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Who Do You Think You Are?

Three Crucial Conversations for Coaching Teens to College and Career Success

Stephen M. Smith | Shaun Fanning

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About the Authors

Shaun Fanning is chief product officer at Intellispark and a cofounder of Naviance. He previously served as vice president of research and development at Hobsons, where he led new product initiatives focused on improving student success through technology in K–12 and higher education. He joined Hobsons in 2007 through its acquisition of Naviance, where he served as head of product strategy and technology. Prior to cofounding Naviance, he held a variety of roles in business analysis, finance, technology, marketing, and product management at AT&T and The Thomson Corporation (now Thomson Reuters). He earned a BA degree in economics from Cornell University.

Stephen M. Smith is CEO of Intellispark, an education technology startup. He is vice chair of the board of College Possible, a member of the board of the National College Access Network, and a cofounder of Naviance. He previously served as president and chief product officer at Hobsons, where he led global product strategy, corporate development, student data privacy, and R&D. He joined Hobsons in 2007 through its acquisition of Naviance, where he served as chief executive officer. Prior to Naviance, he was vice president of digital product development at Peterson's, then a division of The Thomson Corporation (now Thomson Reuters). Prior to joining Peterson's, he was a founding member of the Internet consulting practice at Thomson Technology Services Group. He has also served as a practitioner faculty member at Johns Hopkins University and at Montgomery College. He earned a BA degree in history and an MBA, both from Cornell University.


We would like to thank the thousands of school counselors, teachers, administrators, and community mentors who trusted us, through Naviance, to join them in their journey to help transform the world through education. You inspired us, challenged us, and showed us every day how much of a difference a caring adult can make in the educational and personal trajectory of a child. We hope that through this book we can share many of the lessons we have learned from you and do our part to make the world a better place. We are lucky to have worked with you.

We are extremely grateful to Kim Oppelt for rounding out the book with her experience and knowledge in college admissions and financial aid—while remarkably also completing her doctoral dissertation and keeping up with the demands of a full-time job.

We appreciate the encouragement, insight, and feedback we received from Brandon Busteed, Laurie Cordova, Mary Docken, Patty Mason, and Nick Rabinovitch.

Thank you to Tom Zoldos, Paulina Maldonado, Lucian Slatineanu, and members of the Hobsons marketing team for your design, branding, and marketing support.

Thank you to Amy, Ruby, and Shepherd Fanning for giving up time with your dad and providing love and enthusiasm.

Last but not least, neither of us would be who we are today or have useful insights to share without our mothers, who believed without question in our wildest dreams, and our fathers, who taught us how to fight for those dreams.

Washington, DC

August 2017

Part I
Who Are You?

How Do You Get Started?

We are doing this all wrong. College gets more expensive and more competitive every year. Kids lose sleep over where they're applying and whether they'll be admitted. Parents are anxious and increasingly wonder whether college is a worthwhile investment. Those same parents ask a lot of important questions. Will my child will get into a “good” college? How long will it take her to earn a degree? Can we afford tuition—not to mention room, board, and other expenses? Will she get a decent job after graduation? Will she be happy? The problem, in most families anyway, is that we take the questions in the wrong order.

Brandon Busteed, the executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup, describes this process well. We start searching for colleges by thinking about attributes like size, selectivity, and location. We look into what majors are offered at the institution, and we may even consider sports programs or campus life. We probably look at the list price for tuition, room, board, and expenses, but because our system of education finance is so complex, those figures often bear little resemblance to what it will cost to attend. We build a list of colleges that meet our criteria. We visit some of those institutions to get a sense of how they “feel.” We narrow the list and begin the arduous task of preparing and submitting college applications. By having focused our attention on list prices instead of the actual cost of attendance, we may have already ruled out some attractive options for financial reasons, even if those institutions may have turned out to be affordable. It's not until acceptances start coming in from colleges we chose to apply to that we get a better sense of the actual cost of attendance. For the vast majority of us, the cost of attending even an institution with a modest list price is higher than we can afford based solely on what we have saved or earn, so we explore loan options. After that, we decide where to enroll.

