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The road to higher education for Sarasota and Manatee students has changed

Students face more competitive college admissions, shifting career pathways and increased expectations from employers.

Holly Ye recently completed a software engineering bootcamp through the State College of Florida Coding Academy. She is an educator transitioning to a career as a fullstack web developer.
Holly Ye recently completed a software engineering bootcamp through the State College of Florida Coding Academy. She is an educator transitioning to a career as a fullstack web developer.
Courtesy photo
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The road to a higher education has changed. 

Students are taking more advanced classes earlier in their education. 

Going to college doesn't always mean being in class in person on campus every day. 

Simply applying to universities let alone earning admission has become a gauntlet in recent years. There’s no cruising through the first years of high school anymore.

“You need to start thinking about college in eighth grade,” said Sarah Harding, a student success coach with the Education Foundation of Sarasota County. “It’s unfair, but that’s how it works. You have to take a certain number of advanced courses. You can take high school level courses in junior high.” 

The Education Foundation of Sarasota County provides free college support and guidance to anyone who asks.

Completing advanced level coursework is just one part of the challenge. Cheryl Haller, a college and career advisor at the Student Success Center at Sarasota High School, said sending a high school transcript to a college takes hours now. 

“Gone are the old days of going to the registrar and having them send a transcript,” she said.

Most students must now manually file a self-reported academic record, or SSAR, which requires them to log their four years of high school classes and categorize them so college admissions can better understand what classes students are taking. 

“All the high schools have different offerings and the colleges can’t figure out what the kids are taking,” Haller said.

Resumes, supplemental essays and high test scores are required for public universities. The middle 50% of students admitted to the University of Florida has a 4.4 to 4.6 grade point average and an ACT score between 30 and 34, according to 2022 UF student data. (An A in an Advanced Placement course is worth 5.0.) With University of Florida’s admission rate at less than 30%, Harding said a 4.0 is no longer any sort of guarantee, which is part of the reason high schoolers are taking the ACT or SAT at least three times.

“You used to have a composite score, now you have a SuperScore. To be competitive, you get to take the highest score from each subsection. Your highest math, reading, etc. … the scores for all these schools have gone up,” Haller said.

But that’s just getting there. 

“(Older generations) misunderstand how you have to be an active individual once you're in college. Just getting a degree isn't enough. You have to have an internship,” Harding said. “There's a lot that needs to happen for you to have a job when you get out of school.”

Alternate routes

“Don’t fall into the trap of you have to go in-person and do four years on campus,” Harding said.

The competitiveness of university admissions, along with the increasing costs of tuition, books and housing, have more students pursuing alternative routes of advancement. For some that means a blended model or fully remote degree.

“I think this generation is becoming more and more aware of the cost of living and the cost of housing. It’s hard to get an apartment off campus because you’re in big cities. And they’re having more realistic conversations (about their futures),” said Harding, who described her own hybrid experience at the University of South Florida in positive terms. “Some students are going that route to stay at home and save money. They’re still excited to join (clubs and on-campus activities).” 

For about 30% of Sarasota High’s class of 2023 that means either starting at State College of Florida and transferring to a four-year institution, or simply earning an associate’s degree in an in-demand field, like computer science, software development, hospitality or nursing, and entering the workforce. According to Haller, this year's figure of about 150 students attending State College of Florida is a record number.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of alternative paths. 

“A student working at Starbucks full-time gets the full cost of a B.A. online via (Arizona State University). You can really make it your own,” said Harding. 

Diana Berris, also a student success coach with the Education Foundation of Sarasota, mentioned similar tuition reimbursement programs from companies such as Publix, which will reimburse the cost of certain degrees up to $16,000 for part-time and full-time workers. 

 “There’s a lot of hidden knowledge that students aren’t aware of — you have to speak to somebody in the know,” Harding said. “It’s like looking at a main road and not being aware of a hundred shortcuts that will take you to the same path.” 

Picking paths

Students’ job interests are diverse as ever, but with a relatively new variable — the double-edged sword of social media. Anecdotally, it’s encouraging Sarasota high school students to think more like entrepreneurs, whether that’s as influencers or as small business owners.

Harding shared a story of how one of her client-students was inspired to start a business selling face masks during the pandemic.

But social media also has the damaging effect of showing students extraordinary achievements without an accurate representation of the work needed to reach that position. 

“Yes, more kids are interested in entrepreneurship. They see social media personalities in luxury vehicles, taking trips,” Berris said.

As Berris explained, the reality of long hours of scripting, filming and editing is lost on many students when they watch social media influencers. Others with dreams of emulating social media real estate moguls are surprised to learn about the licensing requirements, day-to-day business and long hours of real estate agents.

“So many students come through the door and say, ‘Well, I saw this on TikTok.’ But It doesn’t represent what paths are really like,” Berris said.

Another common career interest of late is criminology, seemingly inspired by true crime Netflix shows, YouTube channels and podcasts.

“(Students say) ‘I want to do forensics.’ Are you strong in math and science? They just don't realize the amount of education required for certain positions that they see on TV,” Berris said.

Skills to pay bills

There’s one thing that hasn’t changed. Employers demand candidates with soft skills. Written and verbal communication are still at the top of the list, said Desh Bagley, director of IT/Coding Academy at State College of Florida. She joked about reminding her own kids to use “complete sentences” rather than textspeak.

Representatives from CAE Healthcare explain how virtual reality and simulation are used in the industry during a precollege workshop held at the Coding Academy focused on virtual reality, simulation and 3D printing.
Courtesy photo

“Employers are hoping they have those skills. Employers are expecting more independence (and that they’re) capable of doing the initial research on their own. And knowing what questions to ask,” Bagley said.

That might mean using online platforms like Reddit and Discord to troubleshoot problems and find answers and solutions. And yes, also having an understanding of how to use generative artificial intelligence, like ChatGPT.

“Students who are coming out of college now, if they don’t know how to use generative AI for image and text production they're going to be behind,” Bagley said. 

Bagley compared using AI to using a calculator and pointed out there was a time not long ago when teachers discouraged the use of calculators.  

“If you don't use the right formula and understand (the formula) it's not going to help anyway,” Bagley said of the comparison.

And that’s in addition to a host of other expectations that employers have of young hires. 

“Students are expected to know how to do the job faster,”  Bagley said. “We’ve talked to some of our industry partners — a four-year degree is good — but what industry partners are looking for is for computer science degrees to look more like nursing — hands-on experience and a practicum.”

That’s opened another path to high schoolers looking to get a foothold in the workforce — coding bootcamps, which along with online learning have gained in credibility in recent years, according to Bagley. 

Since its founding in 2021, the Coding Academy has had 25 students graduate from a bootcamp and find a job placement in their field. Most SCF Coding Academy students have been professionals making career changes, but the programs in cybersecurity, software development and cloud computing are open to anyone 18 years and older. SCF Coding Academy has programs and camps for students K-12.

“My four-year (computer science) degree from USF is probably now equivalent to a six-month bootcamp,” Bagley said. 

With the rapid pace of software development and innovation, it’s more important than ever, Bagley explained, that students are prepared for a lifetime of learning.



James Peter

James Peter is the managing editor of the Longboat and Sarasota Observers. He has worked in journalism in a variety of newsroom roles and as a freelance writer for over a decade. Before joining the Observer, he was based in Montana and Colorado.

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