Every year, when I welcome a new class to campus, I hear about the decision-making process students have undertaken to enroll in their programs. Some cite the advice of parents or a friend, others refer to teachers, but many times students are clearly unsure of why they have chosen their program. Parents are most often sought out for advice, yet they are often ill-equipped to talk about the full range of postsecondary options.
Recently, I was talking about degree options for students in our colleges and the parent said to me, "Well, those aren't real degrees." In fact, the applied-learning focus of the degrees in the colleges is just as real as any BA awarded at a traditional university. I would argue these degrees are even more real because of their concrete connections to industry as well as the field work, internships and co-ops that are linked to these credentials. Many parents are simply working under pre-conceived assumptions about colleges being a lesser-than option when compared to the universities. Indeed, while colleges do offer access programming, we also offer intensive degree programs on par with many undergraduate degrees.
So how can we help students and parents think differently? More importantly, how do we ensure students are receiving and using the right information to make right career decisions? It first begins with strong assessment of their talents, who they are and what they are interested in pursuing. To me this means that we need to better equip students earlier with solid information around the whole range of career options that align to their strengths. In my own institution, we have developed some new online tools and pro-active career advising to support students with this process to ensure they have a more complete picture of themselves and their goals.
Additionally, our education system specifically needs to provide better information to students and parents about career planning. This includes improved career development options for secondary-school students and changing the dominant paradigm in parents' minds about the value of applied learning available in postsecondary schools and promoting the importance of adaptability for students. This also includes more work-integrated learning opportunities and courses in creative thinking, entrepreneurship and innovation.
It is also about developing a new social contract between students, employers and society related to careers, education and training. We have to change our notions about the skills associated with the future world of work. It is not about simply "skills training." It also has to be about training for the right skills that are needed now and in the future. This means highlighting the importance of continuing to learn and equipping students to be flexible and resilient. This will allow new graduates to respond to changing conditions, especially in a connected, hyper-competitive global economy.
I would argue in fact that our economy benefits from a differentiated and strongly linked postsecondary system. We need students graduating with history degrees, philosophy degrees and applied–focused degrees that also build in work-integrated learning opportunities and creative thinking approaches.
However our postsecondary system needs more tools to effectively show students what success looks like. It is not about just picking a program because someone told them this is where the jobs shortages are occurring. More often than not in my experience, the students who combine passion, a strong understanding of their strengths and a well-informed support network of parents and friends are motivated to succeed and cross the stage at convocation.
Joe Henry is a 2012 DiverseCity Fellow with Toronto CivicAction and Associate Dean of Student Success at Sheridan College.