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These words are difficult for me to write. But in this season of graduation parties and commencement ceremonies, they need to be written: College isn’t for everyone.
I am a public school teacher who holds both BA and MA degrees. My mother earned her Associates degree, and my father completed his GED. They encouraged me to pursue higher education because they wanted me to live the best life possible.
My wife and I are small business owners. We owe much of our success to the excellent educations we received. In fact, we wouldn’t be where we are today without those experiences.
Despite the obvious impact of education in my life, I still believe college isn’t for everyone.
College and career options have been on my mind, in local Chicago news, and in the national news thanks to New York and news of free college tuition. A recent student petition at Naperville North High School has shed light on the enormous pressure being placed upon students to do everything possible to improve their chances of getting into a good college.
As the petition points out, the problem is that not every student will follow the college pathway. Underneath the steady buzz of the message that college is the only path toward success, many students are left wondering how to fit in now and move forward after school.
Encouraging every high school student to go to college is incredibly irresponsible, yet it happens – and not just in communities like Naperville. What follows is similar to pushing a square peg into a round hole. Countless students finish high school, wander aimlessly into college because it is expected, take out thousands of dollars in student loans, and then drop out after three semesters.
Why does this happen?
College isn’t for everyone.
The Obvious Problems
As recently as a few decades ago, most communities respected a student’s decision to join the work force right away after high school. Many students found their niche in jobs in manufacturing, local agriculture, and trade skills, paid their dues, and moved up the ranks within their companies over time.
In the past, these career pathways were considered both valid and highly respected. Today, many communities stigmatize these jobs and teach their children that they deserve “better.”
There are two clear cut problems with this mentality:
- If everyone were to go to college, communities would face a dire shortage of plumbers, welders, automotive repair specialists, roofers, builders, handymen, electricians, HVAC technicians, and many other important cornerstone jobs.
- Jobs that require college degrees are in no way “better” than those with less education requirements. In fact, many skilled trades which don’t require a college education offer greater earning potential.
At its core, this “college or bust” mentality is extremely damaging and out of touch with reality. It places undue pressure on kids to begin resume building and choosing a career path as early as middle school.
And worst of all, it encourages young people to chase empty prestige while missing an opportunity to identify their passion and purpose.
When students decide to attend college, they understandably focus on their future career enjoyment, earnings, and quality of life. Those visions rarely account for the potential reality that their future just may be a life of student loan debt and no degree.
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For many students, college is potentially the most costly mistake they’ll make in their lifetimes. They will lose years of earning potential and reduce the power of compounding interest in their investment portfolios.
I have several friends who took out student loans to attend college, some for as many as six years, and never completed their degrees. Some of them are too lazy to finish up a class or two to complete their programs, while others floundered from major to major every semester before calling it quits.
Each one of them wasted several years of their young adult lives taking upon debt to receive educational training which provides limited or no economic benefits to them today. Their embarrassment and regret are noticeable.
A Degree is Not a Guarantee
In high school, I distinctly remember being told many times that earning a college degree was a guaranteed ticket to a successful future. This is still taught in most schools today. The sad truth is that while a college degree offers many opportunities for career and earnings advancement, nothing is guaranteed.
I have many friends who went to college for 4-5 years, earned their degree, and now are not even using it due to one reason or another. Some of them realized they had pigeon-holed themselves into careers they hated. Others had made errors in calculation. A few people unexpectedly found themselves in dying or down job markets.
The disillusionment and anger these friends experience is both understandable and noticeable. Many of them are no closer to finding a career they love than when they finished high school. They have nothing to show for their years of studying, other than a punched ticket to the 10 year student loan debt club.
The stigma that college is the only way needs to change. It is time for communities, school districts, and parents to acknowledge and promote the obvious truth: college isn’t for everyone after all.
Many communities already understand this and are taking active steps to help every high school graduate be prepared for what lies beyond high school. I am fortunate to live and teach in a school district which seeks to serve all of its students by providing options and training to those who wish to join the work force upon graduation. Every day, I count it a blessing that my former students have not been led to believe that college is the only pathway to success.
If you are fortunate to have a teenager or young adult in your life, please take the opportunity to remind them that college isn’t for everyone. Your words may empower them to shed family and peer pressure and choose a path which better aligns with their goals and strengths.