High school graduation rates across San Luis Obispo County are steadily improving; 89.4 percent of the 2010-2011 freshman class made it to graduation last year, and it’s safe to assume many of them rushed off to college last fall.
The truth of the matter is all students ambitiously enter college, but not all students graduate. In the California State University system, only about 17 percent will graduate within four years, 42 percent will graduate in five years and around half will graduate in six years.
Community college graduation rates are even lower, with about 25 percent completing an associate degree within six years. For all of the emphasis attached to a college education, the fact is nearly two-thirds of 25-to 32-year-olds do not have a degree.
Numerous reasons lead to a student dropping out: grades, a change in employment goals, family, health or financial reasons all might influence a student’s decision to stop pursuing a degree. But with the cost of education higher than ever, these young adults are left with no degree, few employable skills and likely the feeling of failure for not having completed college.
They’re also often left with enormous student loan debt, which now exceeds car and credit card debt combined in the United States.
So much emphasis is placed on children and teens attending college that we’ve forgotten what the real end goal is; it isn’t the degree, but employable skills that lead to a job. Not just any job, but a job that contributes to your community, helps support yourself and your family, and affords you the means to pursue your dreams.
Our low college graduation rates are proof that sending everyone to college isn’t the answer. We owe it to our kids to show them all of the education resources at their disposal, without bias, to pursue any number of careers and build livelihoods.
Trade schools, vocational training and apprenticeships are often overlooked in pursuit of a college degree. However, just like college, these programs require hard work, dedication and brains to achieve success.
Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting a man named Mike Lopez. Mike is a pipefitter and apprenticeship training coordinator along the Central Coast with the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, Local 114, District Council 16.
The District Council 16 apprenticeship program that Mike recruits for involves five years of 40-hour workweeks, night classes and on-site training. A high school diploma (or GED), and strong math and logic skills are required. Most importantly, supervisors and instructors won’t hesitate to kick you out of the program if you start showing up late or slack on your homework assignments.
Despite this, apprenticeship stigmas still exist. Mike recalled a time when he visited a high school classroom to speak. As the students were filing in before the bell rang, the teacher privately asked him, “You know this is an honors class, right?” Mike nodded and smiled.
When Mike gave his pitch to the teenagers, he began by asking how many were planning to study computer or software engineering in college — most raised their hands. Mike then argued that while most technology jobs today could be outsourced to another country, every community and neighborhood needs skilled workers. You might call someone in another country when your computer is having problems, but you wouldn’t call someone in another country if a water line broke in your yard.
The students in that class dismissed Mike’s idea, but I think he got it right. Not only do union apprenticeships create certified, skilled workers and stable head-of-household jobs, they also keep money in our communities and help us build thriving local economies.
To be clear, I’m absolutely not advocating against a college education.
I am advocating that we have conversations with our kids about what they want to be when they grow up without stigmatizing any profession or trade. Talk about jobs they wouldn’t normally think of and the route they’ll need to take to get there.
Talk about trade schools and colleges, and make a graduation plan (an outline of cost, benchmarks and goals) with your kids if they do go off to college; having a plan saves time, money and increases their chances of graduating.
Most importantly, change your definition of success from “getting a degree” to “finding a job that contributes, pays for what you like and makes you happy.”