I have been encouraged to see the recent uptick in interest in the concepts of college and career readiness in our community. Both District 65 and District 202 have had this topic on board agendas in the past month.

Shelley Gates was the longtime chair of the ETHS Career and Technical Education department. Credit: Shelley Gates

Although there are many perspectives and opinions on exactly what it means to be college and career ready, school districts are aware that the Illinois State Board of Education’s accountability system now includes a College and Career Readiness Indicator (CCRI) as one of multiple measures of how well a high school serves its students.

In fact, Illinois has the goal of 90% or more of students graduating from high school ready for college and career by 2032. There is a growing understanding that educators, families and communities need more than a GPA and an SAT score to understand students’ readiness for what they choose to do next after high school.

The CCRI provides a baseline for a range of experiences all students can and should undergo to prepare for college and career. For example, to be college and career ready, the state Board of Education has set the following expectations: A GPA of at least 2.8 out of 4.0; 95% attendance in high school junior and senior years; and either:

  • A) A College and Career Pathway Endorsement under the Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act (not currently available at ETHS) or
  • B) All of the following: One academic indicator in English and math during junior or senior years, identification of a career area of interest by the end of sophomore year, and three “career-ready indicators” during junior or senior years.

Career-ready indicators include: a career development experience (for example, an internship); an industry-recognized credential; military service or a score of 31 or higher on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test; completion of a dual-credit career pathway course (with college credit earned); completion of a program of study; attainment and maintenance of consistent employment for a minimum of 12 months, consecutive summer employment, completion of 25 hours of community service, or consistent participation in two or more organized co-curricular activities.

Rather than an end in itself, the Illinois CCRI provides our community with an excellent discussion prompt: What do students, families, teachers, employers, and community members consider to be the necessary elements for college and career readiness?

Limited awareness of other options

Evanston is definitely “above average” in terms of the number of people 25 and older who have at least one college degree. According to Evanston’s 2020 census data, 71.2% of city residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is nearly double the rate for Illinois as a whole (37.1%).

The fact that we are home to Northwestern University, one of the premier institutions of higher education in the nation, contributes to our community’s rich tradition of celebrating the four-year college trajectory – the essays, the applications, FAFSA completion, college counselors, college visits, college acceptance announcements, and college paraphernalia (sweatshirts, pennants, etc.). In our community, college almost always means a four-year institution where students work toward bachelor’s degrees.

This limited definition results in an oversimplification of just what post-high school education means. While it is well-documented that nearly all young people will need some form of post-high school education or training in order to become economically self-sufficient as adults, the four-year college degree is definitely not the only viable option. However, awareness of those other options is woefully lacking in Evanston. Even for those who are lucky enough to have learned about these other options (apprenticeships, short-term training, certification programs, etc.), they may discount them due to the relentless four-year college messaging in our community.

The house built by ETHS students in the Geometry in Construction course is relocated in June 2021. (RoundTable file photo) Credit: RoundTable file photo

In his written report presented to the District 202 School Board on Oct. 10, Pete Bavis, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at ETHS, included the following information based on ETHS’ National Student Clearinghouse data: Approximately 81% of ETHS graduates enroll in college at any time during the first two years after high school, approximately 59% of an ETHS high school class completes their college degree within six years, and of those who enroll in college, the six-year graduation rate is 69%.

Bavis also states: “Going to college and completing college are two different things. Students who leave college without a degree or certificate gain no advantages in employment or earnings. … It gets worse: Students who leave college without a degree or certificate often find themselves confronted with a significant amount of debt. To qualify for good jobs, students need both traditional academic knowledge and workplace skills. That is why career planning is essential for all of our students.”

Bavis added, “approximately 40% percent of the students in a graduating class do not complete a degree within six years. ETHS has no information regarding those alumni who do not complete a postsecondary degree.”

The false choice of college OR career-bound

At the recent presentation to the District 65 School Board’s Policy Committee that addressed the district’s recent efforts to increase career exploration and awareness activities, Kirby Callam, Director of EvanSTEM, emphasized the importance of providing opportunities for all students to explore career options as a way for them to begin realizing their college and career potential.

The goal is for all students to participate in meaningful and relevant career-based learning experiences and projects. The idea of beginning to explore career options in middle school is supported by and expanded upon in the Illinois PaCE (Postsecondary and Career Expectations) Framework, which was developed by a consortium of education agencies including the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, the Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Community College Board and the Illinois Board of Higher Education. The Illinois PaCE framework has benchmarks for career and college readiness that begins in middle school and continues throughout high school.

