Busting myths about college and careers in N.C.

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As president of the North Carolina Community College System and state superintendent of our K-12 public schools, we are happy to highlight February as Career Pathways Month in North Carolina. We work with thousands of people every day who share one mission: Success for all of North Carolina’s students. We also know that career success comes in many forms and that more and more of our students are finding success through multiple pathways.

This February, we would like to engage our state’s parents, students, educators, and community leaders in a myth-busting exercise about college and careers. Here are three of the biggest myths we heard before taking on our leadership roles:

MYTH 1: Students must earn a four-year degree to be successful.

REALITY: Here in North Carolina, we currently have more opportunities in well-paying, high-demand careers than we have the skilled workforce to fill; there are hundreds of job titles in dozens of career fields – such as web developer, electric lineworker, dental hygienist, and law enforcement officer. And while nearly all require some training or education beyond a high school diploma, none of those requires a four-year degree.

For too long we have sent the message that our students will either go to a four-year school or fail. A bachelor’s degree should be an option for every student who wants to choose that path, but we must do a better job of telling our students about the many other paths to success. A training program right out of high school, an associate degree from a community college, or serving in our nation’s armed forces are just a few examples.

We both serve on the steering committee of the myFutureNC Commission, a statewide effort to increase educational attainment for North Carolinians. Everyone who is a part of the myFutureNC effort – philanthropists, business leaders, representatives of higher education, and others – agrees that pushing every student to a four-year institution is not the way forward. The key to moving our state forward will be finding the unique path for every student. Luckily, North Carolina is well positioned to offer multiple pathways.

MYTH 2: Community colleges can only offer students a two-year associate degree.

REALITY: While North Carolina’s 58 community colleges offer a broad array of associate degrees, they also offer certificate and training programs in many fields that lead directly to a job and meet the needs of businesses. Programs in cybersecurity, biotechnical manufacturing, aviation and aerospace, metalworking, and even wine making are available. Many of these certificate programs can be completed in weeks instead of years.

Community colleges also partner with businesses to offer youth apprenticeships. Apprentices can earn while they learn, gaining work experience while completing relevant coursework at a community college.

MYTH 3: North Carolina’s high schools do not offer vocational training programs anymore.

Whether you call it Career and Technical Education (CTE), vocational education, or something else, CTE is becoming more popular every year. Since 2010-11, when North Carolina began collecting data on credential attainment by secondary students, students have earned 1,043,284 industry-recognized credentials in K-12 schools, with more earned every year than the year before. Last school year, the number of credentials jumped 73 percent from 2016-17!

The word is out about CTE. Students and parents are seeing the value and long-term stability of career-focused education, and we are here to encourage and applaud them for doing so.

North Carolina educates more than 1.5 million students in our public K-12 schools and another 700,000 at our community colleges. They all have different strengths and weaknesses, talents and interests. A uniform path is illogical. Highlighting ways for each student to attain his or her American dream makes sense. Please join us in starting the conversation about career pathways early so that students can plan for the future and achieve their American Dream.

Mark Johnson is state superintendent of Public Instruction, and Peter Hans is president of the N.C. Community College System.

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