Our Thoughts

A Common Purpose: Further Education, Career Development, and Well-Being

May 20, 2024

A recent piece in The 74 caught my attention. Titled “What the End of ‘College for All’ Means for the Future of America’s High Schools” picks up on a common theme in education-related media – i.e., that the last decade’s emphasis on increasing college-going rates has passed, and that schools (especially high schools) need to re-orient their priorities to focus on student well-being.

I’ve worked in and around both college access and student well-being for the past three decades. As a co-founder of Naviance, I am proud of the work we did to make college options more visible and accessible to students – especially those who were among the first in their families to apply and go. As a member of the board of directors of Common App, I continue to take an active role in encouraging students to explore their options for higher education, recognizing that a college degree continues to be a critical contributor to social mobility. And as CEO and co-founder of Intellispark, I work every day to make it easier for educators to monitor and improve the well-being of their students, which is critical for addressing chronic absenteeism, engagement, and elevating achievement. While it’s encouraging to see an active discussion in the media about education priorities, I’m concerned that two complementary goals may be misunderstood as being in conflict with one another.


Higher education is an important driver of social mobility. Policy organizations as diverse as the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the Center for American Progress all highlight the key role higher education plays in improving economic outcomes, particularly for students from lower-income families. Not every institution, and not every degree program within an institution, has an equally positive impact on economic mobility. That said, obtaining a post-secondary degree is, on balance, one of the most impactful steps someone can take to increase future earnings. As a recent opinion column in the The Chronicle of Higher Education noted, “it’s time to retire the skepticism around the value of a degree.”

During the previous 10-15 years, U.S. education policy focused heavily on increasing college attendance, particularly for students from lower-income families. That focus led to higher rates of enrollment in higher education, including in the year immediately following high school graduation. By 2016, the percentage of students enrolled in college in the first fall following their high school graduation reached 70% before it began to decline. By 2021, amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, that rate dropped to 62%. Although the National Student Clearinghouse reports that the rate of college enrollment immediately following high school recovered slightly in 2023, it’s still below pre-pandemic levels.

Of course, some will argue that decreasing the immediate college-going rate is a good thing. Perhaps fewer students are feeling pressure to go to college when it isn’t a good fit for them. That’s possible. But, the decrease in immediate college enrollment is disproportionately affecting students from lower-income families, reinforcing structural inequities in many communities. Moreover, it’s happening along with a long-term decline in math scores by U.S. students on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessment, which measures math, reading, and science proficiency among 15 year olds – suggesting that students are losing ground academically that won’t be made up after high school.

A “new” purpose

The piece in The 74 describes interviews completed recently by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) across a relatively small number of high schools in New England. Although the sample size may be small, the results mirror those in other recent studies. “The primary purpose of high school is not to prepare every student for college,” the article reads. “Instead, parents and students in wide-ranging circumstances describe happiness, fulfillment, and a ‘good life’ as their priorities.”

Stating the primary purpose of high school is not to prepare students for college is problematic. I say that not because every student should necessarily go to college, but because every student should be prepared to go if she chooses. Moreover, the skills that will help most in preparing for college are similar to those needed for work. This seems counterintuitive, but it’s not.

At Intellispark, we help schools measure and teach resiliency skills. Those skills – valuing education, health and well-being, connectedness, academic confidence, stress management, and intrinsic motivation – are broadly applicable in school, work, and life. Research has found that higher levels of resiliency are associated with lower levels of absenteeism, fewer behavior incidents, as well as higher grades and graduation rates. Schools that do a good job helping their students build resiliency are doing a good job of preparing students for college, even if those students choose not to go or not to go right away, while also building a solid foundation for success across a range of outcomes.

Second, while going to college is neither an absolute requirement for nor a guarantee of future success, we know from research that “happiness, fulfillment, and a ‘good life’” become more likely for those with a college degree. The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University has done important work helping to quantify the economic impact of education. Their report from 2021, The College Payoff: More Education Doesn’t Always Mean More Earnings, suggests that a bachelor’s degree remains an important gateway to higher earnings. “Bachelor’s degree holders earn a median of $2.8 million during their career, 75% more than if they had only a high school diploma.” Associate’s, master’s and doctoral degrees may provide benefits, but the economic return is less consistent for holders of these degrees than for those with bachelor’s degrees.

No one would dispute that earnings are an incomplete and imperfect measure of success, but a lack of employment with a stable income sufficient to meet basic obligations and to raise a family can create significant stress and undermine well-being. In short, it’s hard to tend to well-being without addressing basic financial needs, and for many young people, a college degree is the most reliable path toward financial independence.

Fundamentally, preparing students to be good human beings, to contribute to society, to look after their personal well-being and that of others, to find joy and success in their vocation, and to provide for themselves and their families is entirely consistent with – and made more likely by – ensuring students are well prepared to succeed in college if they choose to go. In short, preparing for college and self-care are not contradictory goals.

Overcoming mixed messages

While messaging “college for all” may be too simplistic, it has been effective at increasing enrollment among students from lower-income families. But even if “college for all” is overly simplistic, dismissing the role K-12 schools have in preparing students for college is as well. In both cases, a complex series of decisions is reduced to a soundbite, and important nuance is lost. A result is that students and families get mixed messages – leading many students for whom college is both viable and important to question its value. Underrepresented students can be particularly affected by these mixed messages since many are among the first in their families to consider college. As messaging about college becomes more complex, more students will opt out, either actively or passively. Even as we re-introduce some important nuance to the conversation about students’ future options, we shouldn’t lose sight of the role that post-secondary education plays in both career and life success.

In our book, Who Do You Think You Are?: Three Crucial Conversations for Coaching Teens to College and Career Success, my business partner and I propose a different approach. We start from the assumption that nearly everyone needs both an education and a career, and that today nearly every career requires additional preparation beyond high school.

The three conversations start with three questions:

  • Who are you?
  • Where are you heading?
  • How will you get to where you want to go?

With a deeper understanding of their interests and goals, and a considered plan for getting there, students and families are in a better position to evaluate whether and how college fits. We believe that those questions are also helpful in identifying any mismatch among interests, goals, and expectations that can undermine a young person’s sense of satisfaction and well-being.

In our view, achieving the goals of “happiness, fulfillment, and a ‘good life’” expressed by parents and students in the CRPE survey I highlighted earlier, depends on keeping options open for young people of all backgrounds while connecting the dots between education and career decisions in a way that ensures every student has informed freedom of choice for their personal development.

Stephen M. Smith
Chief Executive Officer