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College For All?

These days, as commentators aplenty bemoan the achievement gap between the United States and other developed countries (not to mention the gaps between groups within the United States), it has become popular to suggest all students should go to college. In some circles, it has become almost heretical to suggest otherwise.

Yet if the United States is truly to “win the future,” as President Obama encourages, it will be necessary to do with skilled craftspeople as well as resident scholars. In other words, at a certain point a 4-year college is not for everyone, and in this era of budget cuts to education it is critical to maintain community colleges as well as vocational and non-academic post-secondary programming options.

As the director of a college prep program that works within a public high school, I’m certainly a cheerleader for the benefits of college. Our program works with students from the ninth grade on to familiarize their families and them with the college process and to make well-informed, high-quality decisions on where to apply and matriculate.

Even so, a few months ago I decided to create an option for a dozen seniors who are uninterested in or unsure about attending college in the fall. Instead of participating in a 90-minute weekly class led by our college counselor that readies students to transition into college, these students, about 20 percent of their class, choose to attend a workshop with our career counselor to learn about a variety of post-secondary options.

Don’t get me wrong — college is still on the table for these students, whether for right after graduation or sometime thereafter. But so is a career as an auto mechanic, or nurse, or computer technician, or carpenter.

My decision to create this alternative, known as Pathways, proved controversial in certain quarters of the school, which seemed to equate it with giving up on these kids.

Rather than giving up on these students, my decision to create Pathways is intended to put them in better position for the future. A recent study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education found students need more diverse options — just 30 percent of young adults have a bachelor’s degree by age 27.

Our high school has had five graduating classes, and the most students we have ever had matriculate to college in the fall following graduation is roughly 70 percent. Some of our students choose to matriculate later, but about 20 percent of our graduates have never opted to attend college.

The majority of those students who do matriculate end up in remedial classes; many never graduate yet end up in debt nonetheless.

Until we — as a school and college prep program — start to educate and prepare our students better, these figures are not likely to change. So I felt responsible to acknowledge the reality of our seniors’ preparation and preferences. I listened to the students, who expressed a desire to find a job, join the military or do anything besides college.

Of course, desiring employment or enlistment is far different from knowing what to do to achieve those ends. In one-on-one interviews with our Pathways students, we learned they are largely unaware of what they need to do to access a sustainable job and career. One student wanted to go into business; when we asked what kind of business, he said business, unaware of the myriad options. Another student wanted to go into the military until she had a falling out with the recruiting officer. Few had resumes ready.

So our career counselor, in partnership with a 12th-grade teacher, has embarked on a five-month plan to prepare the students as much as possible for the world of work. They will make those resumes, create professional e-mail addresses, shadow people on the job, apply for jobs and internships and endure mock interviews, among many other tasks. When college acceptances arrive, those who applied will get assistance in considering the possibilities and making a well-informed decision.

Some high schools boast of 100 percent acceptance rates and similarly high matriculation rates. While I certainly believe in the virtues of a college education and experience, I do not think college is a one-size-fits-all solution. Perhaps it is a worthwhile goal for all students upon birth and through elementary and middle school. In high school, however, especially with seniors who have not been adequately prepared, I believe it is incumbent upon adults to listen to the students and their families and facilitate well-informed decisions based on the facts at hand.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.