A few years back, I was working on my master’s thesis, looking at the factors that influence student pathway choices. One of the many studies I read was Peter Dietsche’s examination of the perceptions of career planning resources available to high school students. Full nerd alert disclosure: this study was formative in influencing my chosen research question. It was also one of several students that I read that raised the idea that university-bound students have less trouble with career planning than their counterparts planning for other pathways.
I find that idea fascinating. Any career coach, advisor or counsellor in a university career centre could supply countless anecdotes about students who feel both lost in their career decisions and increasingly anxious about the debt piling up around that indecisiveness. But at the high school level, we assume that any student with decent grades and an offer of admission is all set, while everyone else is in trouble. The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly adds another layer of uncertainty for high school and post-secondary students alike. However, having some knowledge of the benefits of following multiple pathways and using transfer agreements should help alleviate some stress.
If you visit university websites these days, you’ll notice that there is almost always a section on admissions information for “transfer students.” Some even publish full transfer guides as printed takeaway materials for post-secondary fairs and open houses. That was definitely not a thing when I was in high school. It wasn’t even that widespread as recently as 10 years ago.
What’s happened is this: the birth rate has been steadily declining in Canada for years. Elementary and high schools built from the 1960s to the 1980s to accommodate Baby Boomers and then the “boom echo” generation (better known as Millennials) are now closing. This effect has also rippled into post-secondary institutions. In a terrific demonstration of innovation, many institutions recognize an entirely new pool of potential students: those who are already studying at other institutions. It seems almost weekly that there is a new announcement about articulation agreements between schools that will honour graduates at one institution with advanced standing at another. For the student who jumps on these opportunities, they can achieve a diploma and a degree usually in about five years, and at a lower cost than paying for tuition for two full programs at separate schools. (Until the global pandemic hit, it should be noted that some of these include international study opportunities at drastically reduced rates.)
Case study: Chef to teacher
A few years back, I encountered a perfect example of how these options can work. I was handling admission drop-in inquiries at one of Ontario’s community colleges at the start of the winter semester and in walked a Grade 12 student with his mother (let’s call the student Gus). Gus’s mother explained to me that he was in a bit of a pickle. He had wanted to be a chef all through high school. About to start his final semester, Gus had decided he instead wanted to become a physical education teacher, which would require university education. With his chef plans firmly in place for so long, his credits had all been at the college-bound level for his last two years of high school. Now with a change of plan, not only did he not have the Grade 12 prerequisites to get into university, he didn’t have the Grade 11 prerequisites to get into the Grade 12 courses he would need.
In past generations, and depending on where he was located, Gus might have had the option of attending classes at night school in person or through correspondence to achieve his required pre-requisites. He still had those options available. But he also had a couple of new entries on the list:
- An eight-month general arts and science certificate at college; Gus would be able to apply to university with his college grades instead of his high school grades.
- A two-year fitness and health promotion program that had a transfer agreement to a bachelor of kinesiology program at a partner university; Gus could have both diploma and degree in four years plus a summer semester.
From either path, Gus would be able to obtain a university degree that would enable him to apply to a Bachelor of Education program. Gus’s mother was very confused – she’d had no idea there were so many options available and that her son was not in nearly the bind she thought he was.
The one thing we should all agree on is this: changing your mind about your career direction is completely normal. Given the age at which students must make decisions about post-secondary education and careers, it should be expected that changes are inevitable.
In my thesis defence, one of the panelists asked me “what made you want to study this topic?” I responded, “Well, what I really want to know is why everyone is so obsessed with university when there are plenty of amazing careers through all the different post-secondary pathways, but that seemed pretty ambitious to fit the scope of a master’s thesis.” I should also point out that I did my entire MA program online and completed it at 38 years old. If one good thing comes out of the global pandemic, it will be that online and flexible learning options not only become more plentiful, but are more appealing to a wider audience.
I think the best thing we can know as guidance counsellors, educators and parents is that there is always another way.
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