This year, student debt climbed higher than credit card debt in the U.S. Though the recession has encouraged more people to pursue higher education, it doesn’t mean that we have more graduates. The Obama administration, along with the Gates and the Lumina Foundation, reacted to the low college graduation rates by vowing to make America the number one country for college graduates, according to Jeff Selingo in his article “On Students’ Paths to College, Some Detours Are Desirable.”
However, the primary method the country is using to see more grads is to encourage more students to jump on a college pathway in high school. The problem: we’ve set a quantitative goal for our students when we need to set a qualitative goal. Look at the students who are already leaving high school, getting a college degree, and walking into the workforce without the skills they need to land a job. It’s not about improving the number of students who are pushed through college; it’s about preparing them with valuable experiences that will mobilize them and the economy.
In his article, Jeff Selingo writes:
One of the best ways to improve completion rates and fill jobs is to make sure that students who go to college after high school are truly ready for it, or else channel them into alternatives that motivate them to go eventually, or give them needed skills for the workplace.
We often have the conversation about higher education not being for everyone, but we should also consider that the timing of higher education is not right for everyone. Many students who enter college right after high school don’t know why they are there. Entering college without any direction is an expensive way to discover the demands of higher education. Many undecided students will drop out after a semester when they see their financial aid dribbling away; change majors and increase their college debt; or stay in college for as long as they can so they can put off facing their undetermined future outside of school.
We need to change the stigma of “nontraditional” students (who make up 40% of all students and are quickly becoming the majority) by unlearning that the decision to go to college is black and white. Instead of asking students for a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ let’s give students the option to say ‘maybe later.’ If we want more students to enter college and graduate from college, they need to be introduced to the real-world and experience what the real world demands of them. Selingo suggests giving students this structured work experience their senior year in high school. Why wait? High school freshmen can get an internship, volunteer, or work a part-time job. A tech-savvy student can get community service hours by helping a nonprofit modernize their website.
There are endless experiences and connections students can make that will transform their perceptions of college and give them a career-oriented drive to graduate. Encourage the unsure student to take a year (or ten) off to get practical experience, gain transferable skills, and explore their independence in the real world. Whether students are in college or not, the most important step they can take is asking and answering how what they are learning is informing them about themselves, their options, and what they feel called to do in the world. No college or class alone can provide this information. It is the hard work of self – exploration and faith in the midst of the unknown that will allow the insights, connections, and answers to come.