Economic data makes it pretty clear that most people would benefit from learning or training beyond 12th grade. It’s less obvious what form that study should take, and whether the solution is the same for everyone.
Not every worker needs a bachelor’s degree to make a decent wage, and not every bachelor’s degree benefits every worker. There are strong employment opportunities in health care, the skilled trades and the technology and energy sectors, sometimes called “middle-skill” or “new-collar” jobs, that don’t require a four-year credential.
But economist Anthony Carnevale says that a bachelor’s degree remains “the degree for the advantage. It gives you more adaptability.”
Even so, the rising cost of college has led some politicians, employers and educators to champion job-training programs instead of college. The idea is that young people who can’t afford tuition should take more “practical”—cheaper, faster, easier—paths to adulthood.
But are young people really motivated mostly by matters of money and efficiency?
Teenagers are in a unique developmental stage—adolescence—that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine describes as “a remarkable transformation between puberty and the mid-20s that underpins amazing advances in learning and creativity.”
Psychology research shows that adolescents are busy thinking about new activities and passions, defining their identities, exploring the world, establishing new social relationships and developing autonomy. They may aspire to support their families—like Alan Farfan of Austin, Texas, who hopes for a stable technology job. Or they may crave the opportunity to experiment—like Efiotu Jagun of Durham, North Carolina, who wants to meet new people, conduct research and explore a variety of academic interests in college. And because teenagers tend to have a high optimism bias, which means they predict positive outcomes for themselves regardless of the actual probability at play, they believe these goals are within reach.
It’s age-appropriate for teenagers to take risks and push boundaries. This behavior is often baked into the college experience. Rarely, however, does an adolescent who is not enrolled in college get the same opportunity to experiment—or the same forgiveness for failing.
Hunger, violence and discrimination are just some of the hurdles blocking the paths for young people as they leave high school.
Teenagers are aware that not everyone who tries college or job training succeeds, and it makes them worry about their own futures. Some suspect that they will have financial struggles, while others wonder about possible character flaws, worrying that they lack the grit, the motivation or the intelligence it seems to take to get to where they want to go.
These fears are reinforced when young people see their siblings, cousins and friends enroll in colleges that aren’t designed to support them—and stop out before finishing. For some students, the uncertainty is so great that college feels less like a smart investment and more like a foolish gamble.
But conversations with teenagers and survey data from them reveals that even those afraid about their food security, housing stability or legal status don’t simply want cheaper, faster, easier ways to find jobs that are “good enough.” Just like their wealthier, more secure peers, students who struggle are driven by their hopes.
This means that the false choice about what to do after high school—between opportunities that point to personal growth or to a decent paycheck—isn’t serving young people well.
Even as young people exercise more autonomy, they remain invested in and influenced by the important people in their lives. Parents rank high on that list. Older siblings and cousins are big influences, too.
Students say they also seek advice from their teachers and school counselors. This gives educators the chance to clue students into career and higher education options they might not hear about at home.
Yet students may shut out adults who seem more focused on pushing a particular message than on truly listening. And if students aren’t talking to trusted adults, they’re going to get information elsewhere—from websites, social media and YouTube videos of varying reliability.
Vernell Cheneau III of New Orleans is a teenager who decided that a college education was not a smart investment. Few members of his family went to college, and those who did didn’t all graduate or end up finding work related to what they studied. When he asks folks why they want to go to college, he’s not impressed with what he hears.
“People can’t tell me what they’re going to college for. But they put themselves in thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars of debt—that doesn’t sound like it makes any sense,” Vernell says. “That’s like buying a car and not knowing how to drive.”
So instead of going to college, Vernell accepted a job offer he received through a workforce fellowship that he completed in high school. Read more here.
In contrast, Princesa Ceballos of Porterville, California, aspires to a career in agriculture and environmental science. To get there, she wants to earn a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and then a doctorate.
She’s inspired by her two older brothers, who were the first members of her family to graduate from college. She wants to become an inspiration for the next generation.
“Especially being a woman in, possibly, a STEM field, I think I want to be able to motivate others—once I do graduate—younger than me to pursue those types of careers,” Princesa says. Read more here.
Some students who hope to go to college can’t afford it or don’t graduate. Other students who hope to join the workforce right away choose jobs that won’t pay their bills, like working in restaurants or hair salons.
So school leaders in Baltimore redesigned the college-and-career-readiness curriculum to identify professions that pay workers enough to live on. Then they prioritized teaching students about the pathways that lead to those jobs.
In this new model, a living wage became a precondition for each conversation and lesson, a guardrail intended to deter students from straying into options that might exploit them.
“I can make the adult decision—the system’s decision—to take that off the table for a young person,” says Rachel Pfeifer, executive director of college and career readiness for Baltimore City Public Schools, “and give them the space to do the dreaming without the worry about the dollars and cents.”