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  • Hilderbrand Pelzer III

Are Today's High School Graduates Better Prepared for College and Career Than I Was?

“By working hard every single day, every single night, you are making the best investment there is in your future. And we want to make sure you’ve got everything—all the tools you need to succeed,” former President Obama told the students at Coral Reef High School in Miami. He was discussing his plan to provide all young Americans with the education they need to compete in the 21st-century economy, including the opportunity to afford, attend, and graduate from college.

Having graduated from high school nearly 40 years ago, I remember how confused I was about the career path that I would pursue, which tremendously affected my performance during my first two years of college.


This confusion also exposed my unreadiness for the next steps in my life: college and a career. Throughout my first three years of high school, for instance, I rarely considered what I aspired to be professionally. Most of my peers and I discussed attending college and what type of college we wanted to attend, but we did not discuss career choices. We attended college fairs. Some of us even went on college tours.


When I reached my senior year of high school, I knew the day of reckoning was near. My father had always reiterated there would be no idle lingering around our house after high school. I had to decide to attend college, join the military, or get a job with a living wage. Whatever I decided, I had to get out of the house and make a difference in the world. Deep down in my soul, I knew I would choose to attend college after high school.


My mother, father, and brother attended college and graduated. However, during my senior year, I felt pressured. What major and academic program would I pursue in college that would lead to successful academic performance and a substantial career? During my senior year of high school, I changed my mind about my career choice so often that, to this day, I wonder what my life would be like if I made a different decision.


Considering a career choice while and, if possible, before high school is very important. It helps students focus on the type of college that they should attend to get the best education and prepare for a particular career. Throughout my first three years of high school, I wanted to become a civil engineer. In my senior year of high school, I was set on becoming an ophthalmologist. Upon graduating, I changed my mind again—I decided I wanted to pursue a career as a podiatrist. When I set foot on my new college campus, I was sure I wanted to pursue physical therapy.


But wait—the college I had chosen to attend did not even have a physical therapy education program! Even so, I decided to stay. My new pursuit was (what else?) a career in physical education. While I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physical education, I still wasn’t convinced that becoming a physical educator was my destiny. Maybe a recreation administrator? Maybe sports medicine? Maybe sports management? I was confused! As you can see, my college selection had nothing to do with my aspirations for a major or academic program.


Today, I am an award-winning educator, the author of a book, and a thirty-four-year veteran of the education profession. Having served as a teacher, an assistant principal, a principal, an assistant regional superintendent and, currently, an assistant superintendent overseeing a network of twelve high schools, I am still very concerned that high schools must do a better job of targeting the standards that provide a consistent, clear understanding of not only the skills our young people need for success in college and a career but also, most importantly, the strategies for making a good college selection that will lead to both academic success and career success.


Schools are following President Obama’s lead and focusing on affording, attending, and graduating from college. There is nothing wrong with this focus. But are today’s high school graduates better prepared than I was? While I was confused about my career aspirations, I knew that my path through life would include higher education. My parents wouldn’t have it any other way.


This begs the question: Was I properly prepared in high school to consider career choices that corroborated my career aspirations and then to choose a suitable college? Even more importantly, are high schools investing in the right types of resources in college and career-readiness programs? What happens to high school students who are confused about what comes next?


Commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the report The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts, found that nearly 50 percent of 470 dropouts surveyed said they left school because their classes were boring and not relevant to their lives or career aspirations. While many people have achieved success without a college degree, college is an extraordinary opportunity to improve an individual’s life. High schools should put greater emphasis on becoming more competitive by increasing the base of high school graduates prepared to select a college and then succeed in their chosen career.


I propose the following as a path for connecting high school classrooms with readiness and preparation for college and careers:


  • Encourage middle school students to start planning for their future and the path to college and career.

  • Improve curriculum development and implementation support for college and career services delivered to high school students before they reach their senior year.

  • Ensure that school guidance counselors know each student’s college and career plan so they can help them set goals for their college and career pathways.

  • Allow high school students to discuss their high school academic experiences, the importance of education, and its purpose and benefits for what comes next.


Perhaps like never before, high school graduates today must be very specific about their college and career choices. Today’s world is very competitive. Career opportunities are abundant and global. The high school years should help fuel aspirations. The high schools that implement my proposal will equip their students with the education and resources they need for their next steps and help them choose the best college-to-career pathways.


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