For generations, the path for teenagers has been seemingly laid out clearly: graduate high school with good grades, go to college to train for a well-paying job, then use your degree to get hired. But how probable is this path now that economic, social and educational climates have shifted significantly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?
High school senior Yanni Jimenez has been reflecting on this path as he approaches graduation. In many ways, Jimenez has had the typical high school experience: He earned good grades, made friends and took the usual courses.
High school senior Yanni Jiminez questions the traditional high-school-to-college pipeline
In other ways, his high school experience has been unique to generations before him. He plays in a band, models and, despite his extroversion and desire to explore, he spent a good chunk of his time cooped up in his room for online classes during COVID-19.
“I felt very like, on autopilot, like everything was on repeat,” he reflected.
Jimenez is encouraged to explore interests outside the classroom, which include modeling and music.
Needless to say, those conditions didn’t exactly elevate his already mediocre-level enthusiasm about school.
Jimenez doesn't exactly subscribe to the high school to college pipeline. He believes that students should learn about other options that exist after graduation, especially since, he says, it is rare for teenagers to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives.
“It's definitely common to not really know where you want to take your life because it's so vast, and there are so many opportunities,” he said. “I feel like kids should definitely be given more of that liberty to understand what's out there.”
Jimenez said one way this could be achieved is by incorporating a greater variety of career skills into curriculums.
“If I was taking classes that are more practical to what I would be doing in a job, or what different jobs are like, or different fields of work, I feel like I would enjoy that a lot more and I wouldn't feel like I was wasting my time,” he shared.
Jimenez’s mother Lorena agreed, saying “I believe that education is certainly important. However, I don't feel like they have to get a college degree or a bachelor's degree to be successful. I feel that there are a lot of options for them, and in some respect I do feel like they could push that a little more in high school."
Lorena Jimenez agrees with son Yanni that high schools should highlight alternative career paths.
Jimenez is far from alone in the desire to learn more directly applicable material at school. Using trade schools as a tangible example, it’s clear students are on the hunt for alternatives to the traditional college model.
KOAA reported last fall that attendance at trade and technical schools is on the rise, with a 19.3% increase in construction majors and a 28.9% increase in transportation and materials-moving majors like tractor-trailer drivers.
Jimenez said another reason people are looking for alternatives to four year colleges is the cost.
“A lot of people find themselves just drowning in debt from school,” he said..
Since the Great Recession of 2008, traditional college attendance leveled, hovering between 66% and 70%. After the pandemic, enrollment dropped by 3.5%, the largest one-year dip in the past 30 years.
However, interest in college has not necessarily decreased with enrollment. According to the Colorado Sun, many students are finding ways to graduate high school with a head start on college credits thanks to concurrent enrollment. The Sun noted a 35% increase in students taking advantage of this option in 2019, which came out to nearly 46,000 students.
While concurrent enrollment seemed to have taken a post-2020 hit much like regular college enrollment with a 2.1% decline overall, there was an increase in concurrent enrollment amongst Indigenous, Asian and Multiracial communities.
Colorado Community College System reports that each year, over 37,000 high schoolers participate in concurrent enrollment, saving families around $39 million in college tuition costs.
Jimenez seems to have found a balance that suits him. He plans to take six months off, then attend college in the spring for something that involves cybersecurity.
“It's a growing field. But in the meantime, I would just like to focus on things that I enjoy and I'm passionate about,” he said. “So making music and things like that.”
Jimenez plans to take six months to focus on creative endeavors before entering a certificate program.
While cybersecurity isn’t his passion, Jimenez recognizes that the pay and stability could afford him the freedom to grow in his creative endeavors. It doesn’t hurt that cybersecurity also requires a certificate, rather than an expensive four year college degree.
Jimenez has his mother’s stamp of approval on his strategy.
“I would love to see him just do what makes him happy and succeed in what he does,”she shared. “He doesn't have to have a bachelor's degree. He doesn't have to be a doctor or an attorney. As long as he is happy and he feels fulfilled in the area or in the type of work that he does, I will be happy.”
Elle Naef is a digital media producer at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julio Sandoval is the senior photojournalist with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at email@example.com.