The search for the right educational path

The high school diploma is the culmination of 12 years of academic work at any one of the nation’s private or public schools. However, for many high school students on the cusp of graduation, their futures hinge on the educational path they choose. In 2022, vocational education and conventional college education are both equally attractive to students.

A December 2021 Washington Post article reported that almost half (48%) of high-school-aged students enrolled in a four-year degree program at any one of the country’s university and college programs. The other 52% either attended a trade/vocational program or entered the workforce immediately after high school. However, high-school-aged students are not the only ones going to college. 

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 17% of students enrolled in a four-year program are aged 35 and older. This figure spikes to 61% for students in this demographic who chose to attend a two-year program. While the abovementioned groups have very different backgrounds, their educational paths are determined by a few factors, namely salary and interest in the vocation. 

So, how does one go about choosing an appropriate educational path? Fortunately, for today’s students, there are not only plenty of options available, but also many academic programs that have made attending college convenient and financially accessible. With all these options, though, choosing an educational path that will lead to successfully finding a satisfying career can be challenging — challenging but not impossible. Taking a few factors into consideration when choosing an educational path is the first step toward a career.

Taking inventory of goals and objectives

Before looking at academic or vocational programs, knowing what professions are of interest is the first step in choosing a college. Those thinking about earning a degree or training at a vocational school should take a holistic look at their future career, including factors such as earning potential, the length of time it takes to complete the degree, and interest in the field, among other considerations. One strategy for figuring out which direction to take a career is to make a list of hobbies and interests and, after making a list, compare these hobbies with jobs that are similar in nature.

Like writing down hobbies and interests, writing down strengths and weaknesses is an additional strategy for finding a career path. This list does not have to be extremely long — five strengths and five weaknesses should suffice as a starting point in looking for a career. Take this small list and compare it to careers that require similar strengths. 

Another approach to finding an appropriate program is to take an inventory test. The online landscape provides prospective students with numerous career aptitude tests that also serve as a resource for determining a career path by asking students several questions, ranging from skill set to personality. The results are in no way the absolute deciding factor in choosing a career, but serve to provide the test taker with insight.

These inventory tests are also helpful in determining what type of school one might attend. When the student sits down with a career counselor, the student can give the counselor more information, which enables them to give better career advice and options for training for that career — options that include going to college. Speaking of which, a chat with a career counselor goes without saying.

Career counselors can be found in high schools, college/university student resource departments, and the community at large. The counselor is trained to help both students and adults who are switching gears to new careers to figure out their direction. They are not only there to help the student weigh the advantages and disadvantages of their career choice, but they are also there to give them options as to how to achieve their career aspirations. Depending on where the career counseling office is located, the advisor might be able to assist with the college or trade school application process. 

After doing some, or all, of the abovementioned activities, a career choice is within grasp. At this point, the individual has a few possible career choices, but there is really no way to determine if the choice is a good one unless working in the career, even for a short while, by shadowing someone who works in the field. Job shadowing typically involves working in a field for a day.  

This hands-on approach to finding a career provides a glimpse into what the job duties entail. In some cases, shadowing gives the participant an idea of the job beyond simply practicing the skills. It can provide a glimpse into the industry’s work culture and expectations of the job outside of the stated duties. Finally, volunteering is another way to get a sense of what career path a person might follow. 

Either way, both shadowing and volunteering give participants exposure to possible career paths and, more importantly, these strategies are opportunities for the participant to build their resume. 

Choosing a program

Looking for a career can be exhausting, but once found, the next step is to find a place to receive training, whether for a degree program or a vocational program. This part of the college/vocational school search is important, because it does not make sense to attend an educational institution if it does not offer the discipline or course of study needed to enter the desired field. 

As stated previously, the career counselor is the first place to go to find training options. However, if doing this search alone, the search should include programs that offer training in the chosen areas. Some experts suggest this list of options should include 10–15 college programs. 

This list is just the beginning, because the prospective student must also consider other factors such as class schedule, for instance. Say a student has children and cannot attend day classes but wants to pursue an advanced degree in nursing. The traditional day schedule might not work for that student because of their daytime commitments. Fortunately, many educational institutions offer online classes or a hybrid version of online and in-person coursework across several disciplines. The student might find herself enrolling in a university program that offers online nursing degrees — such as the one at Walsh University — which gives nurses the tools for taking roles in organizational leadership within the profession.

