May 1 is National College Decision Day, when college-bound high school seniors across the U.S. must commit to the school they’ll attend in the fall. But there’s been a marked drop in college enrollment during the pandemic, and the freshman enrollment rate last fall was 9.2% lower than prior to the pandemic in the fall of 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
For college counselors, it’s a sign of the importance of supporting a variety of pathways for high school graduates, including apprenticeship programs and going directly into the workforce.
“We began to ask the question: how do we give kids as much advantage as we possibly can for whichever option they’re going to choose after high school?” said Steve Schneider, a school counselor at Sheboygan South High School in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in an interview with Marketplace’s David Brancaccio.
“There are so many ways to approach this for kids — there’s no one right way.”
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: I understand that a decade ago, you started realizing that a smaller portion of students were going to college than you were reckoning before.
Steve Schneider: Yeah. We used to rely on senior exit surveys, and the self-reporting was indicating that about 80% of our students were going on to post-secondary education — and then, about a decade ago, we gained access to a National Clearinghouse dataset which showed us more like 50% were attending. So we had built an entire program around college-bound students, and we were not addressing the needs of a big chunk of kids who actually weren’t going on to school. And that’s when we began to ask the question: how do we give kids as much advantage as we possibly can for whichever option they’re going to choose after high school? And that’s [what initiated] ideas of promoting youth apprenticeship and trying to elevate direct entry into work — which usually was like “Well, that’s what kids who couldn’t go on to school would do,” it kind of had that stigma attached to it — and to say, “No, that’s a really viable option if it’s well thought-out.” So how do we back that up, and make sure our programming has opportunities for kids to explore that and do that very intentionally? To really think through: “if I’m going directly into the workforce after high school, how am I ensuring that I’m making the best possible choice?” Because it’s a viable choice. So it changed us; when we saw the 80% to the actual 50%, we adjusted our frame of reference and we adjusted the way we have presented these things to kids — because half of our students are graduating and not enrolling in school.
Brancaccio: It just shows you how data can really catalyze thinking. And also, given what’s happening in the economy at this moment, where there quite a few jobs out there and employers are hungry, it’s good that you recognize this.
Schneider: Well, and we’re able to say — and this is part of the conversation with the family, also — to say, “We have some opportunities to benefit your child before they graduate.” Because, at least in our community, there are jobs readily available that your son or daughter can access right out of high school earning $20, $22 an hour with full benefits. And in our county, if you’re making that kind of money, you’re living well. So this is not an “Oh, I can’t do anything else. I guess I’ll go to work” type of situation. This is, “I’m going to be able to purchase a car; pay my own rent; live comfortably at the age of 20, with a high school diploma.”
Brancaccio: And what’s your guiding principle in your work — it’s trying to find the appropriate fit for the next step in these students’ lives?
Schneider: Yeah, our guiding principle really is the kid. What is it that you’re trying to accomplish? And then we try to figure out how can we give you the most advantage possible to get whatever that is done. And they don’t know — they’re 16, 17, they don’t have a whole lot of world experience yet, so they have foggy ideas like, “I think I would like to be; I think I’m considering…” For example, I just had a conversation this morning; had a kid coming in to say, “I want to be a nurse. What are my options?” I’m like “Well, there’s a lot, there’s a lot of ways to approach this. And so let’s lay it out and see what’s going to be the best fit for you and for your family.” So it’s always going to come back to the kid, for us.
Brancaccio: Now you did say “and for your family.” I mean, the students also get pressure from family members, for instance.
Schneider: Yes, we call the families in. It just so happens that right now, the month of April, we have individual meetings with parents and juniors in high school. And it’s led by the kid; we’re like, “This is your meeting. You tell us, what are your thoughts right now for your life after high school? Mom, Dad, let’s give your kid a chance to express that, and then let’s have a conversation as a group.” So if there’s pressure at home, I’ll hear it, and that I’m able to address that to say, “That might be one way to approach it, Mom and Dad, but there could be multiple ways for your son or daughter to accomplish this.” I mean, yes, ultimately, it is going to be a family decision — but sometimes parents aren’t aware of all the different options either, so it’s helpful for us to triangulate that conversation.
Brancaccio: You’ve developed this co-op program; it goes for a number of weeks. What does it explore? What does it teach?
Schneider: Sure. So what we were finding was there’s a big gap between doing a two-hour job shadow and doing a year-long, committed youth apprenticeship. And we thought: what would sit in the middle? So we created, with our local employers, a nine-week co-op program. So you’re going to go into a place of business, you’re going to spend 90 hours maximum, and they’re going to move you through that entire operation. You’re going to get good exposure to careers that require different levels of education — so that when you complete this nine-week co-op, your vision for your future might be a little less foggy, and we might be able to provide a little more focus.
