High school graduates are less inclined to see college as their next step, with recent studies showing preference toward work-based learning or alternate pathways.
A January survey from ECMC Group found 35 percent of students do not believe education after high school is necessary, and 63 percent of teens are open to options other than a four-year degree. However, only 13 percent of students feel fully prepared to choose their path after high school.
A white paper from American Student Assistance and Jobs for the Future found opportunities for improved communication and visibility of nondegree options for learners to support career goals.
“We need a way to be able to align skills and interests of our young people with what the world needs,” ASA CEO Jean Eddy says.
The need: The rising cost of higher education presents challenges to high schoolers looking at opportunities after high school; many students and their families do not see a return on investment in paying for a college degree, Eddy says.
“Many Gen Z youth are looking for faster, more economical and more relevant on-ramps to meaningful jobs that offer life-sustaining wages and are aligned to their real interests,” the report says. Six in 10 surveyed teens (61 percent) said they have a career in mind right now.
Younger adults are looking for opportunities to learn and grow but do not want to “put their lives on hold for four years and accumulate life-changing debt in the process,” according to the report. The ECMC survey found 35 percent of teens believe their post–high school education should last two years or less.
Nondegree pathways—including certification programs, boot camps, apprenticeships and competency-based learning credentials—can be a solution, bridging employer needs with student interests.
Lighting the path: Colleges and universities can support nondegree pathway seekers by communicating available options for them outside of a traditional two- or four-year degree.
“As higher education struggles to redefine itself and attract applicants, there is a risk of an informational black hole emerging, impeding students’ ability to plan and prepare for their future careers along other pathways,” according to the report.
Growing Investment in Alternate Pathways
One model to consider is a partnership between Peirce College and Drexel University in Philadelphia, which offers adult learners the a chance to earn an online two-year degree while completing an in-person apprenticeship in a local hospital.
Among high school students who do not choose a nondegree pathway, a lack of information was a barrier to choosing an alternate pathway for 64 percent of them. Most students searched the web (87 percent) or watched online videos (81 percent) to learn more about available post–high school plans.
Most students who pursued a nondegree opportunity completed a certification (31 percent), certificate (33 percent) or competency-based license (20 percent).
The impact: Many institutions offer nondegree pathways for upskilling or reskilling, but addressing career development earlier, in middle or high school, can provide students with the confidence to pursue a degree or alternative opportunity.
“To me, if we do our jobs right, and help young people starting in middle school, there will not be so many people who are saying, ‘I need reskilling, retraining,’” Eddy says.
Participation in a nondegree pathway can promote well-being and career confidence among young people, according to ASA and JFF’s research.
Participants in nondegree pathways feel confident in their plans after high school, with 70 percent of this group reporting high confidence in their plans. Nearly all (90 percent) respondents are satisfied with their pathway as well.
Those who choose a nondegree pathway are more likely to be working part- or full-time (65 percent) while in their program, compared to their peers (51 percent).
Pathways can also expand a student’s social capital by providing a network of mentors and like-minded professionals who can further advance their career potential.
More community colleges are getting into alternative pathways, “and their voices are quite loud, which is good; there need to be bridges built between high schools and community colleges,” Eddy says.
External verification of pathways is the next phase, Eddy says. ASA is looking to create a marketplace of credential programs so students can shop for pathways that fit their needs and be assured of the quality of the program.
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