It’s a great time to be a Utah job seeker.
Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that Utah has the eighth-lowest unemployment rate in the country, and between May 2018 and May 2019, it created the second-highest number of new jobs in the nation. Earlier this year, Salt Lake City was also said to have the country’s most diverse job market, according to Bloomberg.
As exciting as this boom is, we can’t ignore the fact that the majority of our high schoolers are paying a hefty price in the hopes of securing some of those positions — Utah college tuition has increased a whopping $131.7 million over the past five years alone. Many of our students take on four years’ worth of significant student loan debt under the impression they have to in order to launch a successful career here, and far too often, students graduate high school with no clear idea of the career path they’d like to pursue: Among those who attend college, a full third will spend time, money and energy pursuing one major, only to switch before graduation.
We owe our students better than this. We’ve allowed the perceived prestige of a college degree to distract us from the crushing reality of student debt, and while the traditional four-year college route is a great option for some students, we are obligated to educate our students and parents about their many college and career options while students are still in high school. This means using class time to give students an opportunity to explore what careers are available, helping them make informed decisions about their future that will lead to more viable career options accompanied by more financial freedom.
Concurrent enrollment is an ideal way of doing so. It’s an old concept; for years, students across the state have taken college courses at their local high school, saving them time and money down the line. Through concurrent or “dual” enrollment, high school students can earn up to an associate’s degree for half the price of a single college course.
Another opportunity to prepare students for future occupations lies in high school career technical education pathways and courses. By enrolling in CTE courses in fields such as digital media, programming or medical assisting, students can get a jump start on their future occupation, which will lead to higher potential lifetime earnings. In fact, studies have shown that CTE completers stand to make more than their high school non-completer peers.
This combination of concurrent enrollment and career readiness via CTE is a win for students, and also Utah’s growing tech industry. A recent article published noted, “if all of the graduates from the University of Utah’s tech programs decided to go work at Qualtrics, it wouldn’t fill the company’s need.” There is a void in our growing tech industry our Utah students must fill, and enrolling students in career-driven courses in high school can prepare them for whatever education comes next and give them a leg up on other applicants.
Of course, not every high school has the resources or the personnel capable of offering such courses. That’s where the digital component comes in. By taking concurrent enrollment and/or career-focused courses online, students can access a wider variety of subjects and be able to sample an array of potential career fields, all while staying connected to their local community by attending their public high school for core classes.
It sounds simple enough, but the results can be radically transformative for a student’s future. Take Race Crowe, for example. While he was a full-time student at Utah Virtual Academy, Race was able to complete 86 college credits through Snow College. At the same time Race received his high school diploma, he also received a General Education Completion certificate, which essentially functions as an associate degree, potentially saving him tens of thousands of dollars. Now, rather than paying off student loans for years to come — decades, perhaps — Race will be able to invest his first paychecks in a car, a house or a family, something so many before him have felt forced to put off.
Utah has a lot to be proud of: Our economy is soaring, our job market is appealing and our schools are among the best in the country. We must continue to build on these successes. An easy way to do that — and replicate Race’s experience on a much larger scale — is to increase educators’ emphasis on career readiness, while working with local colleges, universities, and businesses to expand students’ career and educational opportunities in high school. In so doing, we will likewise expand Utah students’ horizons.
Meghan Merideth is head of school at Utah Virtual Academy, powered by K12, Inc.