I recently had dinner with a long-time friend who shared details of his college story, which had numerous twists and turns, some disappointments, but a strong, successful ending. Middle and high school students who are preparing for postsecondary may find his story instructive.
My friend is a smart guy who earned outstanding grades in secondary, so with numerous extracurriculars under his belt, he went off to a well-respected four-year university and all arrows pointed in a promising direction. While excelling in both math and statistics in high school, he was uncertain of a specific career path but felt that working toward becoming an actuary might be a career choice that fit.
Somewhere along the way, though, things did not proceed as he had hoped. While taking a high level calculus course, the terrain grew foggy and he could not pass the class. He said, “From what I recall, this class applied calculus to real physics. I did not seem to have the imagination to make this connection.” Frustration mounted, and despite being only a few courses short of a math degree, he packed up and left the college.
He enrolled in another well-respected four-year university closer to home, thinking that he could apply many of the credits he had stacked up previously. He was interested in being a teacher and planned to earn a degree in education or child psychology. Reality hit, here, too, though as he was unable to get accepted into the highly competitive education program. In addition, he realized he no longer wanted to be a teacher.
At this point, with any form of clarity lost, my friend said he began to “struggle with rationalizing all the money I was spending on college, not knowing what I wanted to pursue for a career.” He then left college again. He told me that at this stage in his life he dispiritedly had no career goals, and he just wanted to work and pay his bills. So, he began to work as a truck driver.
My friend, though, has a curious brain, and gained interest in learning more about IT as he fixed his own personal computer whenever issues arose. Reflecting back, he remembered a time when “my modem failed, so I needed to replace it. Rather than spend the money to get it fixed, I decided to learn how to do it myself.” As it turned out, he “had multiple issues like that, and showed a general understanding or aptitude with the hardware.” That ability propelled him toward studying IT at a business school, where he earned an associate’s degree.
He was then hired to work for a large bank, and that initial role gave him the opportunity to see many different aspects of IT. He found he was most interested in networking, so my friend began a two-year self-study program to gain the CCNA certificate, known as a Cisco Certified Networking Associate. When I asked him how these certifications have helped him he replied, “First of all, gaining the certification taught me much more than what was learned on the job or required of with my current role. Second, it gave me much more confidence in my skill set.” Finally, he said, any type of certification you get indicates to management your ability to learn, as well as your desire to move up to roles which require more knowledge, skills & abilities.”
My friend has now been working with his current employer for nine years and as a Network Engineer for the last three. He likes the quick pace of IT work, saying “Working in IT, things change fast, and I am always learning new technology in order to do my job, so it has certainly held my interest.” While he may not have predicted it when he was 18 years old, obtaining his associate’s degree in IT earned him the initial opportunity to become employed in the industry. The certification helped him get to his current position. Moreover, he said that, “On the job success played a large role in my getting promoted to my current level.” Clearly, being an engaged and curious learner paid off for him.
I asked my long-time friend what he would tell himself about preparation for postsecondary if he could go back to high school. He had some prescient thoughts. Most prominently, he said, “I would have engaged my guidance counselor far more often, to try and help find what I really wanted to do in my career. Not knowing that was the toughest part of me going to college. I simply went because it was expected of me, per my grades.” He added some advice for students going off to college this fall as well. “Treat college like a job. Put your time in and make classes your number one priority. The social aspect of college is important as well, but there’s plenty of time for that after classwork.”
After reflecting on my friend’s story, I reached out to Michael Griffin, who has devoted his career to extensive work around issues of enrollment and admissions in both collegiate and other settings. Mr. Griffin works as the Director of Enrollment at the University of Minnesota--Crookston and I wanted to get his take on my friend’s experiences in postsecondary.
The first question I asked him was what might students like my friend do to align their talents and interests with a program, major, or college while choosing a school? He responded by saying, “This is a difficult question for most students. Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of students and honestly only 10-20% of high school students have a clear, defined idea of the program or major they want to pursue. So I caution students not to panic if they don’t know what they want to major in.” He added, “Understanding one’s talents and interests is the place to start, but that takes an investment of time and a desire to be open to things they never knew about themselves. A place to start is with a self-assessment program to help them better understand their unique interests, skills and strengths. The next step is discovering and exploring relevant job and career options that connect with their interests and abilities.”
