Educator's View: Let students explore career paths before pushing them toward four-year college

From the column: "High school students should have the opportunity to dive into their interests and truly get to understand the field without the worry of accumulating debt."

Leslie Lewandowski.jpg
Leslie Lewandowski

2020 was a year of change. Change in the way we go about our daily routines. Change in how we interact with others. And, for many, a change in the way we work.

As the workforce evolves, both naturally and as a result of COVID-19, we must also shift how we approach educating and training the next generation.

The belief that you need to attend a four-year college to be successful is a thing of the past. A college degree is no longer a prerequisite for a thriving career. So why does our education system continue to push students on this path?

That’s not to say college isn’t a valid option for many students. But we as educators must show students there is more than one path that can be taken in life. With record unemployment numbers across the state and country, many are reimagining their careers. It’s time we reflect on our career-exploration programs by addressing them in our classrooms.

By providing and expanding upon career-readiness education in K-12 schools, we not only demonstrate to students that they have multiple paths to success, we also provide them with an opportunity to gain the valuable soft skills for which employers are searching.


At the school I work for, Minnesota Virtual Academy, this is a commitment we’ve made: show students their options after graduation, whether they enter the workforce or pursue higher education, and let them explore and determine their fate.

Early exploration is key. High school students should have the opportunity to dive into their interests and truly get to understand the field without the worry of accumulating debt. With the average college graduate leaving with more than $32,000 in debt, according to Forbes, let’s help students explore their options ahead of time so they don’t pay the price of changing their minds later.

The issue of student debt also raises a key point: Introducing career-readiness education helps to remove access barriers. Let’s face it, college is not an affordable option for all students and families. By incorporating career exploration, you give all students an opportunity for success by demonstrating the solid futures and earning potential the trades provide.

Not only does career-readiness education provide students with access to explore fields, it also offers the opportunity to graduate career-ready. For example, our partnership with the International Union of Operating Engineering Local 49 offers students a chance to get hands-on training with simulators, interact with professional operating engineers, and receive certifications. This means that once they have their diplomas in hand, they have the skills needed to start the next day.

Allowing students to explore career paths before committing is key. They need to see all the opportunities available. After all, they are making a big decision as they determine their future careers. As educators, we should do everything possible to help with their journey.

Let’s all advocate for career readiness to be a focus of our state’s education. Working together, we can have Minnesota emerge as a leader in workforce preparation and strengthen the next generation.

Our job is to prepare them for the future. The future is evolving. Let’s make sure education evolves, too.

Leslie Lewandowski of Edina, Minnesota, is director of career-readiness education at Minnesota Virtual Academy (, an online public school serving students statewide.

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