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OPINION: Education — and work — are the new norm after high school

Michele Strasz is the executive director of the Capital Area College Access Network in Lansing. (courtesy photo)

Our community – employers, educators, parents, politicians and students –  really needs to have a tough love conversation about education after high school. 

Here at the Capital Area College Access Network, one young person we interviewed during a focus group told us that he wanted to go to college, but he was competing with his younger siblings for the sole computer and internet access in their home.

There are thousands of young people in my community of Ingham and Eaton counties who graduated from high school during COVID and melted away from their college-intentions. Students were forced to work two or three jobs to help provide for their families, or they were expected to care for young siblings. Students, particularly low-income and students of color, are suffering from housing, food, or technology insecurity so college may feel unattainable.   

The Lansing State Journal published an article in June titled “With high school behind them, some graduates are ready to go to work.” We do not deny that more high school graduates are enticed by the offers from strapped employers to hire them with only a diploma in hand. Wages of $15 to $20 an hour sounds wonderful if you are a high school student. But if you read between the headlines, there is so much more to unpack.

About 65 percent of jobs required postsecondary degrees or credentials to enter the workforce even in this tight job market. The fact that more students are earning college credits, industry-recognized credentials and short-term certificates while completing their high school diploma through Career-Technical Education (CTE) programs is driving the opportunity for young people to go into the workforce right out of high school. These students did not bypass higher education. We just managed to deliver it to them while they were in high school and with no cost to them.

Local college access networks define postsecondary education as any degree, credential or certificate earned after a high school diploma. This includes education you can receive from a college, university, trade school or accredited apprenticeship program. The cost of college is a barrier.  But most young people who are low-income now qualify for a free community college education if they had only known and applied for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

What Michigan needs now more than ever is dialogue and a plan to help students obtain the education they need after high school to meet the demands of employers for good jobs with family sustaining wages. 

What can you do to be part of this movement to foster education after high school?

  • Students and families can learn more about the postsecondary process from local college access networks and college advisers to talk about opportunities early and often.
  • Young people can try early college and credentials on for size through local CTE programs in their area high schools.
  • Local businesses can get involved in area CTE advisory councils helping to shape the education needed to be successful in the jobs and careers you need to hire for.
  • Local industries can collaborate with K-12 and higher education to create career exposure, work-based learning opportunities, and transitional internships and apprenticeships that are appropriate for students at different ages and stages.
  • Adults can celebrate all the decisions of our young people to continue their education after high school and provide them with the financial and mentoring support they need to grow into adulthood.

A 20-year-old student told CapCAN during our focus group, “Graduation or turning 18 is not an automatic lever that you know how to do everything.”

It is our responsibility to support young people to understand that education after high school is both a norm and a necessity for their future.

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