WE’RE PROGRAMMED to believe that a four-year college degree is the only path to success. After spending several years on both a small-town school board and an economic development board, I saw the disservice that this belief is doing to many of our students.
Students and their parents are led to believe that everyone is taking a college prep curriculum in high school. There are indeed students who are actually preparing for college. Then there are many more students who think they’re preparing for college, although they have little chance of succeeding there.
The statistics are bleak. Getting into college is relatively easy. It’s much harder to earn a degree in four years in a field that has good job prospects. Fully 40% of students entering a four-year college fail to graduate within six years. Half of those who do graduate never use their college major in their careers. Both groups risk running up so much student debt that it hobbles their start in life.
In most areas of lending, the borrower is expected to put up collateral. Not so with student loans. It’s hard not to qualify. The collateral being offered is the student’s future earnings—an intangible. It’s left to the borrower, not the bank, to determine if that’s a good risk. What are the student’s prospects of graduating? In how many years? With what major? Unfortunately, many families never answer these questions before borrowing, only to discover later that they can’t repay their loans on time.
College isn’t for everyone, but teenagers often tell adults what they want to hear. “Are you planning to go to college?” Kids can sense that the desired answer is, “Yes.” Parents should take a more active role in gauging their children’s career prospects.
It begins in elementary school when students are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The answers begin at the fantasy level: “I want to be an astronaut” or “I want to be a professional baseball player.” By middle school, students should be exposed to a variety of possible careers, and discuss what those jobs entail and how to prepare. Early in high school, students should broadly identify their interests. “I want to work with people” is a good insight. So is, “I am better with my hands than I am in English class.”
The transition to high school coursework signals whether a child is college material. Does the student excel in the key academic subjects of freshman math and English? Grades in high school are the best predictor of grades in college.
Tenth grade is the turning point. Are students enjoying and demonstrating an aptitude for academic subjects? Have they explored career options and identified goals that require a college education? Do they read for pleasure—and I mean something other than their cellphone screen? How strong is their performance on standardized tests versus their peers?
If grades, test scores and personal insights indicate a student might not succeed in college, it’s time for a plan B. Career prep work should accelerate, focusing on job shadowing and part-time work. Just having a high school diploma doesn’t count for much. Certificates, test-based credentials, military training, skilled-trade apprenticeships, on-the-job training and associate degrees are all good preparation for a career.
For the college-bound, 11th and 12th grade should bring increasingly specific career preparation activities. Do students have a goal for college? Are they using work or volunteer hours to refine their career choice? Can they read and comprehend 200 pages of challenging material a week? Eleventh grade is also the year for the PSAT, the preliminary standard aptitude test. College-bound students should score well above the minimum required for college entrance. Advanced placement courses and college courses offered through the high school can demonstrate if they’re capable of college-level material.
Then there are intangible factors to assess, including maturity, grit and goals. A goal-oriented student who has the maturity and persistence to overcome a lack of academic preparation may be a better bet than the academically solid high-schooler who lacks goals or the maturity to succeed.
As I’ve discussed my ideas with others, I get pushback. I hear stories of students who struggled in high school and went on to be a success in college and beyond. The opposite occurs, too. A student who is expected to be a college success drops out instead. Judging anecdotal examples is difficult. You have to weigh the odds. If the odds are stacked against college success, create a plan B for your child. The savings in time—and money—can pave the way for a solid economic future.
Howard Rohleder, a former chief executive of a community hospital, retired early after more than 30 years in hospital administration. His previous articles were Helping Mom and Dad and After the Birth. In retirement, Howard enjoys serving on several nonprofit boards, exploring walking paths with his wife Susan, and visiting their six grandchildren. A little-known fact: In May 1994, he was featured—along with five others—on the cover of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance for an article titled “Secrets of My Investment Success.”