Mr. Griffin, moreover, urged students to tap into the resources their school offers. He said, “If a student is wondering what they like and don’t like, a good place to start is to see if your high school has a career and college readiness program that offers apprenticeships or work- based learning programs.” While some schools have opted for comprehensive college and career readiness programs such as Ramp-Up to Readiness, Mr Griffin added, “If your school doesn’t offer a full college readiness program, schedule an appointment to meet with your career and college counselor. The sooner a student develops a relationship with someone who can advise and guide them through high school onto an educational pathway after school, the better.” Moreover, another suggestion for students Mr. Griffin made was to look at postsecondary broadly. “When exploring where to continue education after high school, obviously look at four-year colleges, but don’t hesitate to expand your thinking and include two-year colleges and career and technical education courses.”
The next question I asked my colleague was how common my friend’s story was. Mr. Griffin stated, “Your friend’s story is not unique and there are hundreds of thousands like his. In the United States, the overall dropout rate for undergraduate college students is 40%, with approximately 30% of college freshman dropping out before their sophomore year.”
Given that, I asked Mr. Griffin what my friend could have done differently so that he could have wrapped up a college degree years earlier. He replied, “There’s no single, easy answer to this question . . . the simple answer is that with the right advising and research in high school he hopefully would have chosen the right school to attend from the start. But what he could have done differently at his first two colleges is to have worked with an academic advisor that he liked and respected. What happens far too often is students are assigned an advisor at the beginning of their first year and either don’t take the time to really speak with them or don’t feel like they have a good fit with them and the result is they go it alone not receiving the advice and guidance they need to construct a clear and productive academic pathway to follow”. Therefore, he encourages all first-year students to “find an academic advisor they like, someone who will take the time to sit down with them and give them the advice and guidance they need.”
Finally, I asked Mr. Griffin what the avenues might be for a student who did not finish a degree but still has interest. He said, “There are avenues to take if a student who drops out wants to finish their degree and just like the high school student looking for the best fit college and the right program/major, anyone returning to school has to take the time to research and assess their current abilities and interests and how going back to school fits into their daily life.”
In addition, he added that, “While no single option is right for all students they can choose to return to an on-campus major but depending on the type of program or major they want to pursue they can take classes online instead of returning to campus. And a growing number of colleges and universities are offering competency-based education programs that assess a students’ existing knowledge and skills and gives them credit towards a degree and in the process personalizes their education and accelerates their progress towards degree completion.”
It is clear that my friend struggled along his postsecondary path toward a fulfilling career, but let me tell you how proud I am of him for persevering! I have no doubt that he is tremendous in his role as a Network Engineer. I am grateful for him letting me share his story, which both of us acknowledge could help a lot of students out there trying to find their way.
About the Authors
Jennifer Kunze, Ph.D., is the Director of Ramp-Up to Readiness at the University of Minnesota, and is thoroughly committed to college for all, with a broad emphasis on the word college. Her additional professional interests include high quality instruction, professional learning systems, and labor trends. She is also a licensed social studies teacher, and has worked in K-12 settings, leading efforts in curriculum and instruction, equity, mentoring/coaching, alternative compensation, and postsecondary readiness.
Michael Griffin is the Director of Enrollment Management on the University of Minnesota Crookston campus. Michael’s experience spans both private and public university systems. His experience positions him at the nexus of high school and postsecondary education, providing a unique insight into students’ mindsets as they navigate and transition from high school into their next level of education. He sees the lack of information, guidance, and direction during the transition as critical to avoiding many of the issues that lead to students graduating from high school without a decision, or at best a questionable decision, about their career and education. In 2012, he founded admission2college, a private college counseling practice, working with high school students and their parents on the college search and application and financial aid processes.