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Are Today’s Students Doing College Backwards?

Click HERE to view Are Today’s Students Doing College Backwards? as a multimedia presentation.

Doing College Backwards Article Title ImageHow do you get a job? This simple but important question is one that too few students ask today. After all, there’s plenty of time to figure that out, right? Isn’t a job what you think about at the very end when you’re finished with your education?

In high school, many students instead ask, “Which college do I want to attend?” This is not surprising given the fact that everyone from parents and teachers to counselors and administrators have made going to a four-year college a primary goal for decades.

But is a four-year college right for everyone? And does a four-year college degree guarantee a job and career satisfaction? These critical questions are finally beginning to get the attention they deserve, as more and more students find that the path that led them to a four-year college didn’t ultimately lead them on to the job of their dreams.

Saddled with massive student debt and toiling away in entry-level jobs with no clear career path, many students now look back and wonder where they went wrong. In this article, we’ll ask the question of whether today’s students are doing college backwards and take a closer look at how — and when — some experts suggest students should be planning their futures.

Myth: Four-Year College Is for Everyone

Doing College Backwards Article - Forward doesn't work for everyone.For generations now, going to a four-year college has been the goal set before students. It has become a rite of passage. It’s simply what students are supposed to do. When they get their degree, then they’ll find a job.

Unfortunately, more and more people are experiencing disappointment with this way of doing things. As a recent article by Jon Marcus in The Washington Post notes, we’re finally beginning to see “how many high school graduates almost reflexively go to college without entirely knowing why, pushed by parents and counselors, only to be disappointed with the way things turn out — and then having to start over.”

As Marcus reveals in his article, today’s four-year college experience isn’t for everyone:

“When they do start on the route to bachelor’s degrees, a third of students change their majors at least once and more than half take longer than four years to graduate, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Some of the rest drop out. Even among those who manage to finish, more than 40 percent of recent graduates ages 22 to 27 are underemployed, meaning that they’re working in jobs that don’t require their degree, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports.”

How did we get to this point? In a recent article in Forbes, Ryan Craig gives some insight:

“Education has always been designed forward, or from left to right. What do students already know, and what’s the logical progression? Secondary education follows primary education…And while postsecondary education allows greater choice, for most students the first 30 or 60 credits of general education follow naturally from what they learned in high school. Forward works for some, but not nearly enough. With close to half of students who enroll in undergraduate degree programs failing to complete, alternatives are desperately needed.”

Indeed, Craig notes that “students have been screaming for a few years that they need economic security via a good first job in a growing sector of the economy – screaming amplified last month by the report from Strada Education Network’s Institute for the Future of Work on the lasting effects of underemployment in the first job after college. Students are desperate to get a foot on the first rung of a career ladder with as little debt as possible.”

Stop Doing College Backwards

Doing College Backwards Article - Career ExplorationSo what are today’s students doing wrong? According to Dave DesRochers, a former offensive tackle for the Seattle Seahawks, “they’re doing college backwards.” DesRochers is now vice president of PATH2, an organization that helps students figure out what they want to do with their lives — before they finish high school — and choose their educations accordingly.

This career-focused approach finds support in Design Thinking, a problem-solving methodology popular in Silicon Valley. According to Craig’s article:

“A Design Thinking approach to higher education works backwards from the first job, not forward from high school. Start with the requirements of entry-level positions in key skill gap areas (in IT, data analytics, healthcare, biotech, finance, energy, sales, digital marketing) and design pathways that directly address student and employer needs.”

Such an approach is starting to sound like common sense to many people, but it will require significant structural changes to the current system. As Craig notes:

“Because prioritizing first jobs means helping place students in jobs much more effectively than the loose connection currently performed by career services departments, the most successful postsecondary institutions or organizations will be those that not only make a connection between students and employers, but that provide a friction-free pathway for both students and employers. Eliminating friction for students or candidates means guaranteeing a job. And eliminating friction for employers means allowing employers to evaluate candidate performance on real project work before being required to make a hiring decision. Few colleges and universities are currently organized to do either.”

While systemic changes will take time, changes can begin now. For starters, high school students can be encouraged to focus on choosing a career instead of a four-year college.

College Is NOT the Place for Career Exploration

College is not the place for career exploration.As Amy Loyd, Vice President of Jobs for the Future, notes, too often four-year colleges and universities end up being “a really expensive career exploration program.” That’s why many experts now believe it’s time to shift career exploration to high school.

As Marcus notes in his article, “the push to help students make more informed career decisions while they’re still in high school is coinciding with frustration over the high cost of college and increased awareness of the potential for jobs at good pay in the skilled trades.”

