Corey Ostling and Karrin Hawkins are Unit 5’s first-ever high school college and career counselors.
And after almost one full school year in their new roles, even their job titles are a work in progress.
“We tell our students to call us a post-high school counselor,” said Hawkins, who works at Normal Community High School. “Because sometimes the word ‘college’ scares those students away who may not be college-bound.”
The new roles for Ostling and Hawkins put them on the front lines of a changing American conversation about what to do after high school. After decades of College For All, there’s a paradigm shift and increased skepticism about the value of a college degree. A Pew study last year found 6 in 10 Americans believe the U.S. higher education system is going in the wrong direction. And recent government data shows the wage gap between workers with and without a degree has flattened out.
Hawkins and Ostling say they’re exposing NCHS and Normal West students to all of their options—a four-year college, a two-year college, the military, vocational schools, or direct-to-workforce jobs.
At NCHS, around 86 percent of graduating seniors enroll in college within 12 months, Illinois Report Card data show. It’s 81 percent at Normal West. That leaves around 600 students per year who aren’t enrolling in college right away.
“(In my presentations) I start by saying that college is not for everyone. We don’t live in that world anymore,” Hawkins said. “I don’t think they’re educated enough on what is out there. And we’re not afraid to say, doing an apprenticeship, doing one of these vocations, you’ll probably make more money than we would after 25 years in education. It’s trying to be transparent.”
Indeed, a shortage of workers is pushing wages higher in the skilled trades. High-paid jobs requiring shorter and less expensive training are going unfilled.
“We don’t have any preconceived notions of what the kids should go into,” said Ostling, who works at Normal West. “I want to introduce them to all options. I want them to know what’s available and the consequences—both positive and negative. And let them decide, as a family and a student. I don’t need to push my agendas on anyone.”
Ostling and Hawkins previously served as regular high school counselors. But they say their new roles have allowed them to offer much broader and deeper career guidance to students.
“It’s just as much about ruling out as it is ruling in,” Ostling said.
They’re now hosting college fairs inside their schools—something they didn’t have time to organize before, Ostling said. There are more college and military visits, and more trips to local employers in the community, he said. Hawkins said she’s had more time to serve her English as a Second Language (ESL) population at NCHS, including booking a Spanish-language presentation during a recent financial aid night for families.
Ostling said they’re using Unit 5’s late start days to engage students, including a recent presentation to Normal West’s sophomores about their post-secondary options.
“That’s information I know they wouldn’t have had last year, at that age,” Ostling said.
Bloomington High School has a similar college and career counselor position. It focuses on assisting students in finding and pursuing their goals in their post-secondary life.
"We have many activities to expose students to different avenues and have provided them with a great deal of information to assist them in finding answers and making plans for what they would like to do when they leave us at BHS," said BHS counselor Stacie Gardner.
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