The labor market is tight. Employees are in demand. Unemployment is dropping, and wages are increasing. You see the signs everywhere — businesses are desperate for workers and are paying more to attract them. That’s all good news.
But the data also shows that at least some students are choosing to work instead of continuing their education. That’s less good. A cohort of students — many of them men — have simply given up on the idea of attending college. Others haven’t returned after pandemic shutdowns, perhaps because they’ve gone to work, perhaps because they’re struggling financially or emotionally, perhaps for other reasons.
Simply put, our young people, from all backgrounds and all demographics, need a college education. Employment prospects might look good right now, but the evidence shows that college imparts the education, training, and critical thinking skills that will allow students to thrive in a rapidly changing world of work. The data regularly show that college graduates earn far more over their lifetimes than those with only a high school diploma. Missing out on college means missing out on career success, personal satisfaction, and a lifetime of earning power.
The question is what to do about this. As a society, how can we ensure that college is accessible and attainable for all populations — regardless of gender, family income, or whether their parents went to college?
At Pace University, we don’t have all the answers. We do very well at enrolling first-generation students and students from underrepresented communities, because we make it our priority to recruit and support them. Over the past five years, we, too, have seen our male enrollment rates decrease. But one interesting nuance is that we’ve seen less of a decrease on our Westchester campus, compared to our New York City campus.
And that discrepancy helps illustrate one idea I’ve had for keeping students engaged with learning.
It is, simply, that coaches and teammates are crucial.
Our Westchester campus is home to our athletics program. We don’t have organized sports on our New York City campus. And sports, I believe, gives many students the structure and support they need to thrive academically.
I don’t mean that every student needs to be an athlete. But I believe that the structure of athletics — coaches who are engaged in their students’ lives, teammates who rely on one other, the time management and discipline that sports require — give students the structure they may need to succeed as students.
Maybe the right coach for a given student is an academic mentor, maybe the right team is an orchestra, and maybe the right self-discipline comes from showing up in a lab every day and working alongside colleagues.
As my friend Greg Harden, the legendary peak-performance coach at the University of Michigan, recently put it when he agreed to speak to Pace’s student athletes – athletics is about taking control of yourself. It’s about mastery. It’s about pushing yourself to accomplish what you set out to. Coaches and teammates are crucial to that success. And I suspect that students would thrive academically if every student had a coach.
Recognizing that students benefit from this kind of teamwork, structure, and mentorship can help us start to think about new ways of helping everyone to succeed in college, and in the K-12 pipeline. Colleges and universities can work with their local schools to help build mentorship and teamwork structures for all students — from all demographics, athletes, and those with other passions. We can support our students, check in with them, keep them on track. We can use similar structures to prepare them for college, to get them through the application process, and then to help them succeed once they’re enrolled. A coaching and teamwork structure, in other words, can help prepare students for college, get them enrolled in college, and then make sure they stay engaged and enrolled through graduation.
This is just one strategy that can help us ensure all students achieve academically and earn college degrees. I know there are many other ideas and strategies that deserve a hearing. But doing nothing isn’t an option. We need to make sure that all students apply to college and succeed once enrolled. It’s going to take a team effort.