Four years of high school. What does it look like out there?

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In 1950, just over half of the country stopped their education after high school, according to the College Board. Ten years ago, it was 12 percent.

How times do change.

During his presidency, Barack Obama frequently implored the nation to set lofty goals concerning education. He wanted higher education to be a viable option for everyone, telling one crowd in a 2012 campaign speech, “We should be competing to make sure that we’ve got the best schools in the world, and our workers have the best training and skills in the world, and we’ve got a college education within reach of everybody who wants to go.”

President Donald Trump has said little about post high school education and career empowerment, although he has called for more school choice and vouchers. But it seems fair to say that, if asked, he would agree that college, trade schools and other options should be available to all students willing to work for them.

It’s a rare point of agreement among politicians and pundits: they all want American youth to be able to do what they want, provided it’s practical (i.e. money-making) and something they work hard for.

American educators largely agree with that sentiment, although they’re less likely to talk up salary and more likely to press students on passion. “What do you love?” they ask. “What do you love to do? How can you figure out a way to do it for a living?”

An important question, if not the only one. Right now, the United States is finally seeing wage growth the likes of which it has not seen over the past ten years. According to the New York Times, economists are thinking that, because more and more people previously on the sidelines of the job market (students, stay at home parents, etc) are entering the labor force, this is forcing employers to offer more competitive wages. That’s good.

And while wage growth is not even across the board—African-Americans, for example, are seeing smaller salary bumps than they should—recent increases in minimum wage laws in several states means that even low-wage earners are seeing improvement in their take-home pay. That’s also good.

Plus, there’s quite a demand for skilled labor and trades. Last month, the Chicago Tribune reported that “The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the top four fastest-growing occupations do not require a bachelor’s degree: solar panel installer, wind turbine technician, home health aide and personal care aide.” High schools, including Lake Park, are constantly developing and improving trade education programs for students interested in these jobs. That’s very good.

But there’s also the demand for higher education, which has grown tremendously and is likely to continue to do so. And the recent college admissions scandal reminds us that, yes, hard work is important, but when you’ve got the connections and the dough, it suddenly becomes less crucial. That should serve as an infuriating wakeup call for the millions of students who have been busting their backs doing test prep, taking rigorous coursework and applying to numerous colleges.

So where does all this leave us as we trot off into the sunrise of a new life, diploma in hand and rosy good cheer enveloping us? An improving job market that may yet plunge into recession? A rigged meritocracy that rewards the rich and powerful? An economy that even experts can’t make accurate predictions about for the near future?

Does all that scare you? It should. It’s ugly out there.

But forewarned is, as they say, forearmed. You’ve made contacts here in high school—friends, teachers, counselors. You’ve made contacts in your life outside of high school as well—churches, jobs, clubs. Hold on to them. Stay in touch with them.

And use them and their vision to build your own awareness of a world that is something you’re going to have to navigate actively, not passively.

It’s unfair and irritating, but if you’ve been counting on a path laid out at your feet, don’t. Don’t count on being the same person in the future that you are now. Plan for emergencies. Pay attention to the world. Ask questions. Explore your options.

And call upon every available resource to do so. That includes what you learned in high school, but more importantly, it includes learning what you don’t know. That kind of education never stops, and as you leave Lake Park High School, remember that education never stops. Not when there’s something else to find out. Especially not when you’ve latched on to what you love and what you hold dear.

Good luck.

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