The Need to Validate Vocational Interests

Assuming college is always the best option turns career-minded students away from true learning.

A welder works with a small torch and helmet on.
Sean Gardner / Reuters

At a recent conference, I listened to a university president boast about a program she had developed in partnership with several local high schools. She told the story of one teenager who lived in a rural area and worked full time on his family’s farm in addition to attending high school. The university president explained that the young man had little promise for attending college because of his circumstances. But through the dual-credit program, he was able to gain college credit while still in high school, which gave him the confidence to seek an associate’s degree in agriculture and return home to work on his family farm. I listened as she proudly told this young man’s story and the audience cheered for both of them, and all I could think was: What an extraordinary waste of time.

It may be shocking for a veteran high-school teacher to feel that a student gaining any kind of degree is a waste of time, but considering that 44 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed, and many employers such as Deloitte are now completely ditching college degrees as a requirement altogether, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sell the same old story—working hard to make good grades to go to college to get a good job—to millennials. When I think of the young agriculture student in the aforementioned anecdote, my heart hurts for him because I believe the system misled him. I wonder if he acquired any college debt during this journey, why he didn’t feel the need to continue on to attain a bachelor’s degree, and why it was necessary for a young man who grew up on a family farm to learn about agriculture miles away in a community-college classroom. I would feel a bit better if he wanted to be a teacher, or photographer, or engineer, and that’s why he went to college, but he didn’t. He went to learn something he probably already knew, but chances are no one had ever validated his expertise, and no one had ever found a way for his secondary education to be integrated into the work he loved.

Obviously, the counterargument here is the largely touted maxim that people with college degrees make more money than those without them, which is statistically true. But this idea is misleading: Crushing student-loan debt increases yearly and ethnicity, class, and gender factor into salary levels, regardless of education. And low-income kids can become “targets for diploma mills that load them up with debt, but not a lot of prospects.” Additionally, the average American worker will spend 90,000 to 125,000 hours working during the course of a lifetime, as Bill Burnett and Dave Evans write in Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, so the greatest portion of a person’s life is often spent at work. Although it is easy to proclaim to students coming of age that “you will make more money if you get a degree,” it is much more difficult to shed light on the intricacies of such a claim. I believe students should hear the whole story and more than one traditional path should be laid out before them.

While in high school in the late ‘70s, my dad took every shop class his school offered. He spent hours hanging out with the shop teacher (a man with whom he still visits occasionally), working on projects at home with his own carpenter dad, and losing himself in sawdust and splinters. Because it was the ‘70s and things were quite different then, a guidance counselor advised him to go ahead and drop out of school since he’d taken all the shop he could—“There’s nothing else we can do for you here,” the counselor had said, according to my dad. So that’s exactly what my dad did: He dropped out, joined the army, and, years of sweat and toil later, he continues to work as a carpenter today. And for the most part, he is happy doing it. But he will be the first to say that he wishes he had gone to college and that going to college would have made his life easier overall. Maybe it would have, but I wonder what would have happened if rather than telling my dad that there was nothing left for him in traditional education, his educators had recognized his passion and his individual needs as a learner, and offered him options beyond dropping out, the military, and college.

I see students who disengage from school because they believe that what they are learning doesn’t relate to who they are or what they want to be—or worse, they are tracked by the system into programs that appear to be for their benefit but actually perpetuate an unspoken bias, and are sometimes for the benefit of universities, businesses, and government agencies. In Kentucky and other states around the U.S., dual-credit programs and community-college initiatives receive quite a bit of attention, and although I am not suggesting that these programs are unnecessary, I do believe it is important to be intentional in the creation and execution of such initiatives to avoid perpetuating biases and tracking students onto paths that do not empower them to capitalize on their strengths. While many states and policymakers are increasingly promoting post-graduation alternatives to college, many of these efforts are half-baked or seemingly based on the premise that such alternatives are for students who aren't good enough to go to college. A blind acceptance of the same old story can unintentionally invalidate the experiences of truly exceptional young people. Why should students have to go to college to find ways to be good at what they love? And why should what they love not sync in authentic, empowering ways with what they do in high school?

For example, during my first year of teaching in Lexington, Kentucky, one of our state requirements for high-school graduation was a writing portfolio. The portfolio was great in theory, but its rigid requirements for what and how to write often tied the hands of both teachers and students. I had a student in class who wanted to be a barber; his father was a barber and he hung out in the barber shop every day after school. He would flat out tell me that his writing portfolio was simply a hoop to jump through in order to get out of school. He wanted just to get to the work that really mattered to him. He told me he would never write a day in his life after he crossed the stage at graduation. I understood his perspective and had to concede that, no, he probably wouldn’t have to write an annotated bibliography or a persuasive piece about whether or not dress codes were necessary in schools after he graduated. But I disagreed with him in that he would indeed need to know how to write as a barber. Barbers tell stories. Barbers listen to the stories of others and respond to them. So although he wouldn’t need to write on paper in his chosen career, he would need to know how to engage in the same processes for writing that real writers do.

