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Gaining a diploma was once a rite of passage and an open door to realized dreams and seized opportunities. However, the rewards of a standard college education are no longer outweighing the costs of heavy debt and lack of job opportunities. While college may be the right fit for some, many of today's diploma holders lack the necessary skill set to fulfill the growing job market of trade-specific jobs. Instead of thriving from education, 40 percent of attendees at a four-year college drop out before completing their degree.1 Luckily, the education sector offers a variety of cost-effective options for post-high school career success-options that offer targeted learning for a first step toward a future of achievements.

A New Generation of Graduates

The recent struggles of today's grads are causing a large segment of college-bound students to question the value of higher education. With a flood of low-wage and blue collar jobs enticing youth with the promise of a paycheck, soon-to-be high school graduates are choosing work over college and, at times, even over a high school diploma. Just under 66 percent of the high school class of 2013 was enrolled in college last fall, the lowest share of new graduates since 2006 and the third decline in the past four years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among all 16- to 24-year-olds, school enrollment experienced its biggest decline in at least two decades.2

With reduced college enrollment comes reduced funding for colleges and universities across the nation; however, decreased funding imposes the greatest effect on the sector that needs it the most. Institutions that offer low-cost alternatives for accredited degree programs, such as community colleges and career training institutes, are experiencing historic cuts to state funding.3 Without these options as an outlet for low-income youth and first-generation students, at-risk youth and low-income communities suffer the ultimate consequences.

Social Responsibility

As educators, influencers, and active members of our community, we have a fundamental problem to solve-how to match our youth's talents and skills with the necessary education to become gainfully employed. In low-income and at-risk communities where high-cost, post-secondary education is a pipe dream (without a scholarship), encouraging youth to graduate from high school and post-secondary institutions is imperative to the success of not only the students, but of the economical sustainability of the community as well.

Among the frustrations of dwindling enrollment rates is the fact that as enrollment rates decrease, education demands by employers are increasing, causing millions of good-paying jobs to remain unfilled. And with the number of jobs that require an associate's, bachelor's, or graduate degree are expected to rise 5.3 percent by 2018,4 an even greater push must be made to secure the future for at-risk youth and their communities.

The economic laws of supply and demand equally affect the education sector and, perhaps, directly correlate with increased socio-economic divides. According to reports by the New York Times, even though today's job market is not great, more vacancies still exist than the unemployment rate alone would have predicted a few years ago.5 To fill new jobs without more trained professionals requires specialized recruitment focused on encouraging and cultivating skills of individuals that help them realize their full workforce potential.  

Targeted Education

As a starting point, consider catering to a new era of students-one that is, as ironic as it may sound, optimistically disillusioned. Despite the current job market, many students are still hopeful of a brighter future. The trick lies in incentivizing youth with tangible benefits that inspire success. For the low-income yet highly motivated student, career achievement translates into school, work, and life success. We need to stop thinking of higher education as a one-size-fits-all institution.

A blended education that enables advancement in gray-collar work fields while attaining a degree puts students in the direct path of success. For example, an estimated 3 million jobs are available in the gray-collar trades including electricians, plumbers, manufacturing workers, pipefitters, mechanics, appliance repair, computer techs, and welders.6 For the last three years, according to ManpowerGroup, the most challenging segment of the workforce for employers to staff with skilled talent has been the aforementioned trades that are so prevalent in manufacturing and construction.7

Why not shift focus on steering students toward success in job sectors that actively seek skilled tradespeople? Rather than discouraging them from beginning a career path, show them how education can work hand-in-hand to achieve their career goals. With more trade-certified graduates in the workforce, communities can flourish with decreased unemployment rates, decreased dropout rates, increased school enrollment, and ultimately, the beginning of a new generation of graduates.

What are your thoughts? Let me know - either in the comments section below or on Twitter.

Sources: (1); (2); (3); (4) ; (5) ; (6) ; (7)