Brancaccio: Like what — what kids say, “I want to go into tech,” or “I want to work at a factory or in health care,” that kind of stuff?
Schneider: Absolutely. In our county we are primarily manufacturing, and so the bulk of our co-ops do rest in that career sector, but health care has also stepped up. So a student that expresses interest, we’re like, “hey, let’s get you into a co-op. You’re gonna learn a ton just by being there. And you’re gonna see a lot of things that are going to help you to further explore your own strengths, your own interests.” And we can have, then, a better conversation about, “OK, if that’s what you want to pursue. That’s a technical college 2-year associate degree.” Or, if the option is “let’s get you there working full-time, and then they’re going to pay for you to go back to school and get trained in what they need.” So again, there are so many ways to approach this for kids — there’s no one right way.
Brancaccio: What we’re not talking about is college shopping — looking through the catalogs of all the possible four-year colleges and deciding which one has the nicest gymnasium facilities or something like that. You’re talking about trying to figure out, first, what kind of life does the student want to live, eventually? What kind of career are they interested in?
Schneider: Yeah. College is a product — it’s a big business; it’s a product that’s supposed to provide value. It doesn’t make sense to me that you would purchase products without knowing their purpose — that doesn’t make sound economical sense for anybody. So we typically start with: What are you interested in? What do you like to do? What skills do you already have? What skills do you want to develop? And once we figure that out, where’s a good spot for you? And let’s make that match after you’ve identified what direction you want to head.
Brancaccio: Where do you come down on the prestige question? You’re going to have parents and you’re certainly going to have kids who face peer pressure — they want to go to the fancy colleges; finding the Lexus or Mercedes of higher end. What do you do with that?
Schneider: My approach, and I think a lot of school counselors’ approach is: We’re not here, necessarily, to point out bad decisions. We’re here to make sure that you’re aware of all decisions. So if I get a family that’s like, “we want that premier college experience because we think that’s going to give our kid an advantage in the world of work,” my counter to that, usually, is to talk about the learning experience. So if you go to, let’s just call it a traditional college; not on the list of the top 10 or whatever — but, while you’re there, you take advantage of their summer co-ops; you take advantage of the opportunities that they have that would go beyond the classroom, and you walk into an employer, and there’s two of you standing there, and one says, “Well, I graduated from this prestigious school, and I’m riding on that.” And another person comes in and says, “I graduated from this school, might not be in your top 10 list, but here are all the things I’ve done; here all the experiences I’ve had; this is what I’m going to bring to you,” it still is going to come down to the value of the person and the experience they bring versus the value of the school they went to. I would rather build up the kid than say, “Well, you might not be able to get a job unless you go to this prestigious school.” To me that’s putting the school in front of the kid, and that just doesn’t sit well.
Brancaccio: Yeah. And it’s often, in that case, putting the high cost of the school in front of the abilities of certain families to pay. And it’s especially expensive if it’s not a good fit.
Schneider: Which we know — we’ve got data that we can track that shows student transfer rates once they leave high school. I can see our graduates and see how many of them have made moves. So it just provides me more opportunity to say to parents, “Look, there’s not a one way to do this. Why don’t we spend some time upfront thinking through this so that we can limit the amount of transition during an already difficult phase of life?” And economics is a big piece of it. I think there are some families that put undue pressure on themselves about what they’re able to afford. I think school counselors step in all the time to say there’s no need to put that pressure on yourself. There are so many good options that wouldn’t put your family in such economic stress that this becomes a really negative experience for everybody. That’s not the goal.
Brancaccio: You overlay pandemic and all this time where students couldn’t be together and it was harder to get out in the real world. How has the pandemic changed the outlook for your students and the work that you do with them?
Schneider: What I have seen, and I think one of the things that we are working through is a sense of stability. I think we’re working with some students who, at the point in life, developmentally, where stability is important, they’ve lost that. But my approach [is] I just look at these kids and I’m like, “Yes, you’ve been through a lot, and it sucked. And we can just say that’s our baseline, and we all agree that that’s our baseline. And let’s start talking about: how are we going to recover from this? And it’s not that you need a whole lot from me. How do we tap into what you already have; the resiliency that you already have?” And that empowers them, then it’s not poor them and they have to have the adults come in and save them from this horrible experience. It’s like, “No, you have everything you need to do it. You might need a little bit of coaching and a little bit of help. And that’s where I can step in.”