I would be so freaking confused if I were a teenager right now.
With all of my nieces, cousins, and siblings chugging through high school at the moment, I know that college is going to become “a thing” in my family again shortly. The problem is, you can throw a pebble and hit six people dealing with nearly-insurmountable student debt, many to the tune of over $35,000. I have friends who’ve graduated but are living with parents against their will and still have no promising prospects, some even years after donning their cap and gown. Then there are people like me, who scrambled to settle on a “useful” major, despite strongly disliking its subject matter, and ending up in a job they are ill-suited to. But hey, I graduated in five years (Bachelor’s + Masters) at the age of 23, so the facade of “success” I put up to the outside world is believable. Many others feel the exact same way about themselves.
While it sounds dismal, today’s employment statistics actually give a mixed-to-positive picture. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Class of 2015 (those who graduated college this year) are fairing pretty well, with the unemployment rate for 2015 college grads sitting at 2.7%, according to the Labor Department. The Washington Post also talked about the 295,000 jobs added in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But looking at these numbers is, at best, a superficial way to analyze the true value of college. The number above doesn’t account for the many, many people who took jobs below their experience or education level just to get a job. The number of jobs created still doesn’t outpace the amount of job seekers we have, including the hundreds of thousands of college graduates that are churned out every year.
This is a tough issue because there are so many pieces to this puzzle. For simplicity’s – and readability’s – sake, let’s just focus on two key questions: (1) Should you go to college/post-secondary education? (2) If you go, what type of postsecondary education is best suited to you? If not, what are your other options?
Before we move any further on the topic of how one should address the idea of advanced education, allow me to briefly tell my story to give you an idea of where my voice is coming from so that you can keep that in mind when making your own decision. The key points regarding “me” are as follows:
(a) If you read this post that I posted last week, it would not surprise you to know that I did not do too well in high school and my college choices were pretty limited as a result. However, not going to college was not an option to my parents, and they were not keen on letting me have a gap year/start at a community college. [Note: I adore my parents and they are the most spectacular parents ever, in my humble opinion. This is not a jab at them. Parents, if you’re reading this, I know your views have changed since 2008 and I know you guys did everything for my betterment! I love you!]
(b) The college that I did choose, Arizona State University, is one of the largest public universities in the world, which in and of itself lends it to being a unique experience. When you have soooooo many people at one school, it can be hard to get the individualized attention you need and admittedly, there are some classes that they make deliberately easy to pass so as to push more people through. Nonetheless, my experience there, especially during my senior and Master’s years, was absolutely vital to my growth and was so much fun.
(c) I recognize the potential I have to be attacked for this, but I feel it’s my duty to let you know that I have zero student debt. See the note under point (a). My parents were incredible for sacrificing so much time and money for my education. Truth be told, however, most of the people I know did not have their college paid for my parents, even those whose parents could afford to. I admire people who paid their way through college deeply, whether partially or fully, and I understand that my not experiencing student debt personally means that I am by no means an expert on the matter of student debt/financial aid.
(d) After starting with a “marketable major” (Accounting), meandering between other marketable as well as some “less marketable” majors (from Biology to Philosophy to English to Computer Science to Marketing), I ended up settling back on Accounting due to the fear that I was probably going to be in college for a decade if I didn’t choose something and stick with it.
(e) I ended up joining a good amount of clubs related to my major, thus forming life-long friendships and putting myself out there enough to get a high-profile internship.
(f) Thanks to the aforementioned internship, I was fortunate enough to get a job directly out of college.
(g) I now work for a university – and I absolutely love my job. At the end of the day, one of the reasons I chose working here is so that I can help make the education system better. Moreover, I do believe in college for so many people.
Just not for everyone.
There are Plenty of Forks in This Road
My experience was, to put it simply: “traditional”. But the truth is, if you had taken my parents out of the equation, or if I had graduated a few years earlier, I could be sitting on a pile of debt or on my butt out of a job. Knowing this, many people come to the conclusion that they simply can’t “go to college”. But for those teenagers deciding to attend college, I wonder if they’ve considered these alternatives:
– Attending community college for a few years, then finishing up at a university? This method saves you an unbelievable amount of money and I think people are crazy not to take that path.
– Taking a gap year to volunteer, travel, or complete a creative project?
– Attending a trade school and becoming a really good mechanic or carpenter or plumber? A skilled plumber with several years of experience may end up making a lot more than I do right now.
– Entering the military first?
– Starting from the bottom at a computer where you know that experience, not education, will get you further at it, and supplementing your skills with autodidaction (teaching yourself)?
– If you’re a daredevil with a good idea and at least one other person who has your back, starting your own company from scratch? Granted, you should still be wary of thinking that it’s “easy” to become the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs (neither of whom have college degrees), but if you work your tail off and have a determined enough attitude, you just might find yourself there.
I could go on, but you understand my point. There are alternatives, but people aren’t always apt to take them. Reasons for not taking them include fear of missing out on critical job opportunities, fear of resume gaps (in the case of the gap year), or not taking a path that is “prestigious enough” to their family/friends/significant other. All of these are dumb. Why?
1) Even in boom years, the job market will always be competitive. There will always be awesome opportunities out there.
2) Any employer who doesn’t respect a well-spent gap year – maybe you volunteered to build schools in Cambodia or hiked the Pacific Crest trail – isn’t someone you’d want to work for anyway.
3) If you make your life about pleasing others, you’re in for a miserable life. Create a life that you are proud of and those who are meant to be in it will feel the same way.
