Can We Change High School to Reduce College Debt?

Wow – it sounds cliché, but where did the time go? Fifteen years ago I decided to homeschool, and never quite realized how it would feel when my oldest would graduate high school. Now we are on that verge, teetering just over college applications, financial aid, scholarships, and life. And I can’t help but be so enormously thankful that we stayed on the path of homeschooling. Without it I fear my child would be graduating with a bit less enthusiasm for her future, a rockier road beneath her feet, and a lack of motivation to keep plowing debt

She had that advantage of a tailored education that included directed learning, faith, the opportunity to attend a private college for PSEO (she will graduate high school and finish her sophomore year of college at the same time), and respect for her individual learning styles. She is ready for continued college and knows she will need it (vet med school). But that is not the typical story for our nation’s children. We need to do something different as a society. Our children are leaving high school, feeling no choice but to attend college, and then many are failing to even be able to find a job to pay for the mounting student loans. Reports today illustrate just how dire the situation is for teenage children in America.

  • The average amount owed by college graduates is now $26,600 (a 5% increase from the previous year).
  • Only just over 10 percentage points of unemployment exists between college graduates (8.8%) and high school graduates (19.1%).
  • The latest figures show that the national student loan debt is more than $1 trillion dollars. That is 1 with 12 zeros.
  • Some figures place the number as high as 53% for those college graduates who are unable to secure a job that actually utilizes their degrees.

As a parent I have to ask myself: Is college good for my kids? As a homeschool family I already have seen the benefits of non-traditional education paths. I also have children who are attending college and planning to attend college. But I am also a college graduate and I don’t know that I would be able to do all of the work that I do without my degree – not necessarily because of what I was taught, but because my degree opened doors. The American education system doesn’t stop at high school. The entire plan is built on the idea that college is a necessary extension (at a high cost) of public high schools. It then begs the question: What can our high schools do differently to prepare our kids for careers?

We Must Change High Schoolchild need college

In order to alleviate our crushing college debts, we need to find a better way to prepare our children for careers without forcing them to study for degrees they don’t know if they will use, and will most often be in extraordinary debt for as a result. I have had the absolute pleasure of hosting a foreign exchange student in our home this year – and learning more and more every day how ineffective the traditional high school system is in America, especially when it comes to training for life and careers skills. Instead of focusing on the details of typical American high school classes and paths, consider, instead, the educational system of Germany.

  • Students pursue different tracks in high school, depending upon their abilities.
  • The typical high school graduation age is 16 for the mid-level high school track.
  • Once students graduate from this mid-level (typical) school, they are encouraged to explore their options. This might mean studying abroad, getting experience in a trade, or going on to the next level of what would be the American equivalent of junior and senior years of high school.
  • Here is one of the key differences: Those last two years of “high school” – known as gymnasium – can be specialized and provide students with marketable skills, and it is all done without exorbitant tuition. For example, a student in gymnasium (junior year of high school) would select a school that specialized in a certain area of interest (business, education, etc.). During that year 3 out of 5 days of school would actually be spent in on the job training (equivalent to our college internships – some are paid and some are not paid positions). The other 2 days would be spent in the classroom. The last year of school would be on more intensive studying that pertained to that particular field of interest.

Drawback – students need to know a bit earlier what direction interests them

Positive – students don’t go into debt exploring their options and have real world experience that can help them explore career options

College is not the given – it is more the exception in Germany – right out of high school. Students who graduate from gymnasium and don’t want to go onto college often go on to a three year term of apprenticeship where they gain the skills they need to have for their career. College is still available and utilized by people who want to pursue specialized positions – such as doctors, teachers, and some specific business options. If students go on to college, the typical tuition averages between the equivalent of $1000 to $5000 each year.

While the college system in Germany is obviously different, both in types of degrees pursued and in much lower costs, what strikes me as the most important piece of the puzzle of high school. In Germany high school has directed, focused classes that do the work of some technical colleges, and do it without saddling children with debt. It in some ways seems to mirror the American trend of PSEO (Post-Secondary-Enrollment-Options), where high school students can attend college classes during their junior or senior years, at no cost.

I am so thankful my daughter had the opportunity to attend a small, private college and get a view of the world of “higher” education before she had to commit to carry an extravagant loan. Sure – she’s going to need her college degree in order to practice medicine. But that doesn’t mean that in our house college is a make-it-or-break-it rule. The amount of debt our kids might incur just to get the degree is more than I have left on my mortgage!

Where Do We Go From Here?

If you ask the question: Are you satisfied with the American education system and the possibilities that college brings? – chances are that the majority of answers would not be affirmative. Perhaps, instead, we should be asking ourselves and each other:

How can we change American high schools so that they can provide trade and professional skills to students?

How can we incorporate job shadowing, internships, and apprenticeships at the high school level?

How can we encourage business owners to look beyond the degree and focus on the skill sets that are offered?

How can we encourage businesses to offer more on the job training, by investing in students who invest in commitments to their companies?

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