Is College Right for My Kid? 6 Questions to Find Out

Is College Right for My Kid? 6 Questions to Find Out

When new school years begin, many young people are heading to our nation’s college campuses to prepare for the future. Their high school years are over and it’s time to open a new chapter. But is college the right choice for every student?

America’s college-centric narrative has long taught us that going off to college is the best way to ensure a good career and life. If you get a degree, you’ll get a high-paying job — so goes the story. Generally speaking, it used to be true. And while many good careers still do require a degree, the employment world has changed dramatically. 

report by NCCER states the 1:2:7 ratio: “Only one job out of ten requires a master’s degree or higher. Two out of ten need a bachelor’s degree. And the remaining seven? These only need an associate degree, certification, craft training or credential.”

This means that a vast number of viable, living-wage positions in rapidly evolving fields like aviation, engineering, healthcare, advanced manufacturing, agriculture, transportation and more are now considered “middle-skilled.” They require specialized technical competence, represented by an industry certification or credential, rather than a college degree. 

It’s becomingly increasingly clear: a traditional college education is no longer the only right choice. 

What to Consider When Evaluating Career Paths

Determining the right postsecondary pathway is often a decision that parents and young people make together. There are many factors to consider as you converse with your student. The goal is to keep an open mind about all pathways and ultimately empower the young person to make a confident decision. 

Here are some constructive questions to ask as you approach the college and career topic: 

1. How early can we start career exploration? It’s great to start in high school, but it’s even better to start sooner if possible. Earlier career exploration during middle school lays the foundation for a focused postsecondary pathway. Parents and school districts should work together to facilitate a robust career exploration and planning environment, where thinking about and planning for the future is a normal part of the learning experience. 

2. Is college the only way to win? College can be a great choice for some, but there are new downsides that should be considered. College debt is one of them; it currently totals more than $1 trillion among 19- to 29-year-old Americans, and tops the list of many graduates’ regrets. Another downside is the possibility of underemployment. Some 43 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed. Additionally, just 58 percent of students at two- and four-year schools actually complete their program of study within six years.

3. What other postsecondary pathways are out there? We all have an awareness gap to some extent when it comes to the training opportunities and careers across industries. Often, we just don’t know what we don’t know — and our kids are no different. How can they make the best investment in their future if they don’t have all the information? Start with an online search to explore the possibilities and help them make an informed decision. 

4. How can young people broaden their educational and career experiences? Today’s younger generations have a simple mantra: Experience is everything. New and exciting experiences that deepen their enjoyment of life are their goal. Parents and educators can capitalize on this trait by making career exploration as experiential as possible. Let young people see, taste, touch, smell and hear as much as they can in the fields that interest them. A strong career exploration process helps young people learn not just about the career, but also about themselves and their strengths, talents and interests.

5. Does this have to be a high-pressure, lifelong decision? The short answer is “no.” We should encourage young people to pick a career direction in high school, with full freedom to change their mind at any time. This is the “for-now” decision strategy, designed to help students move productively toward their future without feeling locked into a lifelong decision. Making an irrevocable choice can create anxiety, but reframing it as a “for-now” decision can take the pressure off as they move in a positive direction. 

6. If it’s not just college anymore, what’s the real competitive advantage today? Academic and technical skills are no longer enough. Young people must combine these abilities with valuable professional skills. In a Wall Street Journal survey of more than 900 executives, 89 percent stated they have a very or somewhat difficult time finding hires who possessed soft (or professional) skills. Professional skills include communication, confidence, leadership, flexibility, integrity, critical thinking, stress management and many more. Candidates who combine professional skills with strong academic knowledge and valuable hard skills are in high demand.

For those who go to college with a clear purpose to enter a viable profession once they graduate, the university pathway can be a great choice. However, there are high-paying, high-demand careers in many fields that don’t require college, but rather specialized training, an industry credential, licensure, apprenticeship completion and other industry-specific training. 

It’s time to rethink our well-intentioned college-for-all mindset. So many young people would excel in alternative pathways, and your child might be one of them. The college-centric narrative will change when we embrace the value of all postsecondary pathways – and teach the next generation to do the same. 

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  • August 12, 2021