A story you may have heard before: A traditionally great high school student goes to college.

Student A took all of the AP classes she could cram into her schedule, played the violin in the symphony, was captain of the swim team, and treasurer of the National Honor Society. She checked all the boxes necessary to apply to top tier colleges: great SAT scores, great grades, leadership positions, volunteer work, and extracurricular activities.

Student A’s parents and grandparents not only went to college but received high-level degrees and had long careers in education. They knew the process and could guide Student A along the way. They also had the resources to travel across the country in pursuit of the “perfect fit.”

This student got into the college of her dreams. After four years, similar to high school, she graduated with great grades. She could now take on the world with a degree from a prestigious university on her resume.

An alternate story: A great high school student takes a different path.

Student B also did well in school but did not have the same laser focus of going to college as Student A. His parents did not demand he pursue higher education and let him decide on his own next steps. He avoided the SAT’s, and he did not see the value of taking on the burden of student loan debt. A computer networking class in high school piqued his interest. He saw a fulfilling career path in an emerging field with increasing job opportunities. A local community college offered him a full scholarship which he accepted. Within two years, he had the necessary degree and certification to begin his career.

So, which student’s story is the success story?

In a world where people are so impressed by a person’s credentials and pedigree, Student A followed the process, got the degree and did everything right. She completed the process that her broader society has deemed the right way to become a successful adult.

But why is this the only way and why do we value college education so much – even if it is not beneficial to everyone? And was she truly more successful than Student B?

Post-college, Student A did not have the skills to navigate a messy world void of prescribed processes. Student B short circuited the process to enter the “real world” at 19. Shouldn’t this path be given the same, if not greater, accolades as the traditional procedure?

In 2010, IBM surveyed 1500 CEO’s from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide about what leadership skills were important to navigating an increasingly complex world. The results of the study showed that – more than rigor, integrity or vision – creativity was most valuable. CEO’s believed the world is rapidly changing and that challenges will be different in the future. The best way to approach those changes is by instilling creativity in the organization and its leaders (Palmisano, 2010).

If creativity is a desired skill, then we should appreciate and support alternate ways of navigating life post high school. After all, isn’t finding a different route to adulthood just an example of creative problem solving and autonomy?

In his book What School Could Be, Ted Dintersmith discusses the financial hole that students dig during their college tenure. For the past three decades, college costs have risen 8 percent annually, which leads to increased student-loan debt. “Some 71 percent of 2015 college grads left with an average student loan debt of $35,000,” notes Dintersmith. “A total of 43 million U.S. adults carry outstanding student loans that average $30,000 and some 25 percent are in default. Somewhat incredibly, 2.8 million adults age sixty or older are still paying off their student loans” (Dintersmith, 2018).

Some 71 percent of 2015 college grads left with an average student loan debt of $35,000

This financial burden is an incredible stress that can dictate long term outcomes of a life. With this stress, people are less willing to take the risky job that sounds interesting, move to a new place, innovate, dream, create, leap. What if a more non-traditional path to college could avoid this AND cultivate the creative skills that companies find valuable?

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The conclusion of both stories.

Student A graduated college during a bad economy. She did not really find passion in her major or a career path to follow. She “played the game” well for 16 years while the unknown world was waiting for her. But there was something, an interest discovered in a sophomore year elective course. Architecture.

Student A went on to study architecture and complete the necessary degrees required to be a licensed architect. Through architecture education, she learned problem solving skills, how to design for others within constraints, how to communicate ideas both visually and verbally and how to accept and synthesize feedback. All skills that are crucial to practicing architecture but relevant to most career paths.

Once again, the economy was bad when she graduated but this time she not only had the marketable skills necessary for a career in architecture, but she also had the skills necessary to navigate the job search process. She landed a dream job working with creative designers who challenged and pushed her every day.

Because he only needed a two-year degree, Student B started his career before the economic crash. Even if he had been one of the unlucky ones to graduate during difficult economic times, information technology is a growing field that endures through difficult economies.

If you haven’t guessed by now: I am Student A, and my husband is Student B.

We fell in love and got married. We both have successful careers. I now teach architecture, and he is a network engineer at Cleveland State University. At CSU, he has completed his bachelor’s degree and is pursuing a Master’s degree without incurring any student loan debt.

Could we both have found successful careers following traditional trajectories? Yes…Probably. But to be honest, I don’t know.

What I do know is that the way we got to where we are was not the structured path that was laid out for me early on in high school. My path was longer and winding. My husband short circuited the system. Each route involved creativity, problem solving, tenacity, some risk – skills valuable to the careers themselves.

The world is complex and changing. There should not be one picture of success anymore. Harvard is not the only way to land the dream job. A little creativity when navigating the world post-high school may lead to discovered interests, a quicker entry into the “real world,” less debt, and more happiness.

As we prepare students for the future, we should help them navigate paths that work for them and prepare them to be successful adults. It does not make sense to continue to do things one way because that is the way they have always been done. The world is different now. Their success in this world depends on being able to creatively navigate messy, uncomfortable, and unknown situations like what to do after high school.

And if they want to work for one of the 1500 CEO’s that IBM interviewed, their job depends on it as well.

Palmisano, S. J. (2010, May). Capitalizing on Complexity: Insights from the Global Chief Executive Officer Study. Retrieved from https://www-01.ibm.com/common/ssi/cgi-bin/ssialias?htmlfid=GBE03297USEN

Dintersmith, T. (2018). What School Could Be. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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Katie Zielinski

Katie Zielinski

Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, I vowed to leave my hometown as soon as I graduated for a warmer life. Architecture and Lake Erie lured me back a year after I graduated from the University of Virginia in 2005. For 8 years, I practiced architecture in Cleveland with a focus on cultural and performing arts projects. I recently heard design defined as the synthesis of art and science. Architecture has always existed at the intersection of several disciplines and at varying scales from detail to city. Because of this reach and depth, I believe architecture can be an avenue to reimagine education and create innovative, critical problem solvers who can take and contribute feedback and, ultimately, change their world.