I step up to the counter at Willy's Cafe at Willamette High School in Eugene, Ore., and order a latte.
There's a powerful scent of fresh coffee in the air, and a group of juniors and seniors hover over a large espresso machine.
Carrie Gilbert, 17, shows how it's done: "You're going to want to steam the milk first," she explains. "Then once you have the coffee, dump it in and use the rest of the milk to fill the cup."
She hands over my order. Not bad.
Yes, this is a class, and these students are earning credit. But I can almost hear parents and students, for whom college is the only option, saying: Credit towards what? Isn't this just training for the dead-end, low-wage jobs of the future?'
Gilbert, who helps manage the cafe and train other students, doesn't think so. "Just the overall experience with the cash register and all the different kinds of food preparation and working with money and all that stuff, it prepares you for all kinds of things."
Training as a barista may not seem like a big deal, but Gilbert — and educators here and around the country — say she's learning those all-important "soft skills" that employers expect.
Roughly seven out of 10 high school grads are headed to college every year — but that leaves hundreds of thousands who aren't. And survey after survey shows that employers are demanding — even of college-bound students — some level of job skills and professionalism: punctuality, customer service, managing people and teamwork.
That's the message students at Willamette High hear just about every day over the PA system: You need job skills with real market value. The school's career and technical education program offers courses and training in all kinds of fields; culinary arts, health careers, robotics and welding. Students train as bank tellers with a local credit union, or learn food service and restaurants at Willy's Cafe.
The school is affiliated with DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America) program, which focuses on merchandizing, retail sales, marketing and entrepeneurship.
The nearly 70-year-old program once seemed a relic of the "vocational education" era — a time when a much larger percentage of high school graduates went right into the workforce. But today, DECA is all about giving kids a taste of the real world and getting your foot in the door, says Dawn Delorfis, an assistant principal at Willamette High.
DECA teachers and administrators don't discourage students from going to college, she says, but they do try to let every student know that, with the right skills and training, there are good entry-level jobs for them out there.
Many of those jobs, "provide a good living for someone coming out of high school," Delorfis adds. "But the thing I think does still exist is the stigma attached: 'Oh, you're not going to college?' "
Luis Sanchez, 18, says college and Starbucks are definitely not for him. But he likes the training at Willy's because it's like running a small business: "My parents own a restaurant, and I want to help run it."
Which brings me back to parents, and that pressure of college as the only option. What happens when your kid comes home from school one day and says she's training as a barista?
"If it were my kid, I wouldn't let it happen," says Anthony Carnevale. He's the head of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. "You don't tell middle-class Americans, 'I'm going to send your kid to trade school.' "
Carnevale and others acknowledge that even good programs like DECA, and career and technical education programs in general, are often viewed as second-rate — a pipeline to low-wage, dead-end jobs.
"These are not dead-end jobs," says John Fistolera, with DECA's corporate office. Fistolera says DECA teaches specific skills that business and industry require for employees to be successful. That's been DECA's mission since the mid-1940s, thanks to its partnerships with local employers and some of the nation's biggest businesses.
It's a message that has broad and growing support, even from the White House. "You can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need," President Obama said in 2014.
But what high school students usually hear is another message the president touts just as often: "College for all."
Carnevale says that's a message that kids and parents need to take with a grain of salt.
"Every year more than 400,000 young people in the top half of their high school class go to college, and at least eight years later, they have not gained either a two- or four-year degree or a certificate," he notes. So, he adds, at some point those people need job skills and a path into the workforce.
Carnevale warns that the high school curriculum has moved to higher and higher levels of abstraction, away from practical and applied learning.
At Willamette High, though, the message to students is simple: Prepare for both work and college. It kind of makes sense, says 18-year-old Kareena Montalvo. The DECA course she fell in love with is graphic design.
"I can't tell you how many posters we've done for upcoming plays, musicals," she says. "It lets me understand how artists need to meet clients' needs."
Montalvo says she's already getting paid for several projects in the community. She sees herself as an entrepeneur and, down the road, a college student.
"I want to get my major in graphic design and a minor in marketing."
