The percentage of high school students who went on to college or trade school within a year of finishing high school climbed from 47 percent in 1973 to 67 percent in 2007. That’s good news; our students are falling behind other industrialized nations in terms of graduation rates and we must play catch up. The bad news is that many young people, gifted in their own ways, don’t feel college is for them simply because they don’t thrive in the classroom.


Higher education, more often than not, promises economic stability and career growth for those who go after it, more so than a high school diploma. But, with our nation’s focus on colleges and universities, we may be losing some very talented young people and damaging our future workforce.

It is understandable why there has been a great focus on directing students to college after graduation: over the course of their lifetime, will earn over $1 million more than those who only complete high school. These additional earnings are pumped back into the economy via taxes, home purchases and more, benefitting society as a whole. For students with talent and drive, a college education will only benefit them.

But what about those students who struggled in high school or even those who did well but showed little passion for their studies, students who don’t see themselves in a college classroom? Should they be left out of the American dream simply because they don’t want to take a traditional route to success?

The answer is “no.” While we should continue our collective efforts to encourage as many as possible to attend college, we should also begin to develop apprenticeship, trade programs and more that will empower and educate those who want other options. Years ago, America’s middle class was built in the automotive factories by workers committed to learning a trade. Though those days—and factories—are gone, opportunities still exist in a variety of industries, like healthcare and environmental sciences.

A program that promises to educate America and to put America to work should include a focus on trades. Funds should be set aside for trade and apprenticeship programs in the nation’s public schools and in community centers in underserved areas. These programs shouldn’t just be for students who struggle: all students should get a taste of what real work is like early on; these types of experiences will help them hone their post-college plans. Some students who study a trade may go on to work in that field and that’s great; they will become contributing members of society and will have a sense of pride in their work.

Others may decide that, after working in the trade, they want to advance in their career and seek additional training or decide to go on a work toward their degree.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, we must present our students with sustainable choices for life beyond high school. Choices that will allow them to support both themselves and their families and that will keep this country competitive in the global marketplace.

(Judge Greg Mathis is vice president of RainbowPUSH and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)

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