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Counselor’s view: Why schools must diversify their post-secondary options and realize that one path does not fit all students

Ivonne Polanco | July 2, 2024

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In the realm of high school counseling, the traditional narrative has often centered around the four-year college experience as the sole path to success. However, as demands of the workforce change, it’s time to recognize that there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to post-secondary education. To ensure equitable support for all students, schools must adopt a multi-faceted approach to post-secondary success — to provide a range of options that mirror the diversity of the student body.

This holds particular significance in light of the recent FAFSA crisis and its ongoing and future repercussions on low-income students. By providing robust career exploration and planning resources, high schools can help students make informed decisions about their future pursuits, taking a proactive step towards mitigating the financial burden of student debt on future generations.

One of the key strategies we’re implementing at Aspire Public Schools, where I work, is building post-secondary and career exposure early on in a student’s high school journey. We’re not just waiting until senior year to discuss college options; instead, we’re integrating post-secondary education and career planning into the fabric of our students’ daily experiences.

Beginning freshman year, students are engaged in discussions about their future paths, and we’re celebrating alternative options such as vocational training and community college alongside the traditional college route. We’re also not relying on colleges to teach critical thinking skills and antiracist practices; instead, we’re implementing comprehensive programs within our curriculum to foster these essential skills and perspectives well before they set foot on a college campus.

Here’s how we’re doing this in practice:

Exposing students through dual enrollment programs. By partnering with institutions like LA Trade Technical College, we’re offering our students the opportunity to take college-level courses while still in high school. These courses not only earn them credits that are transferable to four-year universities but also expose them to career paths and industries they may not have considered otherwise. I’ve seen how early exposure is invaluable in helping students make informed decisions about their future.

Addressing the financial barriers that often accompany post-secondary education. Through dual enrollment programs, we’re not just providing students with a head start; we’re also streamlining the path to college completion and alleviating financial strains along the way. The state of California is also prioritizing this approach, through programs like Golden State Pathways Program, which provides high school students with seamless pathways to college by offering college-level courses that count for both high school and college credit.

Fostering holistic career development through early exposure and practical experience. One major objective is to broaden students’ exposure to diverse career paths. At the heart of this effort is rolling out programs that let students do career assessments, so they can figure out their strengths, interests, and what kind of careers might suit them best. Departing from the antiquated notion of leaving career decisions solely to the college years, our aim is for students to graduate equipped with a strong academic background and the technical skills needed to thrive.

To realize this vision, we are fostering avenues for internships and work-based learning experiences during high school. This empowers our students to graduate not only with a robust academic foundation but also with the practical skills essential for success in their chosen fields.

It’s important to emphasize that our goal isn’t to discourage students from pursuing four-year institutions. Rather, it’s about ensuring that they have all the information and resources they need to make the best decision for their future. We’re dispelling the myths and misconceptions surrounding community colleges, recognizing that they can offer rigorous academic programs and valuable opportunities for personal and professional growth.

As counselors, our role is not to impose our own aspirations onto students but to empower them to explore their options and make informed choices. Whether it’s a four-year university, a community college, or a vocational program, what matters most is that students find the path that aligns with their interests and goals and allows them to thrive to live a fulfilled life.

Cultivating curricula that fosters critical thinking and antiracist practices. In shaping our academic programming, our foremost aim is to equip scholars with critical thinking skills that foster deep understanding through an antiracist lens.

Through programs and courses spotlighting Black, Native, Latinx and LGBTQ experiences, our scholars emerge from our schools imbued with a profound sense of confidence, empowering them not only to excel in college but also in any other avenue of post-secondary education or vocation they choose to pursue.

The traditional dichotomy between four-year colleges and alternative pathways is outdated and limiting. Let’s embrace a more holistic approach to post-secondary education, one that recognizes the diverse talents and aspirations of our students. By expanding access to dual enrollment programs, prioritizing avenues for internships and work-based learning experiences during high school and providing an equity-centered curricula that fosters critical thinking, we’re empowering our scholars to chart their own paths to success. After all, in a world where the only constant is change, flexibility and adaptability are the true keys to success.

Ivonne Polanco is a Senior Regional Program Manager for Post-Secondary Success at Aspire Public Schools in Los Angeles, California. Prior to that she was a College Counselor and Dean of College Success at Alliance Technology Academy in Los Angeles. She holds a master’s degree in secondary school administration and principalship from Cal State University Dominguez Hills and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Southern California.

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