But right now, says Kareena, the idea of going into debt at such a young age to pay for college is crazy. So, she says, it's great having marketable skills and pretty good job prospects right out of high school.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now, it's pretty much a given these days that high school graduates are supposed to go to college. About 7 out of 10 graduates say that's where they're headed. And yet, there's a growing concern that this push for college as the only option is missing something - job skills that employers in hospitality, retail, accounting and marketing say they're looking for. Claudio Sanchez of NPR's Ed team visited one high school recently that's sending a different message.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Willamette High School in Eugene, Ore., is a big, sprawling campus where on any given morning, you're likely to get a powerful whiff of freshly ground coffee coming from Willy's Cafe, the student-run coffee shop, which is actually a class that teaches students how to make a double shot latte without making a mess.
CARRIE GILBERT: You're going to want to steam the milk first, and then once you have the coffee, dump it in and...
SANCHEZ: Carrie Gilbert, 17, gets paid for helping manage Willy's Cafe and training other aspiring baristas. The service is courteous and fast. All right. My latte's ready.
It's not bad. It doesn't have the whole milk that I usually want, but it's very tasty. Good.
Willy's is part of DECA, Distributive Education Clubs of America, a merchandising course, one of 40 vocational courses at Willamette High.
We'll come back to Willy's in a moment, but let's think about this for a minute. What if your child wasn't all that crazy about going to college and she came home one day and told you she was training as a barista at school?
ANTHONY CARNEVALE: If it were my kid, I wouldn't let it happen because the truth is the tried and true path in America is high school to Harvard.
SANCHEZ: Not Starbucks, says Anthony Carnevale. He's head of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.
CARNEVALE: You don't tell middle-class Americans I'm going to send your kid to trade school.
SANCHEZ: Even good vocational programs like DECA are often viewed as a second-rate education, a pipeline to low-wage, dead-end jobs.
JOHN FISTOLERA: These are not dead-end jobs.
SANCHEZ: John Fistolera is with DECA's corporate office.
FISTOLERA: We work with business and industry to identify specific knowledge and skills that they say are required for an employee to be successful on the job.
SANCHEZ: That's been DECA's mission since the mid-1940s. But guess who else is saying that today?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm just saying, you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.
SANCHEZ: President Obama's push for career and technical education as an alternative to college is well-known, but so is his administration's even bigger push for a college education for all. Carnevale says that's a message that kids and parents should take with a grain of salt.
CARNEVALE: Every year, more than 400,000 young people in the top half of their high school class go to college, and at least eight years later they have not gained either a two-year or four-year degree or a certificate.
SANCHEZ: At Willamette High, the message to students is upbeat and simple. You need to be college ready and also prepared for the world of work.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Be sure to check the career technical education options.
SANCHEZ: Every morning, students hear about DECA and the job training opportunities the school offers. The course that 18-year-old Kareena Montalvo fell in love with - graphic design.
KAREENA MONTALVO: I can't tell you how many posters we've done for upcoming plays, musicals, and it lets me understand how artists need to meet clients' needs.
SANCHEZ: A talented artist, Kareena sees herself as an entrepreneur and down the road...
MONTALVO: I want to get my major in graphic design and a minor in marketing.
SANCHEZ: OK. Now let's get back to Willy's Cafe and Carrie Gilbert, the 17-year-old who made that tasty latte for me. She says training as a barista may not seem like a big deal, but she's also learning about those soft skills that employers say teenagers often lack - being on time, teamwork, people skills.
GILBERT: Just the overall experience prepares you for a lot of different kinds of things. I'm not really sure what I want to do exactly, but it's definitely giving me skills to prepare here.
SANCHEZ: Teachers and administrators here don't discourage students from going to college, but Dawn Delforis (ph), Willamette's assistant principal says...
DAWN DELFORIS: The thing I think does still exist is the stigma that's oftentimes attached - oh, you're not going to college?
SANCHEZ: The teenagers we talked to didn't seem to care about that. What they cared about most was getting out into the real world, earning a paycheck and most of all having an option. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.