The journeys that children take through education are not as straightforward as most people think.
In recent years, close to 70 percent of students went straight from high school to college, with those going to four-year universities typically outnumbering those enrolling in two-year colleges by roughly two to one. But a growing number of young people are forging new paths that involve a detour around college altogether.
College-going rates have been trending down since before the COVID-19 pandemic. And a national survey conducted in 2021 by ECMC Group found that less than half of high school students said they planned to attend a four-year college or university–a decrease of more than 20 percentage points from 2019.
That’s a real shame. Students who pass up college can close off good careers in STEM fields–science, technology, engineering and math–even if they struggled in school in these same subjects. Plenty of STEM jobs don’t require four years of college–just two or sometimes less. A lot of recent high school graduates might be surprised to know that some STEM careers that don’t require an expensive bachelor’s degree pay really well.
Building better pathways to STEM careers starts with teachers, counselors and parents–and a few basic math concepts.
There’s a common perception that young people don’t pursue STEM degrees or careers because math and other STEM subjects are too hard. That’s nonsense. Math is much more than trigonometry and physics and calculus. At its basic level, math is about learning to think and solve problems. Learning basic math skills such as reasoning, estimation, and measurement can open doors to good careers in growing fields such as allied health, health care, medical offices and construction trades. To point students toward STEM careers that require mastery only of basic math, teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade must share the joy of learning math and show all students that math is a crucial skill.
School counselors must do a better job of recognizing the wide range of opportunities after high school and guiding all students–not just the ones heading to four-year colleges. High school counseling offices are chronically understaffed, and many counselors are saddled with the task of administering high-stakes tests in addition to everything else on their plates. Schools and school districts need to invest more in the people positioned to help high school graduates navigate a complex world of school and work options.
Parents need to learn about potential career options available to their children. Too many parents think the only paths to success are becoming a doctor or lawyer. They need to open their eyes to other possibilities. Teachers and high school counselors aware of good STEM opportunities can help guide their children. Visits to local companies and technical training providers can provide glimpses of even more options.
Everyone involved in a child’s life must have high expectations and not limit young people. When Anne was a high school calculus teacher at an urban school in Houston, she told the mother of one of her best students that her son should go into engineering. The mother told Anne she wanted a real estate career for her son because she didn’t want him to be disappointed when he failed at engineering. This young man overcame his mother’s fears and is now supporting his family as a successful mechanical engineer.
The lesson here: Children respond to how adults treat them. They will succeed when their teachers, counselors and parents support, encourage and push them to do better than they ever thought they could do. The young adults who spoke at the Rice University School Mathematics Project’s recent spring conference are proof of this. They told us how they left high school without a clear plan but thankfully found their way into STEM fields, which were more accessible than they thought.
Colton, one of these young adults, said he was terrible at math in high school. After a series of dead-end jobs, he started looking for a real career. Pipefitting seemed within reach — except for the math. But a union local helped him quickly learn enough algebra and geometry to get work. He’s now an HVAC pipefitter working on major construction projects and proud of what he has been able to accomplish.
This story is anecdotal, but there are data to suggest that learners like Colton can find success in STEM careers even if they don’t go straight from high school to college and even if they did not have good K-12 math and science experiences. The Rice University School Mathematics Project recently published a study of the efficacy of The College of Health Care Professions in preparing Hispanic students for jobs in allied health fields. This Houston-based institution serves a large population of Hispanic and first-generation students and students 23 and older. Many CHCP are economically disadvantaged, single parents or working multiple jobs.
Between 2012 and 2018, according to our study, nearly 80 percent of CHCP’s Hispanic students graduated from certificate and associate’s programs–a rate much higher than state and national averages. Even better, 80 percent of graduates landed jobs in their fields of study. We were also encouraged to see first-generation college graduates placed in jobs at the same rate. This is a good example of how colleges can use stackable, flexible programs and wraparound services to help learners access careers based on math and science.
Children and college students don’t come to school to fail. They come to learn. What has happened–and why they miss out on good STEM careers–is that many educators fail to teach them. Many don’t advise or support them or know how to guide them or connect with them.
But when all students are held to high standards, supported throughout their educational journeys and directed toward the many science and technology opportunities that don’t require learning high-level math, they might find that STEM careers are more possible than they might think.
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