As the college visit tours wind down and collected brochures, flashdrives, t-shirts are filed, many family’s thoughts turn towards next steps. Never before have so many high school seniors had so many choices. For all our national bemoaning of the flaws of higher education, we have in fact an embarrassment of riches. I have no doubt that the majority of ambitious and motivated teens will find themselves just where they need to be.
But what of those teens who may not have much support, and/or exposure to a world larger than their own? Across this country there are teens; in foster care, in chaotic homes, in shelters, in insular communities and in survival mode. What’s to become of them? Four centuries of public education in this country, speaks to a collective consensus that educating our society is a good idea. Most of us would agree that a high school degree is not what it used to be (either in substance or in currency.) And despite the plethora of college choices and amounts of students attending, it is still its own unique experience. Being a college student is actually quite different from being a high school student. The choices alone are mind boggling. What school? What major? Where to live? How to pay?
As daunting as these choices are to many, they are a luxury that teens in survival mode rarely have. We have all heard or seen stories of the teacher, case manager, caring adult, who intervenes and changes a teenager’s life. It happens, it does. But the reason these stories make for (potentially) compelling television or film, is their rarity. We do not have a national systemic approach to caring/mentoring/guiding teenagers post-high school.
So what if we instituted a national mentoring system? Adults could volunteer to be trained and then serve as mentors. The “corps” would be comprised of; financial advisers, education experts, life-skill advisers, counselors. (I picture a “peace corps” experience for retirees.) Identifying at-risk teenagers is a bit more challenging. Certainly high schools would be a good place to start. Like anything, the earlier we catch the problem, the better. But mimicking our military should not be ruled out. Clearly we already have a national program that has mastered outreach to a segment of our young population.
Politics aside, we really can’t afford to have any ‘child left behind.’ For every teen who ages out of our current support system, there is potentially one less adult contributing. The waste of human potential and the implied economic toil should not be acceptable. Most health insurance policies now cover dependent children until age 26. What I propose is not that much different and potentially much more impactful. Done in a thoughtful manner, this “gap” program would draw attention to inequities and systemically combat them. It might not be the sexiest of administrative programs, but I believe it could change our world.