education routes. Parents are also looking for options that stray from the four-year path, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Unfortunately, high school counselors charged with educating students and parents about their postsecondary options also feel uninformed. I recently conducted a study of high school counselors, asking about their knowledge and perceptions of postsecondary options. Less than 35 percent stated that they have sufficient time to expose their students to the many postsecondary options available. In addition, when asked about their knowledge of postsecondary pathways, less than half feel they have an above-average knowledge about options other than four-year college.
This needs to change. As we seek to provide students with postsecondary education pathways that lead to promising careers, we must also educate high school counselors about the options that exist and the extended job outlook for successful and sustainable careers.
The connection between high schools and their postsecondary counterparts is not a one-way road. Now that counselors and administrators are aware that their students require and desire more information, they must work to provide resources for pathways that differ from four-year college. At the same time, community, technical and career schools must explore new ways to promote their programs.
Counselors and administrators should work together with the schools in their community to develop their knowledge and to educate their students about their options, what they can achieve with a variety of pathways and how the programs align with the needs of the current workforce.
Part of this involves creating greater visibility to the options available. For instance, there must be a stronger presence of community, technical, and career schools at college fairs in high schools. These events have historically been for the four-year universities, but high schools must acknowledge that many options exist beyond high school and lead to fulfilling careers, sustainable employment, and platforms for long-term success. In many cases, the programs offered at these institutions fill a critical and vital need within our society, and they meet the students’ needs for shorter, less expensive pathways to the workforce.
Exposing students to career and technical education (CTE) pathways during high school can also help expand their mindset when it comes to postsecondary education to such things as stackable credentials, which allow students to gain skills and certifications as they continue along their educational pathways.
High schools can also develop partnerships within CTE, and provide opportunities for field trips, guest speakers, Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) programs and encouraging community, career and trade schools to become certified or dual programs where students can earn high school and college credit at the same time.
Increased exposure will be a key component as the education industry moves beyond the pandemic to help ensure high-quality education, student engagement and the returned balance of both online and face-to-face education. Both high schools and their postsecondary counterparts must take advantage of the opportunity to further educate the future generation of students and workers about the offerings, pathways and programs available. Students are telling us that the traditional four-year route may not be for them. Those who step up will pass the test.
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