For many years, public schools chugged students along on the same track: Learn the basic subjects, get decent grades, then shuffle off to a liberal arts college where some, but not all, would settle on a career track.
Those who didn’t end up as dropouts had two other alternatives: Join the military or take the high school diplomas and head straight into the workplace in unskilled jobs.
It was a workable system back in the day when jobs were varied and plentiful and a college degree was more affordable. But with the rise in student debt and the changing needs of the workplace, schools are rethinking where those rails are headed.
Now the revised goal for secondary public education is to prepare students for their adult lives earlier with a more productive strategy toward career success. On Tuesday, a forum at the University of North Georgia Gainesville offered by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education included business and educational leaders discussing how to steer students toward the best jobs after graduation.
The students who slip through the workforce cracks fall in a few main groups: Those who either drop out or who graduate but with few skills learned and no set goals beyond high school. That describes most lower-income students for whom college is often out of reach.
Many other graduates head to college, sometimes with no specific career path in mind, only to run up massive amounts of student loan debt they must pay off decades into the future. They invest a fortune in degrees that don’t always lead directly to jobs in a chosen field, and they wind up paying off their debt by waiting tables and pouring coffee.
As the cost of a college education rises, so does student loan debt. About 44 million grads and undergrads owe $1.5 trillion, according to figures from the Federal Reserve. The average student loan debt for the class of 2017 was $39,400, up about $20,000 from 2005. That comes to nearly $400 a month out of their paychecks, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
Success for high school grads starts with getting a diploma to begin with. Local and state schools are moving in the right direction there. Hall County’s graduation rate bumped up five percentage points in 2017 to 88.2 percent while Gainesville’s took a slight bump to 87.9. Georgia overall is now graduating 81 percent of its students.
But just as important is what they do with those diplomas. At times in the past, a high school sheepskin was merely a signature that a student had completed a standard course of study like all others and would qualify for college or certain jobs. Now the aim is to train students for their chosen field while in high school.
Students now are better able to choose the best path for them. If it’s a college degree in fields that require higher education, Advanced Placement college courses offer a head start toward a degree, as do dual enrollment, International Baccalaureate or Early College @ Jones options.
Others can instead steer toward vocational training to prepare for skilled trades in programs at colleges such as Lanier Technical College that prepare them for good-paying, high-growth professions in health care, manufacturing and technology.
Regardless of the direction students choose, the concept of shuffling them along with just the basic curriculum is no longer good enough.
“Perhaps it’s that we’re still riding a horse that our great-great-grandparents rode that just doesn’t get the job done any longer,” Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said at Tuesday’s forum. “We are measuring the wrong things. The world has changed.”
The right preparation is vital. The days of a high school graduate finding a good-paying job on an assembly line are mostly gone. Manufacturing jobs now require specific high-tech knowledge best earned through work-study programs or technical schools.
The Georgia Partnership reports that while 60 percent of jobs will require some form of post-secondary education by 2025, only 48 percent of young adults have such education today. That leaves seven years to close that gap and ensure a work-ready class of graduates is available.
To that end, Hall County schools offer 35 programs of choice tailored to individual student needs rather than a one-size-fits-all road that leads either to college or nowhere.
“We’re trying to fix 18-year-olds and building prisons instead of ensuring children in all communities are ready to go to school,” Schofield said.
The benefits aren’t just to the individuals. Businesses need a trained workforce to fill the jobs of the present and future, particularly in an era of low unemployment when potential employees have many job options. Workers who show up on Day One trained and prepared save time and money for their employers.
Having a better-prepared educated class of young people also reduces crime and the need for expensive incarceration. Young people from low-income backgrounds, in particular, are less likely to resort to antisocial behavior if their path toward a good job has been provided while they are in school.
To create the right atmosphere requires strong community partnerships between schools, businesses, government and nonprofits to help steer young people in the right direction. That includes the United Way’s “Community Game Plan” strategy to address poverty, which most education experts agree remains the No. 1 impediment to school success. All such efforts must come together to steer young people toward worthwhile careers.
School used to be pretty standard: Send the kids off in the morning with a PBJ, an apple and a few sharpened pencils, have them memorize lessons from dusty textbooks and make enough grades to move along. Diploma in hand, the rest was up to them.
That’s not good enough any more. It’s a more complicated world requiring more specific skills and knowledge to get ahead. The fact that community leaders recognize that is a key first step toward brighter futures for students, local economies and society at large.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Executive Editor Keith Albertson and Director of Content Shannon Casas, plus community member Brent Hoffman.