McAlmont: Financial Literacy Can’t Wait for College. Here Are My 2 Career Readiness Wishes for Students to Give Them a Leg Up on Success

With student loan debt in excess of $1.5 trillion taking direct aim at the economic prospects of an entire generation, a commission headed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has just released new guidelines calling for mandatory financial literacy courses at all institutions of higher education.

The report also calls for colleges to do a much better job of explaining the true costs to students, along with getting at the root of the problem by “communicating the importance of graduation and major on repayment of student loans.”

These are good, important steps, with just one flaw: By waiting until students are in college, this starts this process much too late, and it misses kids who don’t continue their education beyond high school.

I believe America’s student debt crisis is primarily a higher-education public policy failure, but it would be a mistake to let the K-12 education system off the hook. Simply put, those of us working with middle and high school students have a responsibility to do a better job of providing not just education but also longer-term college and career guidance.

There’s no reason students should spend years learning and then graduate with no clear idea of what their long-term career path might be. Kids who don’t need to attend a four-year college to meet their goals shouldn’t put themselves tens of thousands of dollars in the hole just to discover that fact. And students who are college-bound should have a better idea of what they need to accomplish over those four years, lest their uninformed choices stretch that period into five or six.

The opportunities are there. Already, a staggering number of job openings are going unfilled in career fields that are critical to the economy because employers can’t find candidates with the skills needed to start straight away. By 2020, the economy will create another 16.6 million so-called new-collar jobs that require education beyond a high school diploma — a two-year associate degree, maybe — but not a bachelor’s degree.

I was lucky when I was growing up to have had great mentors at various stages of my life who helped me see a path forward through education. Early in my career, I tried to pay that back as a student adviser at two selective universities, but as I became involved in career and technical higher education, I saw countless students, either years into their studies or returning to college, frustrated and panicked by the fact they had no concrete end goal in mind.

That’s why I have a twofold wish for today’s students. The first is that they be able to take exploratory classes — at a younger age than most think — that can inform them about various industries, showing them the specific work, education, training and skills that each would require.

The second is that high school students be connected to individuals and companies that can offer firsthand experience. Yes, it’s an opportunity to learn important soft skills like punctuality and professionalism, but it’s also a window into the much larger world to follow, once that diploma is in hand. Students must develop a vision of what they can become.

An early career readiness education model in middle and high school can set students up to not only master core subjects like English, math, science and social studies but also see and master elective courses related to areas of interest that can translate into high-growth careers — often long before they have to decide whether they want or need to attend college. Students can embark on these classes, taught by individuals formerly employed by their respective industries, to gain relevant skills and have access to opportunities for project- and work-based learning.

Career readiness is not yet a mainstream approach to educating today’s youth, but as we face the unstable cliff of generational indebtedness, it’s clearly where we need to go. No matter how well college students understand the debt they’re facing, they still need a job after graduation to be able to pay it off. Career readiness can ensure that students have the skills they need to succeed and that our economy has the individuals needed to fill critically important positions. At the end of the day, career readiness is the future, and it’s a future we must embrace.

Dr. Shaun McAlmont is president for career readiness education at K12 Inc.

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