I commonly mistake the buzz in the air with the hair-pulling, personal statement-writing, grade-conscious, deadline-racing stress of the college application process.

It seems the college application deadlines creep up earlier every year, but this is when high school seniors really need to take action.

Personally, this is an exciting time because it starts a series of remarkable conversations with youth because they are beginning to catch a glimpse of what’s to come.

Cue meltdown from students: “OMG! What am I going to do?!?”

But what does “college” really mean to high school students?

In my years as an academic advisor in a college setting I have noticed the messaging around college to high school students can be quite complex. Terms like “bachelor’s degrees” and “two-year” or “four-year” college or universities are in every students’ face through presentations, posters, commercials, radio ads, everything!

Kapiolani Community College. Choosing which school or program to apply to can be intimidating for students but should not be.

Flickr: Kyle Nishioka

But I have strong feelings about how those terms are used. A large percentage of our students have to work even with financial aid offsetting some of the cost of college. As a result, students are working more hours and spending less time in the classroom.

In other words, they are attending college on a part-time basis meaning the term “two-year” and “four-year” have no meaning or makes one feel there is some kind of non-existent timeline. Students are told to go for a bachelor’s degree when it makes more financial, and even personal sense to explore other very smart yet not-so-popular options.

I took over two years to complete my associate’s degree, and did it have a negative impact? No. I’m hearing more testimonials that include high school students working long hours just to make ends meet. Maybe college wouldn’t be so intimidating if it were viewed as a journey versus a race — then perhaps these college terms can be redefined to be less complex.

Broad Menu Of Choices

If I had more time with youth, I would ask them deeper questions that explore if they truly understand why they are filling out a college application. My conversations with youth have the typical script that “earning a college degree will increases my earning potential.” True.

The script also includes that a “bachelor’s degree is the path to increase my annual income.” Pause. That is not 100 percent true anymore.

Furthermore, I feel the masses are having a tough time embracing the broader menu of choices. There are certifications and associate’s degrees that produce living wage jobs, in addition to other growth and learning opportunities through non-credit programs, which doesn’t get the proper recognition. Did you ever meet a welder that has an enormous college debt?

However, these prospective wage-earners must think critically about their future that connects them to their personal interests and goals. In other words, they need to be more invested.

The Association for Technical Education has an annual conference in Hawaii that highlights, well, “Technical Education.” The energy and messaging at this past conferences was so powerful that I left wondering why the push for a technical education is not equally strong to that of a bachelor’s degree.

This conference also forced me to think about the design of “academies” or “career pathways” that are offered to high school students. I completely understand why these academic pipelines are in place but there is somewhat an unspoken hierarchical undertone.

Students have shared with me that they are not in a “STEM” academy or pathway because they are “not smart enough.” That concerns me … a lot. If I am locked into something that implies something other than greatness, why should I even put in the effort? Why should I even care? At a pre-conference session, I asked why can’t degrees like automotive, electrician, and culinary arts be considered “STEM” pathways?

“The college search process can start with conversations around purpose, values, and interest.”

I’ve been wrestling with this for a while therefore experts in this field, like Dr. Ben Williams, Chief Executive Officer of the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity and Mark C. Perna, Chief Executive Officer and founder of TFS reminded us folks in the field to be student-centered and to walk along side with our students through their journey. They encouraged us to change the messaging.

I’ve also noticed students are also researching brand name schools.

Exposure to colleges is heavily reliant on savvy marketing and local college fairs because we are isolated in the Pacific Ocean. I get that, but it has the potential of creating other gaps when it comes to college exploration.

The college search process can start with conversations around purpose, values, and interest. This journey can include diving deep into career exploration activities and reflections on their priorities and short-term sacrifices.

Let’s say a student is interested in becoming a teacher. It is our job to foster that interest and connect the student to every possible resource. It could be a meaningful conversation with a teacher asking about their personal and academic journey; it could be volunteering at schools, churches, and/or non-profit agencies; it could be finding a mentor that inspires.

The hope is that the student will be well equipped with the knowledge and tools to seek out his or her next steps. The student can then seek out the most appropriate educational institutions that have the particular program that is aligned with the student’s interest and, best of all, personally meaningful.

More than ever we need to place our students at the center. We need to understand their interest, their favorite subjects, and other factors that provide meaning to them.

Students should start early with exploring their core values, finding their purpose, and identifying their interest and strengths. It has the potential of keeping students engaged, keeping them on track to completion, reducing the cost of education, and helping them live a fulfilling life.

Perhaps school reports or commencement programs should highlight students’ goals and desires versus where they are attending after high school because we know that changes too. We need to upgrade our messaging to students that is more holistic and inclusive when it comes to the discussions around college.

We need to make our next generation of professionals to truly understand what college means to them so they can take flight on their terms … and not stress out … too much.

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