This Spring, Champion the Power of Pursuing a Plan

Guest Correspondence

Image courtesy Pixabay.

For many high school seniors, April can be an exciting time when they decide which pathway they will pursue after graduating, be it a technical or community college, university, the military or a career.  

This year, however, for those considering universities or colleges, complications to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) have fueled uncertainty and led some seniors to put on hold plans for postsecondary education.

The FAFSA debacle is hardly the only force at work here; the decline in college enrollment started well before this year and before the pandemic disrupted our lives. This decline speaks to a larger, concerning trend of skeptical seniors graduating without a clear plan for their lives.

A recent study by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation illuminates an increasing wariness about the value of education after high school. The study found that of 1,700 high school students surveyed, 83% found higher value in on-the-job training to the 72% valuing a four-year college and 69% a two-year college.  

The National Center for Education Statistics found that “undergraduate enrollment was 15% lower in 2021 than in the fall of 2010.” And, as Dr. Larry Thompson, president of Ringling College of Art and Design, discussed in these very pages last month, boys especially are falling behind.  

The armed forces, as noted by Jim Garamone at the U.S. Department of Defense, are also experiencing a long-term decline in enlistment, with only the Marines and the Space Force meeting their recruiting goals in 2023.

The reasons that more and more high school students, especially boys, are foregoing education after high school or military service, many with no plans or specific ambitions, are myriad and complex, and the results are concerning. 

The Florida College Access Network finds that by 2030, 72% of jobs in Florida will require a degree or credential. Yet today, only 53% of working-age Floridians hold either of those. On a state and national level, unless we can reverse these declines in attainment, we face the real threat of lost human potential and all the ripple effects that will have on their lives, our economy and our standing in the world.

For these students without plans, it’s important to remember that what they have experienced in the past few years has been anything but typical, with everything from a global pandemic in their freshmen year, to hurricanes, and now to a snag with the FAFSA. 

While it’s vital we understand and acknowledge this complex and unfortunate landscape that has led to increasing inaction, it’s also as important as ever to champion the value of identifying a passion and a pathway for life after high school—and not just identifying it but pursuing it. As a community, we must unite to create and champion viable pathways for students to go after something that excites them and develop into the next generation of leaders.

One place to start is through the stories we tell. Narratives are strong. Research bears out that with a degree or credential, adults increase their earning potential and their ability to weather economic downturns and adapt to changes. They can develop and hone creativity, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that will help them in innumerable ways. The benefits of education after high school continue to outweigh the challenges. 

It is incumbent upon us to send a strong, resounding message about the power of actively pursuing a plan. This story, while not shying away from the current landscape, must continue to champion the many pathways and unique interests of young people—and inspire these students to step more confidently and boldly into the future, ready to achieve their goals and lead a fulfilling life.

Jennifer Vigne is president and CEO of the Education Foundation of Sarasota County.

Image courtesy Pixabay.

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