Postsecondary pressures

Analyzing why students feel indebted to attend university


Madi Michajliczenko

The idea of attending university following high school is so ingrained in our high schools, many do not receive a thorough explanation of alternate options.


With early action application deadlines quickly approaching, it’s safe to say that college is a pressing thought on many senior students’ minds. Years of preparation — career quizzes, building resumes, writing essays — have all led to this point. Now, they must face a crucial crossroad in their lives: deciding which institution to attend. 

Since the 1950s, college enrollment has been on the rise. Greater population size and the automation of application systems have been important contributing factors to this. However, within the last five years,  this influx of students seems to be taking a downward trend, with 1.4 million fewer enrolled students throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This begs the question: Is a college education as useful as we’ve believed?  

College attendance is pushed heavily on students through inadvertent methods. Mandatory informative seminars and pressure to enroll in AP classes lead students to a false belief that enrolling in a university is the only viable option following high school. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Students have many post-secondary options, but these options are less frequently advertised due to the overarching stronghold college has on discussions about students’ futures. Therefore, we must encourage widespread acknowledgment of and assistance in pursuing alternate career paths for students. 

The national focus on increasing college enrollment numbers has been rekindled by programs like the American Graduation Initiative. First proposed in 2009 by former president Barack Obama, the initiative planned to strengthen community colleges and “help an additional five million Americans earn degrees and certificates in the next decade.” These programs have increased college enrollment, but they fail to mention consistently high dropout rates. Between the fall semesters of 2019 and 2020, 24.1% of full-time college freshmen left their choice university.

High dropout statistics can result from several causes: financial, emotional and career-based — not all 24.1% of previous students suffered solely from being uninformed when making their decision. But, looking at a survey by Intelligent, 24% of students not returning to college cite their reasoning as, “higher education isn’t for me.” These students enter universities planning to pursue degrees to waste their money and time, to recognize that a different, more suitable career path stood ahead of them the entire time. Situations like these can be easily avoided by educating students holistically on their options. 

Currently, Parkway School District notes that 88% of graduates go on to college or another post-secondary institution, like trade and vocational schools. How many of these students haven’t been fully educated on their options? Theoretically, university dropout statistics suggest that at least 872 previous Parkway students would not feel comfortable continuing higher education, preferring to pursue a different path to success not originally promoted in schools. 

According to Education Data Initiative, 24.1% of college students do not return following freshman year. How do these numbers apply to 17,137 Parkway graduates? (Photo Illustration by Madi Michajliczenko)

While one’s level of comfort in a career path is important, making that path financially feasible runs parallel in necessity. The cost of tuition is rising, and fewer students and families are willing to dedicate thousands of dollars to pursue higher education.

Our school has taken strides to help students lessen costs by promoting scholarships and contests. However, less assistance is seen for students planning to pursue alternative paths. The counseling department releases the HUB newsletter weekly, informing students of college events, scholarships and the visits it facilitates. Rarely does the newsletter include information regarding alternative paths such as vocational schools or military enlistment, yet another example of college taking priority over other post-secondary institutions. 

So, what can we do to shift the narrative? We can promote educational opportunities for alternative, non-college paths in high school. The further we educate students, the greater the chance they find the right fit for themselves — a fit that might not be a college education. 

Non-college career paths appeal to students for several reasons, one of which is the immediate results. Vocational and trade schools typically only last one to two years, have less expensive tuition and work alongside apprenticeships — paid training in a particular trade. This is similarly seen in military recruits and students directly pursuing careers. Many careers requiring a college degree are jobs with low starting salaries. Only after years of education would students who attended college begin to work towards the income employed students make, not to mention the loans their income would then be dedicated to. 

In Parkway, choice programs such as South Technical High School (South Tech) already offer an introduction to certain skilled trades such as carpentry, electrical and automotive work, and military recruiters may speak with prospective recruits; however, these options are often set aside, lost to the importance schools place on college. Therefore, we should make an effort to publicize the benefits of going into trades, the military and directly into work, as well as the necessary steps to follow those paths and their prospective outcomes.

While it may be initially difficult to adjust, offering similar informative classes and guest speakers would be a breakthrough advancement for schools. Preparing resume-building classes alongside college essay writing advice. Welcoming union workers alongside college representatives. Including more information about alternate options alongside college preparations. We need to begin teaching students about their options starting from freshman year so that they have ample time to consider each opportunity and make an appropriate decision. 

Not everyone thrives from a college education; it would be irresponsible to ignore this fact. Right now, with yearly meetings and class presentations on steps toward college, students are not given the full picture of their options. We understand that the current model appeals to most students planning to attend college, but widening the sphere of career discussions could help students discover non-college paths that appeal to them more. 

Four years from now, will students continue to face the same social pressures to enroll in college? Hopefully, with a broadened view of their options and equal opportunities in pursuing them, there will no longer be the question of whether a decision is encouraged by marketing or true motivation.