At Embarc, Sending Kids to College Is Not the Holy Grail

Meet Embarc, a youth-serving organization that bucks conventional wisdom and is deliberately reducing the number of its grads who enroll in college. We’ve already discussed their unconventional approach to social-emotional learning; in this post, Embarc co-founder Imran Khan describes their groundbreaking perspective on life after high school.

In a time when too many students leave college with debt but no degree, Embarc openly seeks out high-paying alternatives to college for its graduates. Tanesha Peeples talks with Khan about the full range of pathways after high school graduation.

Peeples: How do you measure success?

Khan: We look at leading indicators, which are attendance and GPA and then we look at sort of summative indicators, which are going to be high school graduation and college enrollment.

We’ve also been spending a lot of time thinking about what the alternate metrics of success are because we’re pushing back against the idea that the college for all movement.

Many people believe everyone should go to college. But educators—principals, people in schools, people working very closely with kids—will say that that’s absolutely not true. There are other progressive postsecondary pathways for students to have far better and more secure careers and break the cycle of poverty within a single year or two after graduating high school.

We were at a point where we had a 93 percent college enrollment rate. This year, we dropped that to 87 percent. And actually, we’re hoping to maybe drop that even further.

The reason we want it to drop is because we are pushing our students to get into other progressive post-secondary pathways. We have students who are now in welding programs where they’re going to be ready for very highly-sought positions. We have students who are working in restaurants earning $55,000 annually. We have other places where students are going and they’re able to break out of poverty on a much shorter trajectory.

Sending kids to college is not the Holy Grail. It’s a story that we’ve been sold, when actually there are many ways that people could be successful.

When you look at the eight percent college graduation rate for Black males and ask why–it’s not only that the post-secondary system is flawed or that high schools are challenged. Universities have a lot of work that needs to be done. They need to be held accountable. Also, college degrees aren’t always what’s in demand.

So everyone who is working on these things should be asking themselves how we can ensure the kids have the shortest trajectory to break out of the cycles of poverty, rather than setting a goal of sending the most kids to college.

Peeples: What do you say to people who fear bringing back these post-secondary programs because they feel like schools might push students towards those programs rather than towards college?

Khan: Historically, the way this was done was that you’d have automotive, woodshop, plumbing and other programs that all the Black and Brown kids would be sent into, while the white kids would be pushed for college. But now you have a college for all movement that pushed against that, saying, it doesn’t matter if you’re Black or Brown. Everybody should go into school.

But during that time, universities just got far more expensive. There’s a huge rise in jobs like tech. We’re also seeing a big gap in trades.

I think we’re missing the boat. The problem is that we are still trying to build off of a broken system that’s totally antiquated.

When we rethink how we educate kids and the kind of experiences that we think everybody should have at that point, the question then doesn’t become ours to choose.

School itself should be a kind of school where kids spend at least 25 percent of the time in the real word experiencing all types of jobs, traveling to all types of arts and cultural experiences, going to all types of university campuses. They should be experiencing what it’s like working for UPS and meeting people there, what it’s like working for Leo Burnett, an advertising agency, what’s it like inside Google, what is it like when they’re at Bit Space creating wood carvings and what’s it like when they’re at Arcelor Mittal, in a steel manufacturing company.

Imagine if that was the case, then the question won’t be should we choose whether or not kids should go to plumbing classes or not, should go to wood programs or automotive programs. No.

Then the thing is, everybody learns really important skills about how to solve problems, how to work together, how to understand themselves, how to build social, emotional skills, how to advocate for themselves, how to speak, how to basically attain any type of life success they want, then give them the experiences in the real world. They will tell us whether they want to be plumbers, they want to be automotive people, they want to be welders. They will tell us whether they want to be carpenters or they want to work for Leo Burnett.

It’s not our choice. We should figure out a way that we can create a system where kids can tell us what they want to be.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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