Outside of class flexibility, the cost to attend a program is also a major consideration. The cost of private schools is usually higher than public schools. Additionally, students usually pay more tuition for academic programs that are out-of-state, compared to in-state tuition programs. 

Tuition is not the only cost that a student must consider. Room and board, books, supplemental college fees, transportation and food are additional costs that factor into the price of attending an educational program. At the same time, a prospective student should not throw a once-in-a-lifetime educational opportunity away, because college programs usually have some financial aid package — another consideration in choosing a college.  

Regardless of the course — vocational or four-year — the tuition and additional outgoings are expensive. To make receiving a college education more accessible to students, most programs offer a financial package based on demonstrated student need. Each program determines this need, but typically the college/university provides funding in the form of grants, loans, work-study opportunities, and scholarships. 

Grants are free money that the student does not have to pay back. There is also work-study, which funds a student to work on campus for the semester. Loans, on the other hand, are monies paid to the student that, upon graduation and employment, the student must pay back. In the case of taking out loans, students should look at the earning potential of their career to determine whether taking out a loan for their education is feasible and practical. 

Scholarships are free money that is awarded to students, usually for excelling in some area, for example, sports or academics. Students can apply for scholarships that the school awards to students, or they can research the different private scholarships. Like grant and work-study programs, scholarships have stipulations related to who can apply for the scholarship. Ultimately, the cost of tuition and educational financing play significant roles in shaping a prospective student’s decision to attend an academic or vocational program. 

While they play significant roles in education, students might find that financial support can mitigate costs for attending school in a way that will allow them to attend a pricier program that offers more support. For example, an out-of-state program may be more expensive but offer a financial aid package that cancels most of the costs. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) site explains the application process and can help a prospective student determine whether the costs to attend a program are doable. 

The student must also take into consideration any supplemental resources the program might offer. For example, some of the best academic programs do everything to make sure the student is prepared for their chosen vocation. These student support programs include offices that provide academic advice and support in the form of tutoring. 

However, some of the better programs provide resources such as career resource centers, for preparing the student for work after school. In addition to career support, these schools provide students with internship opportunities in their discipline, and they also host career fairs. Finally, many career resource centers host resume, cover letter, and interviewing skills workshops. While not integral to getting an education that prepares one for a career, a program that has a career center and similar resources can help the student transition from college/vocational school graduate to hired professional. 

Outside of these factors, prospective students should also consider their personal needs, because many students will spend a considerable amount of time in the program. One student might revel in attending a large college with an active sports program, while another might choose a small one with a narrow scope, for example, a liberal arts college. Another concern might be the school’s overall mission. Some schools, usually smaller, focus on teaching and students, while others are research-focused programs. 

In research-focused programs, great emphasis is placed on how much professors produce, in terms of research, with it being the deciding factor in achieving tenure. For this reason, professors might be more inclined toward research, and many general education courses are large and taught by teaching assistants. For students who are not independent learners, this might make a difference in school selection. 

All this research culminates in narrowing down one’s search to a few colleges. If conflicted on which college to attend, consider making a visit to the academic program. Some offer opportunities throughout the year for prospective students to visit the program. Further, it is one thing to look at the program and learn about its offerings, but the visit will present opportunities to see how the program works. Here, the prospective student can visit specific offices and talk with staff to find out more about their interests and the program.

Final words

In taking the first step, remember the program is preparation for entering a career that will not only allow you to support yourself but will also provide a sense of satisfaction and purpose. This program will educate you in the requisite skills while at the same time giving you valuable tools, in terms of student resources, to achieve and aspire to educational and career goals. At the same time, financial considerations will weigh heavily on that decision, but again, students have a few options in funding their education. 

Embarking on a course of study presents people of all ages with the chance to engage with the academic/vocational community and come away with different perspectives. However, the choice between a college, university or trade program can make the difference between an educational experience fraught with frustration, disappointment, and failure, and one that easily and successfully transitions a student from scholarship and training to become a productive member of the workforce. For this reason, choosing a program that trains for the workforce takes planning, deliberation, and patience.

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