To students for whom going to college would be something they are doing primarily to satisfy someone else’s expectations for them or to get away from a bad circumstance, a four-year college is often not the right next step.
That’s the daunting conclusion for many in the education world that we reach in our new book, Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life.
Students who enrolled in college because they felt it was expected of them ended up dropping out or transferring 74 percent of the time, our research revealed. More than half of the students we interviewed who chose college to get away from something else in their lives had left the institution they were attending without a degree at the time we interviewed them.
In a world of low college tuition and low opportunity cost, that might be acceptable, but that is not today’s world.
Students who take out loans but don’t complete college are often worse off than if they had never enrolled in the first place. Americans in this camp have a tiny bump in wages over those with only a high school diploma, but both groups have the same unemployment rates. And the debt they assume — even if it sounds modest — is likely to require a significant chunk of their earnings to pay off.
For educators who have been pushing college for all, this can be a sobering conclusion. It’s also one on which some, particularly those serving low-income students, have pushed back.
In Choosing College, we tell the story of a low-income student named Juan, who enrolled in college because the ‘No Excuses’ charter school — a public charter school that does not accept any excuses for the achievement gap between poor minorities and their more affluent, white counterparts — he had attended said that he had to go to college, and had helped him every step of the way with his application and enrollment. He had no deeper reason than that.
But with his uncertainty about why he was enrolled, lack of purpose, considerable apathy around college, and the fact that he was the first in his family to attend college, Juan decided — when the experience created a significant financial toll on his family — to take action and drop out, to move to a new stage of his life. Although to many this might sound irresponsible because dropping out of college is seen as a “bad” outcome, it was arguably a responsible decision given that Juan was moving through the experience in an aimless fashion and racking up debt.
Educators working with students like Juan have asked what they should be doing instead. As Mike Goldstein, the founder of Match Charter Public Schools in Boston, summarized: “Many of our students are aimless, ‘broadly speaking’ — i.e., in the absence of being pushed toward choosing college, they will not do a coding academy or a technical training program, they’ll take a job at Chipotle. What is your advice for fairly aimless 17-year-olds from poor families?”
The underlying concern is that if high school can’t help them find a path of purpose, isn’t it still better to nudge students to a four-year college rather than have them continue to drift in jobs that don’t pay well for the rest of their lives?
It’s an important question to which there are no easy answers because our society has narrowed the set of acceptable steps after high school since the 1960s and 70s. But as a first step, let’s consider what educators ought to do.
One option is for charter schools to model what Match did and bring its schooling approach from the realm of K–12 to college. Match created Duet, a nonprofit that has partnered with Southern New Hampshire University’s online, competency-based College for America to offer a degree that is accessible and affordable, and that supports students with whatever it takes in its blended, on-the-ground experience. As students move toward graduation, Duet connects them to jobs in the Boston region. This level of support provides students what they need to complete a degree and find a job so they don’t go to college, accrue debt, waste time and drop out.
A second option is that educators could transform how they work with students in high school. A key takeaway from our research is that K–12 schools are not doing nearly enough to help students build passions and discover who they are.
Much as Big Picture Schools, Summit Public Schools, and the Cajon Valley Union School District do, schools could curate a set of opportunities for students to immerse themselves in a variety of workplace and community experiences to help them learn what they like and — perhaps more importantly — don’t like doing, their strengths and weaknesses, and a sense of how they want to contribute to the world.
Important in this work is to connect students to a variety of mentors to help them build their stock of social capital so they learn about a variety of pathways and discover why further education will be valuable to them.
Working with providers like Project Wayfinder, IDEO Purpose Project and nXu can also aid in the discovery of purpose. Creating an overly narrow program focused primarily on academics that doesn’t intentionally help students build their passions and see the connection to more education, however, is a mistake.
Finally, in the absence of successfully doing either of the above steps, K-12 educators can help curate what we call a ‘discovery year’ — a gap year after high school in which students learn about themselves and build passions through a series of experiences, from jobs to apprenticeships and from short courses of study to internships, travel and volunteer opportunities.
If educators take this path, there are two lessons to remember.
First, the school must ensure that its graduates earn money through the experience so that it is more affordable than choosing college. Students can earn money by working, but schools can also help by raising money for scholarships or developing partnerships with colleges and philanthropies that offer financial aid to cover the costs of travel and living.
Second, educators must make sure that students who take a discovery year have a clear plan in place that is time-bound. In the absence of guardrails, it’s easy for a gap year in a low-wage job with limited pathways to stretch on without end. Despite the research that shows the benefits of a gap year, other research suggests that low-income students who take time off may struggle to get back onto a college track for a variety of reasons — which means that bounding the discovery year experience is critical.
Educators must ultimately remember that no two students are the same, and that although averages can provide some helpful guidance, they can also mislead. No student is average, as each comes from different circumstances and has different needs, priorities and motivations. The ultimate success will come when we can help each student build her passions and chart her own future into a productive pathway that is right for her.
This story about education pathways was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.
Michael Horn is co-author of Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life, head of strategy for the Entangled Group and a senior partner for Entangled Solutions. He is also the co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.
Bob Moesta is co-author of Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life, co-founder and president of the ReWired Group and a fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.