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University is not for everyone, and that’s fine

As a high school student, deciding what comes next after graduation can be challenging. The natural choice is college for some, but it’s not always the best choice.

College enrollment numbers from spring 2021 showed a decline of 3 percent from a year earlier, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. It’s the largest spring semester enrollment decrease since 2011.

More often, students are opting to learn technical or skilled trades, transition directly into the workforce or join the military. Others who want more time to consider which career path best suits their futures are choosing to take a “gap year,” which can easily stretch to two, three, four or even 10 years.

The logic of these other choices isn’t hard to understand.

Some students may prefer hands-on learning, or hands-on work, to traditional classroom settings and office work. Others may just need more time for such an important decision.

Others may want to avoid student loan debt, which could negatively impact a person’s life for decades after graduation. University graduates owe an average of $36,140 the day they finish college, according to the Education Data Initiative.

That same source also provides these statistics that say a lot about college and debt:

• The average monthly payment students make on their college debt is $250.

• That’s why college debt tends to grow, not subside. The average student borrower owes $1,500 more today than was owed on graduation day.

Meanwhile, according to a study released last October, many students are finding financial success without traditional college education. The study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce said 16 percent of high school graduates who don’t go to college earn more than half of college graduates who complete bachelor’s degrees.

“More education doesn’t always get you more money,” Anthony P. Carnevale, the center’s director, said. “There’s a lot of variation in earnings related to field of study, occupation and other factors.”

Dramatic changes in the college experience as a result of the pandemic may also have led some high school graduates to consider other paths. Many students struggle with virtual learning. Job loss has made it difficult to pay for tuition and costs, though local universities — including Youngstown State, Kent State and Eastern Gateway Community College — have stepped up efforts to help incoming students combat those challenges.

In a CBS News story in late 2020, Robert Kelchen, an associate professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, described the mid-pandemic college experience as “some combination of a monastery and a minimum security prison.

“It may not be the most fun thing,” Kelchen said. “Is it better than living at home with your parents? Maybe. Is it safer than some other alternatives? Maybe. Is it going to be what students think of the college experience? Absolutely not.”

For those students who are unsure about the paths they want to take after high school, it is important to provide resources that highlight the different pathways they can choose and assist them with getting started into their fields of choice. Schools and nonprofit organizations have prioritized helping students decide their next steps.

At MyPath Mahoning Valley, for example, we recently rebranded from our old name, Mahoning Valley College Access Program, to reflect the expanding scope of our service to students. We recognize that school leaders, mentors and parents should empower students to succeed in whatever career directions they choose.

Herding every high school student toward higher education is neither good policy, nor the best choice for everyone. We need to acknowledge that each student is an individual and, with the right support, is highly capable of crafting his or her own path to success.

Gerri Jenkins is the executive director of MyPath Mahoning Valley, formerly known as the Mahoning Valley College Access Program.

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