Career exploration is critically important to helping young people create personally constructed stores about who they are and what they want to become. This is because achieving positive outcomes in both post-high school education/training and career depends on being able to envision possible selves. Without exposure to the vast array of career possibilities that await our young people, they may develop a limited sense of their futures. Connecting with career possibilities can provide a spark of excitement and motivation that helps students answer the question: “Why do I have to learn this?”

As Callam stated, “It’s also critical that we do a better job linking the academic work and skill building activities in middle school to how they apply in colleges and careers – if you’re a good writer, what doors open? When you understand budgets, what opportunities do you get? When you love the stage, what type of careers value performance skills outside of acting?”

I believe the purpose statement for the Evanston Mayor’s Employer Advisory Council (MEAC) summarizes the importance of college and career readiness for all:

“We are here to help all young people find their own path to a career. We believe there are many roads to success, so we work to shine a light on the full range of career opportunities and the many ways to get there. Whether the entry point is straight from high school or from college, we help young people make plans to choose a job with a future, to succeed, and to thrive.”

Fortunately, the Evanston community has many resources to help prepare students for their futures. Both District 65 and District 202 are working to expand what it means to be college and career ready. The dynamic and student-friendly SchooLinks college and career readiness platform has been adopted by both districts.

District 202 recently hired a full-time career partnership and work-based learning coordinator who is expanding opportunities for job shadowing and internship experiences in partnership with MEAC members. While these efforts have potential to connect more young people to more post-high school options, much more work needs to be done to dispel the “college for all” myth and help all young people in our community see themselves on a pathway to success and fulfillment as adults.

One important step in moving our community to widespread understanding and valuing multiple pathways to success would be for us to participate in the “Portrait of a Graduate” process which can help us frame a new vision for both districts. This process, developed by the Battelle for Kids organization, can help us continue moving toward an educational experience for all students that not only provides for the acquisition of rigorous academic content, but also emphasizes critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity and other 21st century skills and habits of mind that Evanston’s young people will need to navigate and thrive in a complex world that is rapidly changing.

Shelley Gates, Ed.D., a longtime Evanston resident, served as chair of ETHS’ Career and Technical Education Department for 18 years.

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  1. I don’t know why anyone would call being an electrician or plumber an “unsavory Job”. These people are skilled and needed. You cannot build anything without them. The same with carpenters, masons, bakers, chefs, florists, locksmiths, auto mechanics, etc. Many of these tradespeople own their own businesses. College is not for everyone. Bring back shop courses at the high school level.

  2. The issue isn’t lack of awareness of alternate options. Everyone and their mom knows you can make decent money being an electrician or a plumber. The issue is that those are unsavory jobs to begin with. People don’t LIKE to work blue collar jobs. I for one would MUCH rather sit in a nice, air conditioned office with benefits than work in construction, drive a truck etc…

    And let’s be honest with ourselves, most high paying jobs will favor those with college degrees over those without 95% of the time.

    Let’s also NOT completely ignore the fact that those with a college degree aged 22-27 earn an average $22,000 more than non-college graduates in the same age range.

    The issue is not and has never been lack of options. The issue is about the barrier to entry of gaining a college degree in the first place. Cost of higher education has SKYROCKETED, profits are THROUGH THE ROOF, and government spending on education has dwindled.

    The issue is that we as a nation need to re-asses how much money we allocate towards educating our people, and need to re-asses how that money is spent. University presidents and board members should not be compensated as highly as they are, and we sincerely need to think about placing a cap on college football spending, because in some states the highest paid public official is the head football coach and that is absolutely ridiculous, and this is coming from a huge college sports fan…

    “Going to college and completing college are two different things. Students who leave college without a degree or certificate gain no advantages in employment or earnings. … It gets worse: Students who leave college without a degree or certificate often find themselves confronted with a significant amount of debt. To qualify for good jobs, students need both traditional academic knowledge and workplace skills. That is why career planning is essential for all of our students.”

    This quote right here PROVES that we need to reduce or eliminate the cost of higher education. Everyone should at least have the CHANCE to go to college, and if they can’t make it all the way through, we shouldn’t chastise them for trying.

    An educated population is good for the society as a whole and I can’t believe people don’t understand that.

    1. To clarify further, I understand there are office jobs that do not require college degrees, but my point stands that those jobs will hire someone with a degree over someone without 95% of the time, and let’s not lie to ourselves and say those jobs are very high paying to begin with….