For too long, high school students have been led to believe that upon graduating, they’ll reach a distinct fork in the road.
To the right, there’s the path to a four-year degree. And to the left, is…everything else.
We know that pursuing four years of college after high school is not the only way for people to build career-ready skills. So…why does that one pathway still get so much praise — while every other pathway is lumped together as the “alternative”?
And why are so many people still struggling to break through the “paper ceiling,” where — despite having in-demand skills and experience — their career advancement is blocked or hindered by the lack of a four-year degree?
At Roadtrip Nation, we’ve spent the last 20-plus years talking to people who have found work that supports their vision and goals for their lives. People like acclaimed photographer Atiba Jefferson, who got his start by job shadowing sports photographers after high school, rather than attending an expensive arts school.
And Ricoh’s Kamillya Little, who doesn’t have a four-year degree, but earned multiple IT certifications — for free! — through a workforce development program and now works as an IT specialist.
And Addison Tweedy, who told us her college degree was valuable, but it was actually an entry-level job at Taco Bell that taught her the skills needed to handle major clients in the film industry.
Their stories — and many more — have shown us that there’s certainly not one “best” pathway into fulfilling work. There are endless paths to take, experiences to have, and skills to build — all depending on who you are, and what you want out of your work and your life.
But that “fork in the road” narrative is a pervasive one — and to shift that narrative, it’s going to take buy-in from all different groups and stakeholders.
So today, we’re diving into some small changes we can all make to help encourage career seekers and learners to explore more paths, in order to ultimately pursue the path that’s best for them — whether that’s an apprenticeship, a certification, a four-year degree, or any number of other paths.
Tips for educators, counselors, parents, and guardians
In a 2020 EdWeek study, researchers found that a significant number of students said their decision to attend college was motivated by external factors not internal goals. “[Students] choose college because it is a socially acceptable answer to what they are doing next.”
That doesn’t mean that college is a bad choice — but it does mean trying to fit everyone into the “college” box isn’t working. The same study reported that 74 percent of those who attended college to “do what was expected of them” eventually dropped out or transferred to another school.
So for those of us in a position to influence young people, it’s important to be aware of our biases and blind spots, and think outside of that box — encouraging a more expansive approach to career exploration.
You can familiarize yourself with local training and work-based learning options beyond college, especially ones connected to the subject you teach. Then, when a student excels in your class, you can point them toward these different paths. Going to college and majoring in your subject could turn out to be the best option for them — but if they’re exposed to more pathways, they’ll have more agency to make an informed choice about their future.
You know students need to see who and what they can be — so if a student isn’t sure that college is right for them, tell them about recent graduates who took other paths! For many students, college still feels like the “safe” route into a career, while other paths feel more risky — so seeing someone who’s been in their shoes take an alternate path might make that route seem less scary.
And try to stay mindful of things like “college decision day” celebrations — think of ways to include and celebrate students who are taking other pathways, too, to emphasize that every path has value!
For parents and guardians:
If you care for a high school student, try to remember that in today’s world, their next step isn’t an end-all, be-all, make-or-break thing that’s going to decide the rest of their life. Thriving in today’s workforce is all about lifelong learning — upskilling as you go, rather than front-loading all of your education into the years following high school.
So while school is essential and important, the skills they build outside of the classroom will help them succeed in the long-term, too. Things like socializing with friends, participating in clubs, and pursuing after-school work or training experiences can help them explore their interests AND teach them the power skills they need to become a lifelong learner.
Plus, when we give young people agency to explore their interests, career possibilities start to open up to them. And when they develop a goal or a vision for their future, they’re more inclined to choose the path that can best get them there — not just the path they’ve heard is best.
Tips for employers
Employers have often expressed that the things they want most out of their employees are skills like communication, customer service, and leadership.
These aren’t the kinds of skills you need to learn within a college environment, but rather, skills that can be built through lived experiences — say, while participating in team sports, or advocating for a sick family member.
The problem is, when it comes to hiring, it’s much easier to trust the things we can see on paper. And degrees, certificates, and work experience have natural spots on a resume — while skills like communication and leadership are often left off because they feel more open to interpretation.
Luckily, the skills-based hiring revolution is here — and if you haven’t yet hopped on that train, campaigns like Tear the Paper Ceiling offer great resources for employers who want to expand their talent pool, conduct their hiring process in a more equitable way, and help their employees upskill.
What’s our hope in expanding the conversation around different pathways and different ways to build career-ready skills? That someday, students won’t believe that their only options are the college pathway, or…the “alternative” pathway.
Because they’re ALL valuable pathways — and there’s a person out there whose experiences, interests, and skills are best suited for each and every single path.
If you know someone who didn’t take the college route, but is feeling like their career is being hindered by their lack of a degree, we encourage you to point them toward our Redefining Skills Roadtrip! This life-changing experience will show them paths into careers where they can grow and use their skills — no four-year degree required. Applications close July 2, 2023.