A different degree of success: Is a college degree still necessa - KTRE.com | Lufkin and Nacogdoches, Texas

A different degree of success: Is a college degree still necessary?

EAST TEXAS (KLTV) - As students prepare to graduate high school this month, many are faced with a major decision: enter the workforce full-time, or go to college? The decision isn't simple. 

Recent changes in school curriculum and our country's economy are leading some to reconsider the importance of college. We met with school officials, local economists and employers to discuss how education is changing and what students need in order to be successful in East Texas. 

"Studies show that if students can work in the field that they're interested in, or they're seeking a degree in, that their chances of success are much higher," says Christi Khalaf with the Tyler Area Business-Education Council. 

A Labor Market and Career Information study shows becoming a nurse is one of the top career interests of Texas students. The study shows that top job interests include becoming a teacher, auto mechanic, truck driver and welder. 

Compare those interests to the fastest growing jobs in East Texas. Healthcare workers make up three of the top five. Teachers also make that list. 

"Information like this is what kids need. They need to be seeing it at school. Their parents need it," says Khalaf, who is also analyzing data to try and improve the school system. "As students progress through what we term the "education pipeline," there are certain points that they fall out."

Khalaf gave us an example of how leaky the education pipeline is.The Texas Education Agency tracked every Texas 8th grade student from 1996 to 2001. Only 71 out of 100 graduated from high school. 52 of those 71 entered college, but only 19 of them went on to earn any sort of higher education credential. 

"What we need to focus on as a community is really getting kids to the next level. So, if they're not graduating high school, we've got to get them to graduate high school. If they're stopping at high school, we've got to get them into some college program," Khalaf says. 

Misti Rasure runs the CTE program for Tyler ISD. She thinks CTE programs are the key to the change Khalaf is describing. " I remember growing up, vocational was very strong, but now it runs a huge gamut. So, you have everything from some traditional things like welding and culinary arts all the way to information technology."

TISD offers more than 30 different CTE course options. Rasure says this shift in curriculum will change the way students approach education, "All 8th graders will be taking a class called exploring careers. They will research and look at what their livings would be. Then they are able to start getting an idea of who they are."

After that, school counselors will help them decide a course track. Under House Bill 5, students are now required to choose an endorsement, meaning they have to take classes in one or more of these five categories: STEM, business and industry, public services, arts and humanities or multidisciplinary. 

"If a child wants to go to college, certainly we want them to, but with House Bill 5, we are able to personalize their education so it's more individualized based on what the child's abilities and interests are," says Connie Hillbrand, a counselor at John Tyler High School. 

"It is not a matter of college or not, it's a matter of making the option that's best for you. So, I look at it as a way for students to continue their education regardless of if it's college or not," Rasure says. 

The goal is to have every high school student graduate "college ready", but also give them the chance to graduate with specialized certifications. Those certifications can be used to go straight into the workforce. 

"I've watched the progression over the years of the career technical programs and those programs offer usually high paying jobs," says Jan Adams, the director of academic advising at Tyler Junior College.

This reality is shaping a discussion: Is a college degree necessary to be successful in East Texas? 

"The whole trend with career and technical education and House Bill 5 is to sort of put the brakes on the whole philosophy that every kid needs a bachelor's degree," Khalaf says. 

And it's not just a degree, but the right degree. Dustin Tallent graduated with a political science degree from UT Tyler. He now owns an oil and gas company and looks at his degree more as it relates to money saved and money earned, "When it comes to evaluating the debt that you incur versus what you're going to get out of it, I don't think that that's a long-term benefit."

The choice to get a higher education is different for every person, but the one thing everyone agrees on is the need to provide students with options that lead to a successful future in East Texas. 

"That's really going to be the key. That's going to be the key to a prosperous economy going forward, that's going to be the key for these kids to make a great wage and to be able to be citizens that give back to our community. So, that's really got to be where the focus is," says Khalaf.

Khalaf and TISD officials say they are also working on getting local employers in high school classrooms. They hope that will help students better understand what jobs are available and what those jobs require. Khalaf says the local business community is trying to increase the number of internships and apprenticeships available to students. 

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