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When students come into Danielle Insel’s college and career advising office with their sights set on higher education, she has a checklist of next steps ready. For years, around nine out of 10 kids fell into that camp, she estimates.
But recently, a growing number of seniors — upwards of 30%, she guesses — have told her they have no intention of going to college. And more kids than ever are considering ways to make money without a college degree, Insel said – driven in part by people and jobs they’ve encountered on social media. For those students, there’s no equivalent checklist.
Insel has one student this year determined to be a tattoo artist. But after researching potential trade school options and finding nothing affordable, Insel — the postsecondary readiness counselor at Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women in downtown Brooklyn — said they came up with a plan for the student to visit tattoo parlors and ask if they’d take her on as an apprentice. So far, one has invited her back for a more in-depth conversation.
The shift in Insel’s office is not an isolated case.
The pandemic profoundly reshaped the college and career landscape for high school graduates in New York City and across the country. And the counselors who advise them have had to change their approach in response.
The rate of city students enrolling in some form of higher education within six months of graduation fell from 81% in 2019 to 71% in 2021 — the lowest rate since at least 2007, according to city data. Nationwide, 62% of recent high school graduates enrolled in college in 2022, down from 66% in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That drop combined with the increasing interest in non-college options has spurred counselors like Insel who have historically focused primarily on pushing students toward college to spend more time and effort helping students navigate the world of work and trade school.
“I’ve changed my language to, ‘I’m not here to push college on anyone, there are plenty of different pathways,’” said Insel.
That shift in language mirrors one across the entire New York City Education Department, which went from touting a program called “College Access For All” several years ago, to pushing a new initiative focused on “career-connected learning” and multiple “pathways.”
Roughly 100 high schools across the city are getting money through the new FutureReadyNYC initiative to roll out career and technical education courses, and thousands of students are participating in paid internships or apprenticeships.
“What you’re seeing all across the nation, this idea that everybody’s just promoting college, college, college … There’s got to be another way and another track and another pathway for kids to be successful,” schools Chancellor David Banks previously told Chalkbeat.
Helping students with detailed post-graduation plans
In many ways, that’s a welcome change, counselors said. Previously, Insel sometimes felt the singular focus on college could be alienating and make some students “upset and scared and confused.” It could also push some students who weren’t ready into college, leading them to drop out and wind up with debt, not degrees.
Even as many counselors welcome the new acceptance of non-college pathways, it presents some challenges.
Some counselors still worry about the availability of long-term, economically-secure life paths for their non-college bound kids.
The majority of new jobs posted in New York City require a bachelor’s degree, and there are still stubborn disparities across a range of life outcomes – including a growing gap in life expectancy – between Americans with a college education and those without.
Moreover, the roadmap for how to best support kids uninterested in college is often less clear than for their college-bound peers, counselors said.
Educators in New York City feel “overwhelmed” by keeping track of the many programs across the five boroughs for students looking to enter the workforce without a college degree, according to a September report from College Access: Research and Action, which conducted in-depth interviews with educators from nine city schools.
Multiple counselors who spoke to Chalkbeat lamented the lack of affordable, quality trade school options for recent high school graduates, and said the few programs they’ve traditionally relied on, like the Coop Tech program run by the city Education Department, have gotten harder for students to get into as demand has grown.
For Adeola Alexander, a veteran college counselor at Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning High School in Flatbush, Brooklyn, the challenge lies in striking the right balance between supporting students’ immediate goals, interests and economic needs, and looking out for their long-term prospects.
“Once young people start to work, that’s a good thing,” she said. “But the money you make at 16 is not sustainable for you when you’re 26. … I just want to ensure that when students are being exposed to careers and jobs that there’s a long-term plan for them.”
Education Department officials say they’re planning to ensure by 2030 that every high school graduate – college-bound or not – leaves school with a detailed plan of their next steps.
“If you think about how fast the world is changing, and the different kinds of occupations and careers,” Jade Grieve, the Education Department’s Chief of Student Pathways, recently told reporters, “that’s deep, hard work.”
Students facing a new college reality
Counselors said a number of factors drove down college enrollment during the pandemic.
Many students disengaged from school during remote learning, and came back “a little bit disillusioned with college-going,” said Alexander.
Other teens had family members who lost jobs, and felt additional pressure to make money – putting the idea of college temporarily out of the question, counselors said.
Still others were frightened by the prospect of attending any in-person classes while COVID-19 was spreading, or were deterred by vaccine mandates at colleges, counselors said.
It’s clear that the pandemic wasn’t the only force driving the decline in college enrollment.
Students in New York City, like those across the country, have long been concerned about the potential risks of student debt and whether investments in higher education will pay off, counselors said. And some educators said they saw those worries escalate in recent years as the national conversation on the student debt crisis intensified.
“Absolutely I have noticed more students talking about debt and talking about either people they know or people they’ve seen on social media who have taken out a lot of debt and couldn’t pay it,” said Alexander.
The kids most likely to fall off the college track were those who might’ve in past years attended community colleges, which offer two-year programs and enroll higher shares of Black, Latino and students from low-income backgrounds, data suggests.
There are signs of a modest rebound this year. After years of enrollment declines, the City University of New York, by far the most popular destination for New York City public high school graduates, saw a slight uptick in this year’s freshman class compared with last year.
Some schools like Insel’s require all students, even those certain they won’t attend, to submit applications for CUNY.
The city Education Department launched an initiative this year to deliver a CUNY acceptance letter to every high school graduate in the hopes that having a physical letter in hand may give students who were on the fence the extra boost they need to enroll.
Alexander, the counselor in Flatbush, patiently walks her students through a thicket of misconceptions about the economics of college, explaining that it’s often feasible to work and attend school at the same time, like she did. Most students who attend CUNY, moreover, graduate with no debt, and in some cases, taking on a small amount of debt can be a responsible financial decision, when it’s likely to reap long-term gains, she tells students.
Alexander’s work with students often continues after they graduate. Every year, she gets a trickle of students returning to her office because they’re interested in restarting college after dropping out or enrolling for the first time.
Counselors navigate the world of work
Postsecondary counselors seeking to advise students who don’t plan on attending college often have to navigate a world of work where the steps are less clear, and the resources more scattered, than they are for students pursuing higher education.
For many students, trade school can seem like a logical first step. But finding trade schools that are affordable and vetted for quality is often a challenge, counselors said.
“I do struggle still with helping students find what I want to say is viable trade school options,” said Alexander.
Many trade programs don’t offer their own financial aid, and may not accept the same state and federal aid as colleges, counselors said.
And while colleges are required to provide public information on costs, completion rates, and long-term work outcomes for their graduates, that information can be harder to find for trade and vocational programs.
In this vein, the September report from College Access: Research and Action stated that “educators are rightfully asking about the return on investment of the alternatives that are being offered.”
Counselors guiding a student directly into a specific line of work can feel additional pressure to understand the economics of that industry, since the student won’t have the flexibility that comes with a college degree.
Jasmine Benzvi, a counselor at Queens Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Forest Hills, said it’s part of her job to keep up with “what’s happening in the job market, where the jobs are going, and which fields pay well.” But she acknowledged it’s “not possible to be an expert on all of those things.”
Several counselors pointed to another factor that may be swaying students’ views on whether they need higher education.
“I honestly believe TikTok and social media has shown our students can earn money in a variety of ways without a college degree,” said Insel.
Students interested in cosmetology, for example, who see online influencers making money from hair and makeup tutorials, may see it as a more viable path, Insel said.
Insel said she’s started looking into the economics of a career as a social media influencer so she can have more concrete information to share with kids.
“I’ve definitely had to learn along the way,” she said.
Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.