Michael Frost

Michael Frost

Collectively, Americans have racked up $1.6 trillion in student debt — and Pennsylvanians, on average, carry more than any other state.

According to Peterson’s financial aid survey, 2017 graduates of a Pennsylvania postsecondary school have an average $36,193 in student loan debt, well above the national average of $28,288.

Our young men and women will spend years — if not decades — struggling to pay off these loans, likely delaying home ownership, marriage and starting a family because of it.

Our students deserve better than this. Our kids deserve better than this. They do what they’ve been told is “right,” which is to graduate high school, get a college degree and get a “good” job.

But this is no longer the only path to success, particularly in Pennsylvania.

Manufacturers from all parts of the state are desperate for talented, reliable workers, and they’re willing to pay them a steady wage capable of comfortably supporting a family — the average annual compensation surpassed $73,000 in 2017.

The problem is, they just can’t find people with the skills needed to fill these positions. In fact, 92% of respondents to the 2018 Manufacturing Employment Demand Study for Southwestern Pennsylvania admitted that a lack of skilled workers was affecting their business, with 60% characterizing that impact as “significant” or “critical.”

Unfortunately, we’ve allowed this to happen. Instead of directing our students toward these lucrative opportunities, we’ve pointed them down a path that, for many, leads to stagnation and frustration. Recently, a nationwide survey found that two-thirds of Americans have some kind of regret about their college degree. And considering Pennsylvania’s student debt load, it’s probably not a stretch to say regret is higher here.

It’s time to change the status quo, and that starts in middle schools and high schools. Our outdated education model doesn’t reflect the needs of the modern economy, nor the modern student, and we must make modifications that show students the many options that exist outside of a four-year degree.

As executive director of Insight PA, a cyber charter school, I’ve seen for myself how a career-readiness approach to education can transform a student’s life. Through our Destinations Career Academy, students can see and try their hand at a variety of different industries through exploratory courses and targeted electives taken in conjunction with traditional core classes.

Students are shown how their interests fit within certain fields and, once they decide which they want to pursue, are told about the necessary next steps. This prevents students from enrolling in a four-year program when a two-year program or even less is needed, plus it keeps those who may still need a bachelor’s degree from bouncing from major to major — and accruing thousands of dollars of debt in the process.

Career readiness isn’t just a victory for students. It’s a plus for employers, as well. Employers have the ability to weigh in on what is taught in the pathway of classes preparing students for their industry, which helps them ensure students learn essential skills early and saves them money they’d normally invest in on-the-job training.

Still more savings could come from employers’ use of apprenticeship, internship and externships programs, saved dollars that could be redirected to research and development, operations or even boosting existing salaries and hiring additional workers.

It’s tempting to keep doing as we’ve always done before — particularly when there’s talk of short-term fixes like canceling student loan debts altogether — but we cannot solely rely on the campaign promises of an election that is more than a year away, nor solutions that fail to address the true cause of our student debt crisis.

We can, and should, start solving the problem now. The tools to do so are already in our hands, and if we put them to use, we can prepare Pennsylvanians for a prosperous future and meet the needs of our local job market.

Michael Frost is the executive director of Insight PA Cyber Charter School.