Who are you?

If you saw this question on a government form, you’d likely respond in a practical fashion, checking boxes about how the world perceives you. Where were you born? What’s your family’s income? What’s your race? Did your parents—even your grandparents—graduate from college?

They’re answers that, when it comes to education and work and success, aren’t supposed to matter—but seem to anyway.

Who are you?

If you saw this question at the top of a page in your diary, though, you might take a different approach, scribbling details about how you perceive yourself. What do you love to do? What scares you? Who matters most to you?

They’re answers that, when it comes to education and work and success, don’t always seem to matter—but maybe should.

Among American adolescents, that “official” information—about their family histories and resources—varies immensely. But when it comes to their inner lives, they tend to have a lot in common. They don’t all have money, or connections, or other advantages. But they all have dreams.

Yet not everyone’s aspirations count the same in shaping their lives. Some students—often wealthy students—grow up assured that they can and should follow their dreams. Others grow up in environments that, explicitly or implicitly, treat their dreams like a luxury—nice to have, but hard to afford.

This disparity plays out as teenagers make decisions about what to do after high school. And it’s complicated by common wisdom that advises young people that the path to dreams almost always passes through college—even though only some students make it there, and even fewer graduate.

This forces many teenagers to grapple with contradictions: College is essential, but it’s also impossible. It pays off, but it’s also too expensive. It’s for everyone … but maybe not for you.

Seeing these incongruities, more employers, politicians and even educators are encouraging alternative routes to adulthood—often specifically to employment. If campuses and classrooms seem beyond reach, these grown-ups advise, seek opportunities elsewhere. Train to gain skills that are practical, marketable. Securing a steady job and a solid paycheck doesn’t require college.

That message may be true. Yet it’s advice typically reserved for only some young people—and it may fail to resonate with them. Even teenagers whose circumstances constrain them tend to lean into their potential, not their limits. So many of them want more than a job. They want good lives. They want to grow and thrive. They want opportunities that inspire them.

To create those opportunities, adults may need to start listening. Colleges and companies, philanthropies and governments are busy redesigning postsecondary pathways, trying to reduce—or prevent—student loan debt, to make training options more flexible, and to prepare more workers for jobs in growing industries. What would happen if leaders paused these efforts to ask teenagers new kinds of questions, and really heard what they have to say?

In Tennessee, Dino Sabic longs for a way out of pandemic stress. In Texas, Maytee Guadiana worries about not being able to complete her degree. In Louisiana, Vernell Cheneau III hopes to be his own boss.

On the cusp of graduating from high school in spring 2021, these three teenagers, plus six others, shared their thoughts and feelings about the lives they’re working toward and the choices they’re making to get there. Their reflections captured at that moment, along with insight from more than two dozen counselors, economists, psychologists, employers and workforce experts, offer a glimpse at how postsecondary pathways could serve young people better if recreated for their adolescent brains and crafted around their dreams.

“We should not be designing programs and interventions without the direct input of young people,” says Allison Gerber, director of employment, education and training at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a philanthropy based in Baltimore that makes grants to expand education and skills-training for youth and adults. “The more engagement and ownership young people have in the entire thing, the more likely it will meet their needs, they’ll want to stay, feel a sense of belonging, and it will be attractive to them and their peers.”

We might start that design process by asking each young person who they are, about their goals and values, and how they envision their futures. That conversation might begin with students’ hopes and fears.

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