Academic Innovations
Time to Change How Students Choose their College
By Dawn O’Bar, board president of Get Focused...Stay Focused!

As a society, the traditional way students and their parents have gone about choosing a college has been backwards for far too long.

It’s time to flip the college decision-making process to promote, at an earlier age, students becoming career-committed and career-focused. This one basic shift in attitude, followed by action, will pay dividends for students, their families, and our country.

Choosing which college to attend can be one of the most consequential decisions a student can make. Yet when counselors and advisors speak about “right fit,” that usually refers to whether it is in an urban area or a small town, or if it’s a large versus small campus. Students may pick a college because it’s their parents’ alma mater or it’s where their best friend is going.

Too many families still believe that their son or daughter will determine which career to pursue during their time in college. Perhaps that delayed decision-making was an option in another era, but beginning with the recession of 2008, the playing field for entry-level employees has changed. Getting a foothold on the career ladder is now more challenging.

During the recession, the competition for good positions increased as qualified and experienced employees suddenly found themselves back in the job market. Today, more experienced workers delay retirement because of either financial losses experienced in the recession or financial insecurities due to rising costs and low retirement reserves. Because of these realities, good jobs that would have gone to recent college graduates are now staying with members of the aging workforce who have the skills and expertise to be most productive.

Every semester in college and every class taken is precious. To maximize their return on investment, students need to focus their time on the acquisition of both the knowledge and the skills required to be competitive in their chosen career path. To wait until one’s junior or senior year in college to figure out which career path to jump on is naïve and costly—costly in tuition paid while taking unfocused courses and costly in earnings lost to delayed workforce entry.  

Because of delayed career decision-making, today too many students graduate from college with skills that only prepare them for employment in jobs that do not require a college degree. Next time you are in a car rental agency, a restaurant, or a coffee shop, ask the person waiting on you their educational level.

The paradigm shift needs to start before students step onto a college campus. Instead of focusing students on which college to attend with little discussion of major and career choice, high school personnel, counselors, and teachers should make career exploration and planning paramount in the post-secondary decision-making process. Any discussion of “right fit” should center on considerations related to major and certification opportunities for a carefully chosen career path before settling on a college choice.

A lot of time in high school is devoted to the college application process or standardized test preparation. Yet little time is spent on what students want to do after college which contributes to low post-secondary completion rates. Why? It’s because most students graduating from high school have no clue what type of work they want to pursue as an adult. Research from the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy shows that students who enter a program of study in their first year of college are twice as likely to complete as students who enter a program after their first year.

Students will enter college with an informed, declared major if they spend more time in high school learning about what they want to do after they finish their education and what they need to do to qualify for a job in that field. With an informed major in their sights, students will be twice as likely to take the right classes and graduate from college, according to a report by the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office. Students can escape the maze of educational choices when entering college if they have a clear educational path built on carefully chosen career goals.

How can that happen? >Going forward, when high school students walk into their counselor’s office, the question should be, “What career do you aspire to?” rather than “Which college do you want to attend?”

A career-focused, educational planning model in high school is already being employed in over 450 high schools around the nation by the nonprofit, Get Focused...Stay Focused!. The Get Focused...Stay Focused! program prioritizes teaching all students how to start planning for a career and a desired lifestyle early in secondary school.

Whether students are headed for an Ivy League college or an entry-level job, they all crave a clear sense of direction. The whole-school Get Focused...Stay Focused! program guides students through a crucial self-discovery process that spans their high school years and transforms them into self-motivated learners with a plan to be economically self-sufficient.

This career-focused program starts with students in the eighth or ninth grade who enroll in a semester or yearlong freshman transition course based on the Freshman Transition Standards from The George Washington University's Freshman Transition Initiative. During that class, students begin the process of answering these fundamental questions: Who am I? What do I want? and How do I get it? These three questions drive the curriculum, making it relevant, rigorous, and effective at increasing engagement and motivation.

The freshman course teaches a systematic decision-making process for quantifying life-defining choices while offering opportunities to integrate English, math, and online enhancements. Students develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to successfully examine their own lives, evaluate a wide range of education options, foster a growth mindset, and establish reasoned and researched career and life goals for their future.

The freshman experience culminates with students developing an individualized, online 10-year plan that charts their journey through high school and post-secondary education or training and into the workforce. Due to the rigor of the course, and because it is offered on many college campuses, a number of the high schools can also offer dual credit for this Get Focused...Stay Focused! coursework. Dual credit opportunities will allow students to be closer to a completed degree and will increase their self-efficacy when they make the transition to college.

During the freshman course, students explore the consequences of not completing their education. When students can envision a productive life of their own design—not a canned plan resulting from an online survey—while understanding the consequences of not following through with their education plans, the motivation to succeed increases.

Students revisit their 10-year plans in their academic classes during the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades using follow-up modules to: Students’ evolving online 10-year plans can then be used as a tool to inform instructors’ advisory and academic coaching functions, continually motivating students to graduate and reach the goals that will lead to an economically self-sufficient adulthood. When counseling sessions start with a review of each student’s online 10-year plan, then advice provided can be more substantial, direct, and focused on long-term success

Educators teaching and administering this career-focused program say this approach to learning has allowed students to discover the importance of planning for a career before choosing a major or even going down a different path.

“It’s not a straight path from high school to career,” said Gina Sanders, a Get Focused...Stay Focused! educator at McDade High School in McDade, Texas. “Some kids aren’t meant for college and they might want to explore something else, but they won’t know unless they start learning how to do research, which is something that we afford them.” 

Haylee Cochran, a former student who experienced the Get Focused...Stay Focused! program at Indio High School in Indio, California, before graduating in 2014, said she continues to use the information she learned in the career-focused freshman course today.

“I have always been terrible at planning my life out, but after having that class and then finally being out in the open world seeing things hands-on has really opened my eyes to how important planning is,” Cochran said. “Now, before I even make a decision, I always ask myself, ‘Would this be smart?’ or ‘How effective would this be in my life for the future?’”

Diego Ochoa, former superintendent at Esparto Unified School District in California, said a career-focused course, like the one provided with Get Focused...Stay Focused!, has helped students prepare for college and their careers much better than placing a priority on testing.

“The purpose of the program,” Ochoa said, “is to facilitate a future for students in a way that places them at a higher priority than any number the school is going to achieve by giving tests to students, and that subtle change is very meaningful for parents and for students.”

For the sake of our students and their future, we can’t afford to get it backwards any longer. Flipping the college decision-making paradigm to highlight career-focused post-secondary education will allow students to understand the most direct route to a self-sufficient future.


Dawn O'Bar is the board president of Get Focused...Stay Focused!. O'Bar has always been an educator, but previous careers include being a president of an international nonprofit organization called Unite to Light and working as an adjunct professor at Westmont College.