I will never forget the shift in his expression when he realized I was right. As a barber, he would inherently also be a writer, but few people, if any, had ever taken the time to acknowledge his interests and suit assignments to his needs. He was a senior in high school before he recognized the need to develop skills relevant to his aspirations. How might his experience have been different if he had begun his high-school career with that mindset? And how might I have better served him if I had not been obligated by the mandatory requirements of the portfolio, but had been allowed to modify it according to the personal needs of my students? Schools, especially secondary schools, should build curriculum around the interests and skills of its students, rather than expect students to adhere to arbitrary plans of a school system and false perceptions about what that schooling will do for a student’s life.

A couple of years ago, a mother broke down crying during a parent-teacher conference when we were speaking about her son because she was frustrated that all he wanted to do was fish. He didn’t care about school. He had no desire to go to college. She said she just kept telling him if he went to college and got a good job, then he could fish all he wanted on the weekends. I had taught the student for two years and knew him well. I saw his face in my mind as the mother spoke; I saw him with his head down in the back of class. I imagined what it must feel like to walk around all the time in a world that views your greatest passion, the one thing you truly love and are good at, as a weekend hobby.

I said to the mother, “What if you change the conversation? What would happen if you start talking to him about what a career as a fisherman would look like and what it would take to accomplish it?” And she must have seen his face in her mind, too, because she said, “Yeah, you’re right.” She went home that day and, she later told me, had that conversation. His grades didn’t go up, nor did he suddenly love school, but he did engage more in class and seemed happier overall. And he told me proudly when the year ended that he was going to be a fisherman.

As much as parents, educators, and school systems proclaim the importance of a college degree, according to Gallup, only 14 percent of Americans believe that college adequately prepares students for success in the workplace, and only 11 percent of business leaders agree that college graduates are adequately prepared for the workforce. But like the university president I listened to at the recent conference, 96 percent of chief academics officers at colleges and universities are confident that they are preparing students for job success. Clearly there is a gap between what the American public and business leaders believe and what universities claim to achieve. Yet, the myth persists and the result is harmful to kids.

I am a creative, a writer, a person who was always destined to work with words, but I took shop class with the same shop teacher who taught my dad because I respected him and the work he did. I was and still am a terrible carpenter, but I value the work. I see it as not only a skill, but a talent: When my students tell me they work on houses in the summer, I respond to them in a way that shows them the reverence I have for people who work with their hands. I want to teach them that Advanced Placement classes are no more important nor do they involve more talent than working on a car or welding machine. Vocational programs can be beneficial as long as they are not attached to bias and therefore track “nonacademic” kids into trades classes because the students have nowhere else to go. Doing so would not be much different than the counselor telling my dad to go ahead and drop out; it just sounds a little nicer. My father and many of my own students including the barber and the fisherman deserved an education that was personalized and empowering, and that is what any program should offer every kind of learner.

In a study of more than 30,000 U.S. college graduates, the Gallup-Purdue Index noted that there were six essential key ingredients that led to students attaining a degree, and more importantly, thriving socially, emotionally, financially, and physically after graduation. These “Big Six” include a professor who cares about students as people, a professor who makes students excited about learning, a mentor who encourages students to pursue their dreams, the opportunity to work on a long-term project, the opportunity to apply what they learned in a job or internship, and involvement in extracurricular activities. The results of this massive study make me wonder: How might the experience of the agriculture student have been different if he had been given these opportunities from the start of high school? Why not provide internships, mentors, interdisciplinary curriculum, project based, blended, and personalized learning into traditional k-12 curriculum?

I don’t know what became of him, and his dual-credit program may have been life-changing for all I know. But from what I know after 11 years of teaching kids, for many of them, just getting some college credit is not enough to inspire them to follow their bliss and become their best selves. Dual-credit programs that actually benefit kids would probably look more like the Big Six, rather than bragging rights for university presidents. And why should students drag their feet through traditional school before they get the chance to do what they love? Integrating validating experiences into high school rather than hoping that universities will provide them down the road gives opportunities for students who feel ignored, disengaged, and disregarded to recognize the virtue of their talents and pursue them happily—and with pride.