The CareerVision website agrees with the career-focused approach in its article titled Backwards Planning:  A Great Strategy for Those Who Find It Hard to Get Started:

“For high school students, the end is not what college to attend – but identifying a career direction (or a few careers) that align best with their unique abilities and interests. Once the possible careers are identified, the students can see which academic majors will prepare them best for those paths. They can use these majors as important criteria for evaluating potential college matches for themselves. With this knowledge, they can also select courses at the high school level that are in line with their career direction, such as a computer drafting course for a future engineer…Students who know their career direction (or a few they are considering) make more informed decisions while still in high school and can explore career interest areas in a more focused way.”

Technology has expanded career options.



Technology Has Greatly Expanded Career Options

As students begin to explore career options at an earlier age, it will be important to provide them with the latest information on opportunities available in high-demand fields where good-paying jobs are plentiful. For example, technology has greatly expanded career opportunities in advanced manufacturing and related industries.

These opportunities aren’t the “factory jobs” of years past. Instead, they’re cutting-edge jobs related to advanced automation technologies, such as robots, artificial intelligence, data analytics, and cybersecurity.

In many industries, these new technologies have created a “skills gap” that has resulted in too few workers with the advanced skills necessary to fill the new roles they’ve created. Across the entire economy, there are almost 7 million unfilled jobs, most of which are middle- and higher-skill positions.

Many students may find these roles enticing, since they often don’t require a four-year degree. Instead, students may be able to secure a lucrative job in an expanding field with a two-year degree or other specialized training with little to no debt.



Going Back to College…After College?

One in 12 Community College Students Already Has a Bachelor's DegreeMany people who have already obtained a bachelor’s degree are turning to community colleges to obtain the skills they need to secure a high-demand job in one of the many fields experiencing a significant skills gap.

As Marcus notes in his article, “one in 12 students now at community colleges — or more than 940,000 — previously earned a bachelor’s degree, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.” That’s nearly a million community college students who already have a bachelor’s degree looking to supplement their skills to get a better job.

Given the high cost of a four-year degree, that’s an astounding number of people spending more time and money seeking specialized skills at the nation’s community colleges. In the end, though, it will likely be worth it given the wages being paid in high-demand jobs. In his article, Marcus sets forth some interesting statistics:

“In Virginia, Colorado and Texas, where earnings are tracked, students with certain technically oriented credentials short of bachelor’s degrees earn an average of from $2,000 to $11,000 a year more than those with bachelor’s degrees, the American Institutes for Research reports. An analysis by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found…first-year electrical and power transmission installers, who also need associate degrees, [make an average of] $80,400 — more than some graduates with not just bachelor’s, but master’s degrees…[Plus, c]ompleting career and technical education is almost always faster and less expensive than studying toward a bachelor’s degree…and trainees can earn while they learn…All of this is helping to change perceptions of long-disparaged career and technical — previously called vocational — education.”

For many students, a career-focused approach will help them stop doing college backwards by pointing them instead toward two-year programs or other specialized training designed to help them secure a high-pay, in-demand job. As Marcus concludes:

“Advocates for career and technical education say that, for many people, it makes more sense to start with those kinds of programs, reserving the option of continuing on to more time-consuming and expensive bachelor’s degrees later, instead of vice versa.”

About Amatrol

IGNITE: Mastering ManufacturingWith more than three decades of experience designing and manufacturing state-of-the-art training systems, Amatrol remains the world’s leader in skills-based, interactive technical learning for industry and education.

Students looking to pursue opportunities in industries that need highly-skilled workers to fill roles created by advanced technologies will likely encounter Amatrol’s popular eLearning curriculum and hands-on training systems at one of the nation’s many community colleges.

Amatrol’s career and technical education training resources aren’t limited to the college or university level, however. In conjunction with LIFT and funded by the United States Department of Defense, Amatrol recently developed IGNITE: Mastering Manufacturing, a comprehensive career exploration and preparation program for high schools.

A flexible, multi-year program, IGNITE offers high school students an introduction to the many STEM-focused career opportunities available in modern manufacturing facilities, including jobs working with advanced Industry 4.0 technologies. We hope that students will be inspired to find a career that will provide both job satisfaction and great pay.

Along the way, students will gain hands-on skills in a wide variety of technical areas, from electricity and fluid power to robotics and automation. IGNITE students also learn key employability skills like problem-solving and teamwork.

In addition to earning college credit while in high school, many students will also earn valuable industry-standard certifications. Equipped with certifications from organizations such as the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC) or the Smart Automation Certification Alliance (SACA), IGNITE students will be prepared to step into a great career with all the skills they need to succeed.

Contact Amatrol to be connected to an expert consultant who can provide more information about IGNITE or any of Amatrol’s many other career and technical training solutions. You can also click below to watch a video about the IGNITE program:


About Duane Bolin

Duane Bolin is a former curriculum developer and education specialist. He is currently a Marketing Content Developer for Amatrol, Inc. Learn more about Amatrol and its technical training solutions, including eLearning, here and connect with Duane on Amatrol’s Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube pages.

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