Today’s teenagers, particularly in the wake of COVID-19, face an increasingly difficult choice: what to do next. Four-year college is, and has been for many generations, touted as the path to a successful career and a stable adult life. However today’s teenagers are living under a new paradigm in which the cost/benefit analysis is not as simple as it perhaps once was. Prospective college students today face rising tuition (with no end in sight), questionable return-on-investment, increasingly limited job prospects, as well as complicated economic circumstances. All of this means that, for too many students, a four-year college degree is not necessarily a safe bet, if it ever was. Four-year college, in and of itself, isn’t the problem. But education for education’s sake, frankly, isn’t cutting it, and the college years are just too expensive to be used as a testing ground. The problem is this: young people don’t necessarily understand what else is out there. Students as young as middle school-age need a better understanding of their options and they need to know how to connect their interests and aptitudes to a real career path.
It’s not that college is a bad choice. It is, however, the case that too many people head down the four-year college path without understanding how it does or doesn’t connect to a career path. Parental pressure, simply thinking college has to be the “next step”, social stigma around alternatives, and not wanting to be seen as a failure are definitely the wrong motivators to attend four-year college. Nonetheless, those are some of the reasons that young people cite for going, even when that desire is incongruous with their own desires and abilities.
COVID-19 is certainly adding to the stress, but it’s also calling into question the old way of thinking about life after high school. Many students who were pretty certain that college was next for them are now changing their plans and looking for alternatives. Job offers and internships are being cancelled or moved online. Families are living with more stress, more uncertainty and a heavier burden on their shoulders at a time when jobs are being cut and kids going back to school in the fall may or may not happen. Everyone is being asked to do more with less at a time when nothing is a given. But all is not lost. Young people must be helped to understand that even though the future is uncertain, there can and will still be a future.
No college can be an OK choice….as long as it’s part of a PLAN
It’s important that educators and parents really listen to young people, take the time to understand their needs and goals, and then help them build a viable and crisis-proof plan. (Because not having ANY plan is arguably far worse than picking the wrong path.) Here are a few suggestions from our white paper for helping teenagers understand and plan for a future that’s inclusive of their needs, aptitudes and goals, no matter what else is happening in the world:
We can help them future-proof their skillset. Some skills are pure gold, regardless of what path a person takes and where they end up working. Adaptability, financial literacy, foresight and planning, communication, the ability to collaborate, and creativity can help a young person thrive in any arena and can also help them safeguard against some of the uncertainty in the world. Promoting these skills and allowing students to put them into practice whenever possible, will give any middle or high schooler a jump start on preparing for the working world.
We can promote a balanced view of “self.” There’s a Japanese mindset known as Ikigai (pronounced “eye-ka-guy”) that promotes the idea that all of us should strive to find the intersection of what we’re good at, what we love, what we can be paid to do, and what society needs. Asking young people to think about their future in these terms can go a long way to reducing existential angst and can be a real clarifier for those teens who feel ambivalent or uncertain about their own goals and plans.
We can promote discovery and exploration. This can’t be overstated. Young people need to be allowed to experiment and explore well before they leave high school. They need exposure to a wide range of available options, and they need to have regular conversations with adults and peers about what the “real world” looks and feels like. What’s more, they need to understand that any option can be the “best” choice for them, as long as it’s well thought-out. Our mobile-friendly, personalized insights platform ASA Futurescape can help students better understand how their unique skills can connect to future paths.
We can reach them earlier. Starting the exploration process in middle school, not high school, gives young people the best chance to make highly informed short- and long-term decisions that work best for them. Career exploration and self-discovery should be social, fun, ongoing, and in-tune with reality and the world around them.
We’re working hard to understand the career pathways available to young people, and to advocate for earlier and better career exploration and self-discovery. Read our full white paper on this topic to learn more about the non-college options available to young people, and to see the data behind these and other recommendations we make.