As many as half of all traditional-age first-year students enter college without declaring a major, and according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) at the U.S. Department of Education, almost 80 percent change their major at least once after they enroll. So it's not until well after starting college and often taking on debt that families begin to understand how much the student will be likely to earn after graduation and what he can realistically afford to repay. Because such a high percentage of students change majors while in college, many are taking a long time to get to the finish line. In fact, NCES data show that only 44.2 percent of first-time bachelor's degree recipients earn a four-year degree in four years or less.

If you were designing this process from scratch, you might approach it from exactly the opposite direction. Start with the end in mind. Pick a career based on what you like to do. Research the labor market and find out how much you'll be likely be able to earn. Then look at the type of education required to get that job. Weigh the ability to pay for that education given your career prospects and reconsider if necessary. Once you're sure the cost of your education is manageable given your chosen career, enroll in the institution of your choice and complete your degree.

Many adult students (defined by the Department of Education as those age twenty-five and older) approach college in just this way. These students often enter college with specific career objectives. And although they're sometimes referred to as nontraditional or posttraditional students, this demographic now makes up the majority of college students in the United States. Can an approach that works for twenty-five-year-olds also help teenagers to make better college and career choices?

It's incredibly challenging for an adult to pick a major or a career, and developmental differences and comparatively limited life experiences make this decision even more overwhelming for teenagers. In that context, it's not surprising that so many college students change their minds after picking a major. Nonetheless, with poor retention and graduation rates at many colleges, few would argue that what we're doing now is working well. Something needs to change. By rethinking the path from middle and high school to college and career, we can reduce the stress and anxiety families feel and put more kids on track for a healthy and successful adult life.

This book got its start nearly seventeen years ago when we launched a program called Naviance and began working with high schools to improve how their students choose among colleges and universities. Since that time, more than 22 million kids around the world have researched college and career opportunities; selected middle and high school course work; gained important knowledge about what it means to go to college; and completed personality, strengths, and career interest assessments and other self-awareness activities in Naviance. These activities have helped those kids build a foundation for a thoughtful progression from school to college to work.

The goal of this book is to help more kids think about school and college with an objective in mind: recognizing that learning is intrinsically valuable and continues for life but that purposeful learning can be even more transformative. The question “Who do you think you are?” gets at the essence of what families need to explore to help their children make good college and career choices. The other questions posed throughout this book are meant to prompt crucial conversations that can help you and your teen, ideally with the support of your teen's school counselor, better inform the college and career search process.

Let's look at how the process typically works today. In U.S. elementary schools, there are few choices to make. Most kids in elementary school have a single teacher for all core academic subjects, even if there are separate faculty members for specialized courses in areas such as music, art, or physical education. While some subgroups of kids with particular needs, aptitudes, or interests might be selected to receive additional support, most follow a fairly consistent program and spend the majority of each day in the same room with the same teacher and the same classmates.

The environment is much different in secondary schools. By grade 6 or 7, schools frequently offer separate classes within core academic subjects for students who are performing at, above, or below grade level. Many schools have optional courses, known as electives, in subjects such as foreign language, instrumental music, and technology. Kids may still receive additional support if they need it, but they are also able to make many more choices to personalize their school experience. Many schools offer clubs and after-school sports. In grades 6 and 7, but especially by grade 8, the courses kids take have a direct impact on the courses they can take in high school, and as a result, their choices affect the majors they can select and even the colleges they may be able to attend.

Some of those connections are straightforward. For example, students who don't take algebra by the end of eighth grade typically can't complete the required course work to take calculus by twelfth grade, and those who don't take calculus before graduating from high school are at a significant disadvantage when applying to engineering and other quantitative programs in college. Other choices are a bit more complex since requirements for admission vary significantly from one college or university to another. Those requirements can even vary among schools and departments within the same college or university. The shared experiences in elementary school give way to a much more individualized program of studies and other activities in middle and high school, which can put kids on very different paths to life after earning a high school diploma.

