Post-Secondary Pathways: Everything Families Need to Know
Help your child learn about the many ways to get to a meaningful career that brings them more than just a living.
Ask any parent about their primary concerns for their children’s futures and “economic prosperity/stability” and “happiness” are usually at the top of the list. For decades, we’ve equated these two priorities with a four-year college degree. After all, the more education one has the more opportunities they will have to excel in the workplace, right?
Well, yes and no. While it’s true that higher education may lead to a higher income, that’s only in certain fields of study – and graduates need to have the interest and ambition to pursue a career in line with their education.
But what if what makes your child happy isn’t a corner office, a fancy degree, or a six-figure salary? What if their personality and passions are more suited to a career in the trades or a job that doesn’t require a lot of post-secondary training?
If one of the wishes we have for our future adults is for them to be happy, we may need to rethink the inexorable push toward a four-year college degree. We may need to help them consider all the post-secondary pathways available to them.
Here are three ways (but not the only ways) to get to a rewarding career—and some advice on how to encourage your kids to consider what’s a good fit for them.
College/University: Four-year Degree
From Ivy League schools to more modest institutions, students who graduate from a four-year program will typically hold a bachelor’s degree in a particular area of study, i.e. psychology, English Lit, engineering, or math. Some students will minor in other programs as well.
Most university programs are based in theory and encourage critical thinking and independent learning. Students may not be equipped with hands-on skills for entering the workforce, but they will be prepared to bring a certain level of advanced thinking and capability to apply their learning to a workplace.
Students who plan to seek advanced degrees to qualify for careers that require specialized training, i.e. master’s level postgraduate studies or medical or law degrees, will need to complete a bachelor’s degree to reach the next stage in that journey.
It’s important to note that a four-year university/college degree is the most expensive post-secondary pathway. The average cost of college in the U.S. is $35,720 per student per year.
College: Two-year Degree, Diploma, Certificate
Students who are looking for a more practical education that prepares them for a specific job can often find what they’re looking for in a two-year college program. These institutions are known as community colleges, junior colleges, or technical colleges and are characterized by their skills-based programs. Depending on the field of study they choose, a graduate could walk away with an associate’s degree, diploma, or certificate.
Two-year colleges offer education in a wide array of careers, including:
- Accounting technology/technician and bookkeeping
- Medical/clinical assistant
- Pharmacy technician/assistant
- Building construction technology
- Cooking and related culinary arts
- Fire science/firefighting
- Graphic design
- Licensed practical/vocational nurse training
- Engineering technician
Two-year college programs are also options for students who don’t have the entry qualifications required to be admitted to a four-year college program after high school. They may attend a two-year program to earn credits toward a bachelor’s degree.
At an average cost of $7,460 per student per year, community college tuition is considerably more affordable than a more traditional college.
For a couple of generations, there has been a stigma attached to pursuing a career in the skilled trades, including roles such as auto mechanic, electrician, welder, or plumber. That’s changing as more people recognize that skilled tradespeople are in demand in the marketplace, command high salaries from the start, and boast plenty of opportunities for advancement and entrepreneurship.
And there are more careers under the skilled trades umbrella than most people realize, including:
- Architectural drafters
- Industrial machinery mechanics
- IT support specialists
- Medical sonographers
- Wind turbine technician
- Dental assistant
- Vet technician
To prepare for a career in the trades, most students will complete an apprenticeship that involves on-the-job learning – often earning money as they gain skills. Apprenticeships typically take three to four years to complete and come with connections in a student’s chosen industry and a resume with a great head start.
How to Support Your Kids Through the Post-Secondary Pathway Decision-Making Process
As a parent, there’s a lot you can do to help your child consider what may be a rewarding way for them to earn a living someday.
- Talk about what your job means to you. Whether you have your dream job, an “okay” career, or you’re living for retirement, your kids will pick up a lot of their attitudes about work from you. It’s helpful to be open about how the choices you made and the circumstances you were in led to the position you’re in today. If you’re pleased with the way things turned out for you, professionally, talk about the things you did (or that happened) that led to your success. If you wish you were in a different career, share with your kids the things you may have done differently.
- Encourage your kids to reflect on their strengths and preferences. While it may not be entirely reasonable for a 13-year-old to know precisely what career will light them up someday, they can think about what they enjoy doing now. This self-knowledge will help them when it comes to making decisions about how they want to spend a huge chunk of their time and energy someday. Encourage them to do self-reflection exercises like the ones in Xello and help them identify things like:
-What they’re good at
-What they dislike
-What school subjects they enjoy
-Whether they like to be constantly on the move or sitting still and focusing for long periods of time
-Whether they prefer to work alone or in a group
- Point out careers in the community and among friends and family. It’s never too early for kids to be aware of the wide variety of jobs there are available. While careers like firefighters, nurses, teachers, and police officers are often in the spotlight, what about those careers that take place behind the scenes? Many of the people we know are working in jobs that aren’t necessarily discussed in a careers class. At your next gathering, consider having every adult share a little about their jobs – what they do, what it’s like, what they enjoy, what’s challenging, etc. And if you’re connected with people who are passionate about their work and you see that your child has some of the same interests, it’s worthwhile putting them together to learn more about what’s possible.
- Encourage your kids to consider all options. Many adolescents make educational decisions based on what their friends are doing. This can mean some youth pack themselves off to a four-year college program when what they are better suited for is enrollment in a two-year college certificate or trades program. Parents are influential too, so it’s important to let your kids know that you approve of any career trajectory that would make them happy.
- Do more than just the big college tours. When your high school junior or senior are considering their post-secondary options, make sure to schedule a look at smaller colleges, trades programs, and apprenticeships as well. This is another way to show your child that your main concern is their ultimate job satisfaction, not what kind of degree they may earn in college. You might also help them set up job shadowing opportunities with your colleagues, friends, or family members to help them narrow down their interests before it’s time to make a decision about the right post-secondary pathway.
- Explore online college and career readiness programs together. If your student has access to software like Xello, spend time reviewing the self-reflection activities they’ve completed and the college programs and careers that are potential matches. Review all of the information about careers, including salary, working conditions, and which personality traits are best suited to that career. No one knows your kid better than you do, so you’ll be able to have meaningful conversations about what will (and won’t) appeal to their particular sensibilities and capabilities. These conversations can make a big impact on the way they view themselves and their possibilities.
As parents, we want our children to be successful and satisfied—and sometimes the way to achieve those goals is not what we imagined. One of the most important things a parent can do is try to understand and be open to the possibilities of all post-secondary pathways.
You can work with your child’s guidance counselors to support them in making decisions that fit their goals, strengths, and interests. When they align their personal passions with a career path, anything is possible.