More than 30 years into my career as CEO of a national nonprofit, you’d think the jitters associated with big decisions would be in my rearview mirror. But whether preparing for board presentations or contemplating major organizational changes, I still get a bit nervous. And when I feel those butterflies, I imagine what it must be like to be a high school student making decisions which, for all intents and purposes, will affect the rest of his or her life.
Will I go to college? If so, where? How much will it cost? What is my passion and how can I turn that passion into a meaningful career?
Much of my professional life has been spent working with young people. Indeed, American Student Assistance (ASA) has invested more than 60 years in helping students with financial literacy and loans, all with the aim of getting more of them to and through college.
Sadly, it hasn’t been enough. In the past two years alone, 3.9 million students dropped out of college without a degree but with plenty of debt. Research shows that in addition to financial challenges, misalignment between education and career goals also has a negative impact on college completion.
We also know that ideas about “What do I want to be when I grow up?” start to coalesce much earlier than high school. It is for these reasons that we reoriented our focus to help kids starting in middle school, a time when the important work of college and career exploration can be just that: exploration.
Kids need the opportunity early in their education journey to discover their passions and be exposed to a broad range of careers that might align with those interests and talents. As they progress to high school, students need to have more options for experimenting with these possible career paths, whether it be classes related to coding, skilled trades or an internship or apprenticeship.
Most importantly, kids need to learn about the full range of education options available to them after graduation—including four-year college, community college, professional credentials and more. There is too much at stake for all of these important decisions to be compressed into junior and senior year of high school.
Today’s plethora of choices and considerations require a lot of thought and self-knowledge. Kids deserve the guidance and resources to get to know themselves, understand their options and make informed decisions so they can thrive.
Whether a student wants to be an entrepreneur, engineer or an electrician—or all three, there is a path for them. They need adults to listen to them, but also to be informed on their behalf so we can support them as they reach for independence.
We’ve created this world our kids now find themselves in, just as they will create the world future generations will inherit. What we already know about Generation Z is they are a vibrant, engaged, norm-busting group that does not shy away from a challenge. Let’s respond in kind by talking to them about their dreams and ambitions sooner, helping them to explore the vast opportunities available to them and listening closely.
With sound guidance and empathy we can help young people plan and succeed for a lifetime of possibilities, as the saying goes: The kids are all right.