How do you make sense of these choices? Is it even possible to ask a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old to think ahead ten years or more to consider how making a choice between taking algebra in eighth grade and choosing a slightly less demanding math class is likely to affect college or career options later in life? Is it possible to ask that same young person to weigh the benefits of taking another elective, and making time for the required homework, versus joining an additional after-school club? Choices like this one are being made by and for kids millions of times each year in U.S. schools, often with limited insight into the consequences. For some, it may even feel as though their plans are on autopilot. Those who have done well academically are often pushed to take every one of the most rigorous courses (regardless of their interest level in the subject) and to add even more to their plate through extracurricular activities based on their prior academic successes.

There's a false dichotomy playing out in many American schools. Kids with high grades get pushed to take more and harder courses, while those with lower grades are directed toward career-oriented programs. This approach sets up a tension between college and career. As one counselor in a highly regarded American high school told us, “At this school, college is the career.” She conveyed that statement with no sense of irony or anxiety. For their four years in high school, every academic and extracurricular decision these students made at that school was intended to put them on a path to college. The purpose for which the high school was designed was to get its graduates admitted to a highly selective college or university with very little thought to what they might do once they earn a college degree.

This tension between college and career isn't unique to middle and high schools. On college campuses, too, it plays out on a regular basis. Some faculty, especially in the arts and humanities, bristle when earning a bachelor's degree is seen simply as a ticket to getting a job without an appropriate level of consideration for the intrinsic value of learning. One professor at an elite U.S. university explained, “My job is to teach English, not to get my students a job.” Technically this professor is correct. His job is to teach English, and we share his love for the humanities. But nearly every one of his students will need to get a job after graduation—most of those outside academe—and there's nothing inconsistent or shameful about admitting that a degree in English is an outstanding qualification for many careers.

Because of this tension between college and career in schools and on college campuses, it can be difficult to have a constructive conversation about the role of academic preparation in developing the workforce. We don't mean to suggest that the subject doesn't come up. It does, both at cocktail parties and in policy circles. But too often college and career are presented as being at odds with one another. Kids in middle and high school are steered either to college or to the workforce. Courses in school or college are seen as either intellectual or vocational. College majors are presented as idealistic or practical. The truth is quite the opposite. Higher education is an important step on the path toward a better quality of life and a fulfilling career. And while some degrees are unquestionably more directly aligned with specific careers than others, the act of earning a four-year college degree is generally more important in enabling a stable, successful future than what or where kids study.

Nearly every career requires some form of preparation after high school: on-the-job training, a certificate, an associate degree, a bachelor's degree, or beyond. Research by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (GUCEW) predicts that by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require some education or training beyond high school. A bachelor's degree, in particular, is a gateway to financial stability. A graduate from a four-year college or university will earn, on average, $1 million more than someone who finished high school but did not earn a four-year degree. We recognize that a four-year degree on its own is not a guarantee of future earnings and acknowledge that it's possible to find fulfillment in a career and financial success, if that's what you're after, without a college degree. But throughout this book, we assume that you and your teen are interested in both. The odds of finding a fulfilling career and making financial ends meet are far greater in the United States for those with a college education than for those without. In 2016, GUCEW found that 11.5 million of the 11.6 million jobs created after the Great Recession were filled by people with at least some college-level education.

This book seeks to put aside the unnecessary tension between college and career. With it, we aim to help families, counselors, and kids take a pragmatic approach to making choices about what to study and what to do. Our approach is grounded in several key beliefs:

We call this approach connecting learning to life. By helping kids to see how their goals in life relate to their time in school, we hope they will come to see school as personally beneficial. Instructors who work with adult learners are trained to show their students what's in it for them. They recognize that when people can apply what they're doing to something that matters to them, they'll pay attention. Primary and secondary schools don't usually work this way. Instead, we send our children to school and expect them to pay attention in class. The motivation for doing well in school is some combination of earning good grades and avoiding parental frustration. Unfortunately this just doesn't work very well for many students.

