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College or Plan B?

Howard Rohleder

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.

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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.”

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Chris Sciora
Chris Sciora
11 days ago

The overall statistic is correct, but graduation rates are far lower for open admission schools and not particularly selective for-profit schools. Only about 1/4 – 1/3 of the students receive a degree in six years from those institutions. Clearly, many unprepared and unqualified students are being shoveled into degree earning programs that shouldn’t be there.

There’s no end of suggestions to fix the problems, but my two favorites always come down to money. Eliminate all co-signers on loans and allow student loan discharge in bankruptcy. After those offending schools start eating half of the tuition dollars being billed, they will magically start finding ways of properly identifying students who should be enrolled in the first place.

kristinehayes2014
kristinehayes2014
17 days ago

I’m beginning to think the next economic crisis will be due to a lack of skilled tradespeople. Trillion dollar infrastructure bills sound great until you realize you don’t have enough people to actually do the work. The vast number of people I hire to do skilled repair work at the college are my age (54) or older. They can’t find young people to train and ultimately replace them when they retire. I’ve said it before, but if you think electricians and plumbers are expensive now, just wait ten years…

parkslope
parkslope
17 days ago

The exacerbation of the skilled jobs shortage over the past year is beginning to spur much-needed steps to address this problem. Here in the Raleigh-Durham area, the skilled jobs shortage has resulted in waiting lists for training programs at the community colleges as well as the development of new programs to meet the needs of local businesses.

However, it will likely take quite some time before things get noticeably better. While the trades are understandably getting attention, the nursing shortage is a full-blown crisis and teachers may not be far behind (school just started here with only 501 of the 1,063 substitute teacher positions filled).

Last edited 17 days ago by parkslope
R Quinn
R Quinn
17 days ago

I agree 100% The entire concept of college and how it is applied needs to be assessed. For many it is a waste of time and money. Many students are not prepared or motivated. I paid for four children at private colleges, not one is using their degrees and three with masters in their work.

We would be better overall in strengthening high school so more students are better prepared for college or skilled jobs.

jerry pinkard
jerry pinkard
17 days ago

I was a C student in high school and had a 3.9 GPA in college in Accounting. However, I got my degree when I was 32. I am sure if I had gone to college straight out of high school the results would not have been the same. I believe there are a lot students like that who do not apply themselves in HS and get serious when they go to college.

My second point is that we have a serious shortage of trades people: electricians, plumbers, HVAC techs, etc. Many of these trades people will out earn a lot of college graduates and enjoy their work better. There needs to be more emphasis in HS’s on the trades. This is a good career option for many, especially those who like to work with their hands.

Jeff Long
Jeff Long
17 days ago
Reply to  jerry pinkard

Jerry, my path was very similar to yours. C’s and B’s in high school. I went to college out of high school, but was not mature enough, and flunked out after a year and a half. I drove a forklift for 7 years and joined the National Guard and went through OCS. I went to night school, got married and started a family. I decided I had no future driving a forklift and decided I liked accounting. I quit my job, sold our house and moved 150 miles to finish college. I got my Accounting degree with a high GPA. I say I had incentive and desire to do that. I passed the exam and worked for firms then opened my own. I do like to work with my hands and have worked on my cars and remodeled/repaired our homes. I agree we have a serious shortage of skilled trades people.

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