More students want to skip college. Are schools prepared to help them?

Laura Pappano
The Hechinger Report

WINTHROP, Wash. — When the afternoon bell rang, Autumn Edwards, a high school senior in the Methow Valley, rushed out of class to her 1997 Ford F-150 pickup truck — and to her job at a ranch.

She was tasked with slaughtering a sheep and a goat, then gutting them. The day had begun with barn chores. The weekend before, she had skinned 12 pigs. “If there was no school, I would work from morning until evening,” said Edwards. Her goal? To own a ranch (she’s designed a logo) and a million acres.

This young woman from the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains, with her scuffed cowboy boots and her striking confidence, is plenty ambitious. Yet ask her about college and she is clear: “I don’t plan on it.”  What’s more, Beth Anderson, college and career adviser for the Methow Valley district, is not pushing it.

Autumn Edwards, a high school senior in the Methow Valley, in Washington State, takes apart a chainsaw to do maintenance at Lookout Mountain Ranch. She hopes to own a ranch someday.

Many high schools like to promote their percentage of graduates who are college-bound, said Anderson. That's not a barometer of success, she argues. It's more about “sending students off to the next institution” than helping them work through individual needs, skills and desires.

For teens across the country — many of them burned out, confused or newly questioning long-held plans — the debate over what "success" looks like is coming alive. It is unfolding amid scrutiny of the cost and value of a college degree and the multiplying options for alternative training.

The march to college is getting pandemic-adjusted. More students are taking gap years. Others feel they “don’t need college to be successful,” or don’t want to go until they know what to study, said Marguerite Ohrtman, director of school counseling and clinical training at the University of Minnesota. Some have lost ground academically. Others have earned certifications and want to use them. The pandemic has also driven some students to work more hours at jobs, earning money that remains critical to families.

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“There are students who frankly are not ready to go to college and pay thousands of dollars” or take out hefty loans, said Ohrtman. Yet, she said, “there is still a push from school leaders that, ‘We want 100% of our students to apply to college.’ ”

The situation has school counselors feeling stuck, said Mandy Savitz-Romer, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

“We celebrate kids who get into college; we do not celebrate students who choose work,” said Savitz-Romer. “We can’t just now pivot to choosing careers,” she said, without giving counselors time and support to have those conversations with students. Many are responsible for scores or even hundreds of students.

The college-for-all push, originally a response to criticism that counselors were the gatekeepers to college access, was embraced more than a decade ago. Now, it may be overshadowing the complex needs of teens.

“What happened is we jumped to this place of helping students apply to college and skipped over the entire exploration process ­— ‘What do I want to do?’ ” Savitz-Romer said. “There is no process of discovery. It is, ‘Here, apply to college.’ ”

Autumn Edwards, a high school senior in the Methow Valley, in Washington State, rebuilds a pole gate. She hopes to own a ranch someday, and plans to skip college.

Students are pushing back. Early data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows college enrollments down this fall for the second year in a row. Earlier this year, a survey of teens by the ECMC Group and VICE Media found more than half believed they could be successful without a four-year college degree. (The ECMC Foundation, an affiliate of the ECMC Group, is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

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A report in October by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University found more education generally yields higher earnings — but not always.

The report shows that 37% of workers with a high school diploma have higher earnings than half of those with some college. What subjects people study, what fields they enter, even geography — all matter in determining income, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the center and a co-author of the report.

A key factor that is little discussed, said Carnevale, is how well suited a person is to a job. “It is all about the match,” he said. “Where people are successful and have good earnings, it has to do with their own personal work interests and personality.”

That idea — finding what someone is good at and enjoys — is shaking up the adult labor market. (A record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September.)  The pandemic also shuffled students’ perspectives, said Jill Cook, executive director of the American School Counselor Association. Disruptions to school routines led students to more work and community experiences, she said. And all the news about people changing jobs led them to ask, “What is a good fit? What is bringing them joy and making them happy?”

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'The journey is a lot longer' to find a career

At Osseo Senior High School, about 30 minutes northwest of Minneapolis, senior Dayo Onanuga joined several other students in a beige-wallpapered conference room and shared that she had long planned to be a surgeon.

But a year of online school changed that. “I was burned out from the pandemic,” she said. Onanuga reasoned that if her energy was flagging now, “I probably cannot manage surgery” and years of training. Rather than give up the field, she is now considering health care administration.

Dayo Onanuga, a senior at Osseo Senior High School, said the pandemic has changed her career plans and made her more independent.

As it did for many students, the pandemic also forced Onanuga to manage her time and become more independent. She now worries less about what others think of her choices or how she reaches her goals. “I kind of stopped caring about permission,” she said. “At the end of the day, nobody else is going to work this job until retirement but me. I should be happy. It can’t be something that I work two years, and then I hate it.”

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Her classmate Kenji Lee had a similar revelation. Someone drawn to puzzles who has “math homework in my backpack all the time,” Lee planned to study engineering but admitted he “was just doing school to do school.” Then he got his driver’s license and discovered cars.

“Cars make me happy. Cars are fun,” he said. “I love working on cars, I like driving cars, anything to do with cars.” He now plans to attend a technical college to focus on engines for cars, boats or motorcycles.

Adults tell Lee he won’t earn a lot, which makes him “double-check myself.” But he concludes: “ ‘Yeah, I do.’ ”

While some high school students know what they want to do, many do not. Carnevale from Georgetown said the average age at which people “land in an occupation” — earning the median wage for workers of all ages  — has risen from the mid-20s in the 1970s to the early 30s now.

