Asking about college plans is the wrong question

Charlie Harper is the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com, and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy solutions in the areas of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.

There’s a question we really have to stop asking our high school students. “Where are you going to college?” isn’t a good way to start a conversation with someone a generation or three younger than you.
Seniors that just graduated are mostly glad that the question has an answer, even if the answer isn’t college. Rising seniors and juniors by now know that every random conversation with an adult will usually involve this question.
It’s small talk for us. For them, it sets presumptive expectations and, perhaps even worse, signals a level of importance on a single life decision that causes unnecessary stress.
Sure, post high-school plans are important ones. No single decision, however, will chart the course of any individual’s life. When every adult that a high school student meets asks the same question, the answer is perceived to be of the utmost consequence. The reality is that students frequently transfer colleges, start and stop study, and/or pursue graduate study or other job training that will ultimately determine career trajectory.
In today’s job climate where an individual is expected to have multiple careers during their lifetime, the thought that a single decision made during high school will determine success or failure in life is folly. It’s also becoming less clear that college is the best path to success for many students.
To take advantage of some of those opportunities, the questions need to be asked (preferably by the parents of the student) a bit earlier. Georgia is quite generous in both funding and quantity of options for high school students to sample both college and technical paths during high school.
High school students can participate in joint enrollment programs to sample college courses and even complete associate degrees while still in high school. Because the college courses are funded by HOPE, it allows completion of college credits at a significant cost reduction than most students will face once enrolled in college full time.
There are also options for students who want to pursue technical and trade paths. Unlike many college majors, these paths often lead directly to employment with career-level wages right out of high school.
One of the more intriguing alternatives to traditional college is through the Georgia Consortium for Advanced Technical Training, or GA CATT. The program was launched in Coweta County with high school students sponsored by employers for apprenticeship programs and course work at West Georgia Technical College. Four Georgia Technical Colleges are now participating.
The first students began classes three years ago, and completed their high school diplomas this year. They were paid $8.00 per hour as sophomores for their time working as apprentices, rising to $12.00 per hour their senior year. A couple of them are spending the summer in Germany with their employers, getting paid to study abroad. As someone who recently sat through a presentation of a Georgia university’s study abroad programs (and related costs), the fact that a student can get paid to spend a summer in Europe is quite an attractive inducement.
Those that completed all of the program requirements will sit for a German Manufacturers’ Certificate exam in August. This certificate by the German Chamber of Commerce is a credential that can be used across manufacturing industries worldwide. Georgia’s is the only program where the German Chamber participates at the high school level.
These students get paid in high school for real career experience while earning their certificate. That credential makes them immediately employable and desired by employers at a time when most of their peers will just be enrolling in college.
So let’s quit asking high school students where they’re going to college. They don’t want to talk about it, but they also need to be thinking more broadly about their future and the various paths they can take to get there.

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