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College includes all educational opportunities

The Durango Herald article on Sept. 19, “As Labor Market Struggles, Are More Students Foregoing College?” raises a question I hear many students and families wondering about. Does college still matter?

The role of higher education in American society continues to evolve. The conventionally defined idea of college used to be a four-year bachelor’s degree that would set up a person for a professional career or entry to graduate school and an advanced degree. People wishing to pursue a career in the trades traditionally were not trained at post-secondary educational institutions, but rather through apprenticeships and on the job training.

Today, much of this formal training is done at trade schools and community colleges, increasingly in partnership with local high schools. The way we define what college means must change and broaden to include all post-secondary educational opportunities.

There is no doubt that the high costs of a four-year degree makes it seem unattainable for many. I also recognize that a four-year degree is not the right fit for some. In my counseling practice, college refers to any education beyond high school. Post-secondary counseling professionals work tirelessly to hone our craft so that we can endeavor to provide individualized, careful advice to our students that will set them up on a path for success.

A four-year degree still holds tremendous value in our society outside of earnings alone. Important benefits of a bachelor’s degree lie not in the major or program of study, but in the creation of an intellectually well-rounded individual with critical thinking, and the ability to question and seek knowledge and truth through deeper inquiry. Students who pursue a bachelor’s degree are exposed to a more diverse set of people with different values, beliefs and viewpoints, which allows them to be more empathetic members of society. Something we desperately need right now.

The 2021 Colorado Talent Pipeline Report states that of the top jobs in Colorado that pay the living wage of $31.19/hour, 90.7% of those jobs require a credential beyond high school. Some sort of formal education or training is necessary in order to achieve a living wage and a standard of living that most of our students envision for themselves.

Locally, we are fortunate that students can obtain training and education while in high school and immediately after graduation at two Community Colleges: Pueblo Community College (Durango) and San Juan College (Farmington).

In addition to free opportunities for concurrent enrollment while in high school, students can use federal financial aid money that they qualify for through completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to pay for classes at PCC or SJC.

A misconception that many people have is that federal financial aid money can only be used toward a degree at a four-year institution. This is not true. Students who qualify for need-based financial aid can use that money to pay tuition in programs such as building trades, automotive, computer science, Emergency Medical Services, fire science, welding and many more.

SJC even offers in-state tuition for students from LaPlata, Archuleta, Dolores, Montezuma and San Juan counties, and charges under $60/credit hour. Students can earn certificates and associate degrees that will set them up with specific, marketable skills that will enable them to enter the job market and earn a living wage much more quickly than if they attempt to enter the workforce with a high school diploma alone.

Every student needs college now more than ever, it just depends on how we choose to define it.

Erin Cummins-Roper is director of Career & College Counseling at Animas High School.