STEPHEN M. SMITH is CEO of Intellispark, an education technology company. He is vice chair of the board of College Possible, a member of the board of the National College Access Network, and a cofounder of Naviance. He previously served as president and chief product officer at Hobsons, where he focused on helping students achieve college and career readiness and success.
SHAUN FANNING is chief product officer at Intellispark and a cofounder of Naviance. He previously served as vice president of research and development at Hobsons, where he led new product initiatives focused on improving student success. Earlier in his career, he held a variety of roles in business analysis, finance, technology, marketing, and product management at AT&T and The Thomson Corporation (now Thomson Reuters).
How Do You Get Started?
We are doing this all wrong. College gets more expensive and more competitive every year. Kids lose sleep over where they're applying and whether they'll be admitted. Parents are anxious and increasingly wonder whether college is a worthwhile investment. Those same parents ask a lot of important questions. Will my child will get into a "good" college? How long will it take her to earn a degree? Can we afford tuition-not to mention room, board, and other expenses? Will she get a decent job after graduation? Will she be happy? The problem, in most families anyway, is that we take the questions in the wrong order.
Brandon Busteed, the executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup, describes this process well. We start searching for colleges by thinking about attributes like size, selectivity, and location. We look into what majors are offered at the institution, and we may even consider sports programs or campus life. We probably look at the list price for tuition, room, board, and expenses, but because our system of education finance is so complex, those figures often bear little resemblance to what it will cost to attend. We build a list of colleges that meet our criteria. We visit some of those institutions to get a sense of how they "feel." We narrow the list and begin the arduous task of preparing and submitting college applications. By having focused our attention on list prices instead of the actual cost of attendance, we may have already ruled out some attractive options for financial reasons, even if those institutions may have turned out to be affordable. It's not until acceptances start coming in from colleges we chose to apply to that we get a better sense of the actual cost of attendance. For the vast majority of us, the cost of attending even an institution with a modest list price is higher than we can afford based solely on what we have saved or earn, so we explore loan options. After that, we decide where to enroll.
As many as half of all traditional-age first-year students enter college without declaring a major, and according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) at the U.S. Department of Education, almost 80 percent change their major at least once after they enroll. So it's not until well after starting college and often taking on debt that families begin to understand how much the student will be likely to earn after graduation and what he can realistically afford to repay. Because such a high percentage of students change majors while in college, many are taking a long time to get to the finish line. In fact, NCES data show that only 44.2 percent of first-time bachelor's degree recipients earn a four-year degree in four years or less.
If you were designing this process from scratch, you might approach it from exactly the opposite direction. Start with the end in mind. Pick a career based on what you like to do. Research the labor market and find out how much you'll be likely be able to earn. Then look at the type of education required to get that job. Weigh the ability to pay for that education given your career prospects and reconsider if necessary. Once you're sure the cost of your education is manageable given your chosen career, enroll in the institution of your choice and complete your degree.
Many adult students (defined by the Department of Education as those age twenty-five and older) approach college in just this way. These students often enter college with specific career objectives. And although they're sometimes referred to as nontraditional or posttraditional students, this demographic now makes up the majority of college students in the United States. Can an approach that works for twenty-five-year-olds also help teenagers to make better college and career choices?
It's incredibly challenging for an adult to pick a major or a career, and developmental differences and comparatively limited life experiences make this decision even more overwhelming for teenagers. In that context, it's not surprising that so many college students change their minds after picking a major. Nonetheless, with poor retention and graduation rates at many colleges, few would argue that what we're doing now is working well. Something needs to change. By rethinking the path from middle and high school to college and career, we can reduce the stress and anxiety families feel and put more kids on track for a healthy and successful adult life.
This book got its start nearly seventeen years ago when we launched a program called Naviance and began working with high schools to improve how their students choose among colleges and universities. Since that time, more than 22 million kids around the world have researched college and career opportunities; selected middle and high school course work; gained important knowledge about what it means to go to college; and completed personality, strengths, and career interest assessments and other self-awareness activities in Naviance. These activities have helped those kids build a foundation for a thoughtful progression from school to college to work.
The goal of this book is to help more kids think about school and college with an objective in mind: recognizing that learning is intrinsically valuable and continues for life but that purposeful learning can be even more transformative. The question "Who do you think you are?" gets at the essence of what families need to explore to help their children make good college and career choices. The other questions posed throughout this book are meant to prompt crucial conversations that can help you and your teen, ideally with the support of your teen's school counselor, better inform the college and career search process.
Let's look at how the process typically works today. In U.S. elementary schools, there are few choices to make. Most kids in elementary school have a single teacher for all core academic subjects, even if there are separate faculty members for specialized courses in areas such as music, art, or physical education. While some subgroups of kids with particular needs, aptitudes, or interests might be selected to receive additional support, most follow a fairly consistent program and spend the majority of each day in the same room with the same teacher and the same classmates.
The environment is much different in secondary schools. By grade 6 or 7, schools frequently offer separate classes within core academic subjects for students who are performing at, above, or below grade level. Many schools have optional courses, known as electives, in subjects such as foreign language, instrumental music, and technology. Kids may still receive additional support if they need it, but they are also able to make many more choices to personalize their school experience. Many schools offer clubs and after-school sports. In grades 6 and 7, but especially by grade 8, the courses kids take have a direct impact on the courses they can take in high school, and as a result, their choices affect the majors they can select and even the colleges they may be able to attend.
Some of those connections are straightforward. For example, students who don't take algebra by the end of eighth grade typically can't complete the required course work to take calculus by twelfth grade, and those who don't take calculus before graduating from high school are at a significant disadvantage when applying to engineering and other quantitative programs in college. Other choices are a bit more complex since requirements for admission vary significantly from one college or university to another. Those requirements can even vary among schools and departments within the same college or university. The shared experiences in elementary school give way to a much more individualized program of studies and other activities in middle and high school, which can put kids on very different paths to life after earning a high school diploma.
How do you make sense of these choices? Is it even possible to ask a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old to think ahead ten years or more to consider how making a choice between taking algebra in eighth grade and choosing a slightly less demanding math class is likely to affect college or career options later in life? Is it possible to ask that same young person to weigh the benefits of taking another elective, and making time for the required homework, versus joining an additional after-school club? Choices like this one are being made by and for kids millions of times each year in U.S. schools, often with limited insight into the consequences. For some, it may even feel as though their plans are on autopilot. Those who have done well academically are often pushed to take every one of the most rigorous courses (regardless of their interest level in the subject) and to add even more to their plate through extracurricular activities based on their prior academic successes.
There's a false dichotomy playing out in many American schools. Kids with high grades get pushed to take more and harder courses, while those with lower grades are directed toward career-oriented programs. This approach sets up a tension between college and career. As one counselor in a highly regarded American high school told us, "At this school, college is the career." She conveyed that statement with no sense of irony or anxiety. For their four years in high school, every academic and extracurricular decision these students made at that school was intended to put them on a path to college. The...