An editorial I read recently put a much-needed spotlight on the variety of available career pathways for young people to pursue after high school, alternatives to traditional four-year college degrees. With the creation of new apprenticeship programs like Career Connect Washington, the state to its credit has made critical investments in providing our next generation workforce with the skills needed to succeed professionally. Yes, we must raise awareness about these programs but that alone isn’t going to solve some of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of helping young people get and stay on a path to self-discovery.
Once viewed as a traditional rite of passage for high school graduates, many students today are realizing that a four-year college degree may not be for them. One survey found that interest among high school students attending a four-year school plummeted in the last year and a half, down 23 points from 71% to 48%. Even with a return to in-person learning, the latest enrollment numbers show undergraduate college enrollment dropping nearly 8% since the fall of 2019. There are a number of factors contributing to this downward trend, including more employment opportunities available for teenagers brought on by pandemic-induced worker shortages and of course the obvious: today’s insanely high cost of higher education.
Outside of these factors, students today have a number of ways to help fulfill their career aspirations. It could be a technical/trade school, a community college, the military, or the Peace Corps, to name a few. I think back to my own personal experience. My plan was to get a business degree and one day take over my father’s insurance business. Since attending the University of Washington was cost-prohibitive for me at the time, I instead opted for community college. There, I fell in love with science and biology, which has led to a 20-year career in education, both as a teacher and now as an administrator. While my situation wasn’t unique it is becoming more prevalent. But even with a rise in career learning, apprenticeship and other day-one, job-ready programs, “rising tides don’t raise all boats.” Washington is a case in point.
Right now, the greatest challenge facing Washington students is that the current 24 credit requirement to receive a high school diploma is very much geared toward four year-college bound students. And while there is some flexibility built into the credit structure, in order to graduate high school, all students must meet a graduation pathway and show proficiency in math and English Language Arts ( ELA).
Meeting math and ELA requirements can be achieved - either through testing (SBA, SAT, ACT), taking college-level courses, or passing Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses with high enough grades. These are high and oftentimes unattainable benchmarks, particularly for those who don’t test well. And, for the students who are not college-bound, the two remaining graduation pathway options require either passing the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) Test or completing the requirements to complete a Career and Technical Education (CTE) Course pathway. For students who qualify for Special Education, they are often only left with the ASVAB or CTE course options.
For students who choose the CTE course route, when they transfer schools, the credits they completed may not match the CTE sequences that are offered at the new school - adding complexity to meeting this requirement. That’s a huge impediment for students whose families are frequently in transition. The good news is the state board of education understands some of these inequities and is working to address them. One place they can start is by providing more flexibility in what is allowed in the CTE course sequences.
The other major career pathway challenge is the persistent digital equity gap. Some 800,000 Washingtonians don’t have a high-speed internet connection. This certainly created issues for students and educators during the pandemic lockdowns. Lack of online access is a particular issue for students living in remote areas, mobile home parks or apartment buildings where signal disruptions can be most pronounced. Governments and broadband service providers must continue to work in tandem to find solutions to a crisis that we have endured far too long. This is critical for students’ ability to leverage all that technology has to offer in expanding their horizons.
A four-year college degree can certainly be valuable. But many students today want and need more options to be credentialed and ready to be a part of today’s workforce, especially if four year-college is not the preferred route right after high school. If we can make high school graduation requirements more flexible while continuing to bridge the digital divide, then we can certainly do more to help young people find an easier way forward that is more in accord with their aspirations.
Myron Hammond is the Head of School at Insight School of Washington (ISWA), a program of the Quillayute Valley School District, powered by Stride K12, in Tacoma.
To learn more visit https://insightwa.k12.com.