“The journey is a lot longer,” he said. One reason, said Carnevale, is that the labor market now demands more specific skills. Students are especially anxious about spending to acquire skills they don’t end up using.  Osseo senior Mila Phethdara said her mother earned a nursing degree, “realized she hated it,” then worked in insurance.

“My mom wants me to figure out what I want to do and stick with it. She doesn’t want to waste money,” said Phethdara, who is interested in the dental field.  Still, she said, “I worry that I will switch out of it. That is an ongoing fear.”

It’s easy to see why many students feel pressure around education and career choices. A Georgetown report published in October showed that from 1980 to 2019, average college costs rose 169%, while earnings for those aged 22 to 27 rose only 19%. Some jobs don’t seem to justify the education costs.

Yusanat Tway, a sociology major at the University of Minnesota, wants to go to law school, then do human rights advocacy. “It will cost $220K” to get a law degree, she said. (The median salary for a lawyer is $126,930, but varies widely.) Tway, a first-generation college student, also has family financial expectations to think about: “Because my parents are immigrants, I am their retirement plan.”

One big problem, said Carnevale, is a dearth of guidance to help students relate their interests, education and training to potential work. “There is a kind of missing link in this relationship between people and their work values, work interests, personality traits, then linking that to education and then linking that to training and then linking that to jobs.”

In recent years, Career and Technical Education (CTE) has been included in state graduation requirements and high school curricula in order to address this exact issue. It is far different from old vocational education (candlesticks in metal shop, anyone?) and can yield certifications, community work experiences and self-awareness. 

In Minnesota, the Greater Twin Cities United Way works with 17 school districts that have developed career pathways offering students of color and those with low incomes job exposure, college credits and training. The stated goal: jobs paying at least $25 an hour and zero college debt.

“Previously, it was, ‘A four-year degree is a ticket out of here,’ ” said Sareen Dunleavy Keenan, senior program officer for Career Academies, which connects schools and employers. “Now we want people to stay in their communities.” She pitches “wealth creation”: helping students forge pathways to high-wage local jobs with an upward trajectory. They use college credits in high school, federal Pell grants and employer tuition programs to pay for education, rather than acquiring debt.

Hamza Mohammed, a senior at Humboldt High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the shop where students learn welding. He is now interested in computer science.

The approach may make sense. But the pandemic canceled many in-person experiences for students — and threw them off track. Many low-income first-generation students, said Hannah Chan, career pathways coordinator for the St. Paul district, “only know the careers around them.”

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'Why would I want to go to college?'

The pandemic also surfaced issues of identity, community and social justice, which are especially keenly felt in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd, said Derek Francis, manager of counseling services for Minneapolis Public Schools.

Students are back, but the world has changed. As counselors, he said, “we want to make sure we are not missing out on college and career” planning. But, said Francis, “We have to talk about race and inclusion.” Many students, he said, “have been beaten up physically and emotionally” and now ask, “Why would I want to go to college?”

Francis spoke while at a school counselors’ gathering in a brewery outside Minneapolis, the in-person social piece of the Minnesota School Counselors Association’s virtual two-day conference. Counselors described students missing credits and falling behind academically, and talked about students feeling uncertain. “Our high flyers are still applying to college,” said one, but fewer “are feeling the pressure to apply soon.”

A counselor from South High School in Minneapolis said she had just written a letter of recommendation for a student who “is involved in, like, 50 organizations,” from social justice to climate change. The pandemic and social unrest have spurred activism and artistic and creative efforts, she said.

Education and work experts say it is too soon to tell if we are on the cusp of deep cultural change in how our education system guides students from school to work and life — wherever they come from.

Among the graduates of Osseo Senior High School’s Class of 2021, 20% went right to work, up from 11% just five years earlier.  Jacqueline Trzynka, a school counselor, said a few years ago the school began celebrating students once they declared a postsecondary plan — not necessarily college — with an orange T-shirt that read “I’M IN.”

Jacqueline Trzynka, a counselor at Osseo Senior High School, said seniors now receive a T-shirt when they announce their postgraduation plans, whatever those plans may be.

This year, counselors are paying close attention to how they speak to students. Rather than focus on being “college ready,” they urge figuring out what interests students, then finding out how and where to pursue it. 

“We are really conscious of not making it all about four-year (colleges) in our presentations, on our website, our materials,” she said. The aim is “to make students feel that whatever they choose is valued.”

In some places, expectations can be hard to unwind, said Edward Pickett III, a board director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and a dean and college counselor at Polytechnic School, a private school in Pasadena, California.

“Success looks different for every person,” said Pickett, a former admissions counselor at Tufts University. Well-off parents at his school, he said, “have worked to have these resources, so they want to make sure they pass it along to their kids.”

To the parents, that often means having a child attend an elite school and pursue a high-paying profession. At the same time, the pandemic offered counselors an opportunity to reflect on the need to present students with different post-graduation choices, said Pickett, himself a first-generation college student.

He sees more students planning gap years. Opal Hetherington, a senior at Polytechnic, hopes to spend next year on a farm. She is rethinking a previously scripted path. “I was choosing to go to college because I am going to a college preparatory school and that is what we do,” she said. 

She is still applying to college.  But her onetime plans to major in political science now bend toward religion and thoughts of homesteading. Where she once “thought I was certain about things,” Hetherington said she now wants “to experience what happens to me.” She added, “I don’t want to always be living in a planning stage.”

This story about college alternatives was produced by The Hechinger Report. Sign up for The Hechinger Report higher education newsletter.