Each year, the Gallup Student Poll measures how kids feel about school. In recent years, the poll has surveyed about 900,000 public school students annually in grades 5 through 12. The results have been startling, and although the poll is based on responses from those who opt in rather than a scientific sample of the overall population, they have been remarkably consistent. The more time kids spend in school, the less engaged they are. In fact, student engagement dropped every year from grades 5 to 11 and ticked up only slightly in grade 12 as kids were about to finish high school. Age, peers, and other factors influence these results, but lack of engagement is also associated with a lack of perceived relevance. Students disengage when they don't know how something they're learning can help them accomplish something they find meaningful, which can have a negative impact on their academic performance and future prospects.

Connecting learning to life is about bridging college and career in a constructive way. It's about looking at college and career choices as closely related decisions. It's about making sure that kids and families make academic decisions and commitments with as much visibility as possible into career opportunities.

We realize that careers are ever-changing, and that today's kids are likely to have several careers during their lifetimes. We understand that middle and high school kids have limited experience on which to base long-term decisions. We know that some careers have very specific education requirements, while others are more accessible to generalists. But it's too easy today to see each stage of education solely as preparation for the next stage of education while encouraging kids who excel in school to do more solely for that reason.

We think it makes more sense for kids and their families to make decisions about the courses they take in middle school and high school with a view to what they're trying to accomplish in college and career. We believe this is the right approach—not because you're trying to limit your child's options, but because you're trying to create them.

This brings us to the three main questions for this book—the questions we want to equip you to help your teen answer:

We've broken these three larger questions down into a series of smaller ones. In part 1, we encourage you and your teen to have some deeper conversations about interests and strengths and about what work means to you. These foundational conversations are intended to set a shared understanding between you and your teen.

From there we move on to part 2, which looks at some potential paths. We look at science, technology, engineering, and math (the STEM topics). We explore medicine and social work, the liberal arts, fine arts, entrepreneurship, criminal justice, and other options. As we do, we also consider the economic consequences of various paths. The goal of these conversations is to help identify multiple pathways that align with your child's interests and strengths while prompting a discussion about implications. For example, a computer science career may be more immediately rewarding economically than a career in the fine arts, and the education decisions and investments you choose to make need to take that into account.

Finally, in part 3, we help teens build a plan of attack. Armed with an honest personal assessment and a clear sense of what they have to gain or lose, we share some practical advice. We help you to help your kids think about internship opportunities so they can try out a career before they commit. We help you work with them to consider whether college is a good option. We challenge some of the conventional wisdom about how to choose a college and offer ways to go to college that make financial sense, even when choosing to pursue a career path that tends to offer lower salaries.

Throughout the book, we provide tools to help with these conversations. We present the good and bad, and we try to make sure to help you consider a realistic range of options rather than prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution. We recognize that not every option is right for every kid or family. We have also compiled a directory of additional resources at the end of the book that can serve as a quick reference or a chance to go deeper in areas of particular interest.

While we designed Naviance as a platform for middle and high school students working with school counselors to explore their options after high school, this book is meant to spark meaningful conversations between teenagers and their parents beyond the inevitable questions: “Where are you going to college? What are you going to study? What do you want to be?” You know your child better than anyone, and discerning a path to college and career success is among the most important activities you'll do together. We hope this book will inform your conversations so that you and your child can feel more confident and less stressed during this critical process.

Although the book is linear, the conversations don't need to be. We suggest that you start with part 1, but beyond that, feel free to jump around as you try to fit these conversations into the hectic schedules that many teens and families face. Chapters 4 to 14 are written to be useful even if they're read independently, and chapter 15 provides a short wrap up. Based on your teen's interests or strengths, you might decide some parts are less relevant. If you know, for example, that studying science or engineering is a poor fit, skip chapter 5. If he or she is already committed to a job in social work, psychology, or teaching, you might only read chapter 7 before moving on to part 3.

Our work with schools and families over the past twenty years has taught us that there is a critical link between college and career and that decisions about college and career should be approached in tandem in a way that's rigorous but not rigid. As much as teens and their families can do to improve the quality of college and career decisions, there's no magic bullet and the process won't ever be entirely scientific. But by knowing themselves, taking time to consider where they're heading, and building a plan, teens can vastly improve the odds that they will find a good match between their education and career goals.