Support the Student Who Decides ‘College Isn’t For Me’

Cierra Ford came to dread the inevitable question asked of all high school seniors this time of year: “Where are you going to college?”

It got to the point in which she would just rattle off the names of a few colleges she never even considered, just to appease the well-meaning adults in her life who assume every bright senior must be headed to college.

No one ever told Cierra she wasn’t college material, but she knew it wasn’t the right call for her. She had a plan, a clearer plan than most of her peers, but she still felt embarrassed about her choice. At her high-achieving suburban school, students don’t even like to admit they are going to a local community college (to save money) or to a nearby state school (to save money).

But Cierra isn’t the kind of girl who stays discouraged for long. She’s been a varsity cheerleader for four years, and she volunteers in her school’s student activity center two periods every day. She won a Human Relations Award, and her nomination described her this way: “Her smile and bubbly personality are contagious. She goes above and beyond to do anything for her school.”

So on May 1, National College Decision Day, the day so many of her classmates wore sweatshirts and T-shirts emblazoned with the names of their chosen colleges and universities, Cierra proudly wore her choice, too: “Air Force.”

Cierra is headed off for basic training June 2, two days after she walks the stage at Oak Park and River Forest High School’s graduation ceremony. She wants to be a police officer, and she figures four years in the military will give her the experience she needs to succeed.

OPRF is the kind of school where educators spend a lot of time talking about college and career readiness—but the “career” piece often gets short shrift because students (and their parents) don’t like to say they are not college-bound. Outreach coordinator Latonia Jackson wants to change that.

Days after the College Decision Day hoopla faded, Jackson hosted the high school’s first-ever Post-High-School Options Fair and invited parents with this query: “Is your senior unsure about options after graduation?” She invited a beauty school, military recruiters, reps from three community colleges. About 800 students will graduate this year, but there were only about two dozen names on Jackson’s sign-up sheet.

Jackson knows there will be about 200 seniors at OPRF who are not headed to a four-year college this fall. And she expects more will enroll in college but will head home without making it through their freshman year—derailed, disappointed and in debt. So she wants them to have options, and not feel bad about pursuing them.

I drink the college-for-all Kool-Aid. I’m also a parent of this school. Jackson’s pitch is not only a tough sell here but also fraught with racial minefields. More than 40 percent of students here are black or brown, but the academic tracks and outcomes are deeply and distressingly stratified by income and race.

Our community has been wringing its collective hands about the achievement gap for decades and has made depressingly little progress in closing it.

Sometimes I get so caught up in the pervasive injustice of educational disparities, so swept up by the notion that “college-for-all” is the only fair solution, that I lose sight of what message this sends to a determined young woman who knows she wants something different.

A student like Cierra should have all the options in the world open to her. No adult should ever crush her dreams, make her feel like she isn’t “college material.” And her classes should prepare her to succeed in college, regardless of her decision.

But I don’t want to be that well-meaning adult who makes Cierra feel ashamed about choosing another path.

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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