The Tale of Germany and its Vocational Training
I came across this article a while back, which talks about the apprenticeship system in place in Germany. To give a short summary, German students usually go to their equivalent of elementary, middle, and high school until approximately age 18. At that point, they can choose to either go to a traditional college or university or enter a trade program where they will attend school 1-2 days a week and work in the field 3-4. Since they generally cannot enter such a program unless a position is available, this means that they are essentially guaranteed a job as long they finish the program. Skilled workers are a highly respected bunch in Germany, and these workers can go on to have jobs at prestigious companies like Porsche, Daimler, and Bosch.
Now, you’re probably asking: why on EARTH haven’t we (the U.S.) implemented this yet?
Well, the truth is, we do have apprenticeship programs here in the U.S., though the number is significantly lower than Germany (5% vs. 60%…holy crap). The reasons for this great disparity are that (a) trade jobs/apprenticeships are not regarded as highly here in the U.S. due to our obsession with the service economy and knowledge work (not a bad thing, but there is still a necessity for many skilled jobs), (b) the perception that manufacturing jobs are going away or being automated, and (c) the very valid difference between the U.S.’s subsidizing of education vs. Germany’s. Apprentices are not cheap, but the state will largely finance your education if you’re a student in Germany. In the U.S., the company giving the apprenticeship will pay the majority of the costs, making it a risky investment for them.
Nonetheless, there are actually more skilled jobs than workers to fill them, so it’s absolutely worth considering. By the way, that article gives a pretty good picture on how the U.S. might attract more people to skilled labor jobs, so I’ll let it do the rest of the talking for me on that subject 🙂
My Friends’ Perspective
Obviously, I loved my experience and I wouldn’t trade it for the dang galaxy. But I’m one white, female, debt-free human who is hardly representative of all opinions out there. When I reached out to my family and friends to solicit their opinions, I felt their words held unbelievable value. Some are more positive than others, but all are worth deliberating. Here are some of those:
“I have a mechanical engineering degree, but I got it back when tuition was $299 per quarter. If I were graduating high school now, I would seriously think about skipping college and just learning a trade like welding. A university degree is much too expensive these days.” – Aris, photographer friend, who specifically requested that he be referred to as “Mr. Big Stuff” as well. Hahaha.
“My thoughts on college. COLLEGE IS NOT FOR EVERYONE. If you don’t want to be there, then you shouldn’t be. I feel like society has created this stigma that if you don’t go to college, you will work at mcdonalds the rest of your life, and I don’t think that’s true. Yes, college opens doors, and for me, I loved it. But I don’t believe you should be there if you don’t want to be.
I feel as though we raise kids to believe college is the only option. We see it in the media, on tv, at school, and for a lot of kids, at home. For me, growing up, my parents philosophy on going to college was not going to college was not an option. And I don’t think that’s true. We tell kids they can be whatever they want as long as it’s a doctor or a lawyer or some other cookie cutter job. I believe in primary and secondary school. People need to know how to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. But not everyone needs to be an academic rockstar. It is 100% possible for people to become happy, successful, productive members of society without higher education. Higher education should be for people who have a passion for it, for people who thrive on knowledge and academic discussions. I think that college should be encouraged especially for kids who aren’t hearing that message at home. But I think when it comes to secondary school, kids should be encouraged to explore other options to hear the message that yes, you CAN go to college, but only if you want it. College is something you have to work hard for, and if you don’t want to that’s okay. If you don’t though, then what’s your plan? What DO you WANT to do? That should be the message we send to our secondary students. And if you don’t know then take some time, travel, see the world, have an adventure, take a class or 2 at a community college. The message should be: find a path, follow your heart, find your place in our f***ed up society. Do what is going to make you happy.” – Cayolyn, high school friend.
“it was free for me so i didn’t take it too seriously. up until my last few quarters i didn’t feel like i learned much. however i truly loved it in the end. not the formal bs education of tons of hw and tests… the real education built with discussion and understanding. now i regret not participating more and gaining more from it. so far my degree has done nothing for me. and according to some friends in law enforcement, i’m actually considered over qualified to be a cop and that is potentially hurting me.” – Garrett, one of my partner’s dearest friends and the only person I’ve met who likes dessert as much as I do.
“I think college is a prerequisite nowadays. Historically speaking, compulsory education in America from grades (K-12) was only created to keep up with the transition from an agricultural economy to a rapid industrialization. Subsequently, this required less time in the fields and more time learning skills that the workplace needed. (Although, there was push back from politicians representing agricultural constituents in regards to who will now work when the labor force is in school, hence why we still have summers off today in America because a compromise was reached in 1845 so children could help their parents with the harvest.) We are moving now from an industrial age into a technological one and an even broader education and demand for technical literacy is required from society and the next generation to keep pace. ‘Doing what you love’ is a rather first world, higher middle class luxury. It’s easy to pursue leisure or a ‘passion’ when we have the capital to necessitate such pursuits. However, I do know that the generation preceding ours, is statistically unprepared for the looming retirement age of 65 and now find themselves ushered out of the technologically specialized workplace. Blue collar jobs have become a race to the bottom, especially with the demise of unions and the rise of ‘right to work’ states; therefore, instead of doing what you ‘love,’ I think a proper education in a high demand skill is a great investment.” – Zack, my partner’s military buddy who also happens to be the one who introduced me to my partner.
“It’s hard to regret the choice to go to college, because it welcomes other sorts of negative feelings. Having said that – college can be great, however – it shouldn’t be something we have to go in debt for. Imagine paying to learn how to play monopoly. College gives people the rules to play the game within the system so why should I be paying for it. It’s psychological. Now most are forced to pay for it – so it’s hard for me to disagree with any of its curriculum. In all honesty – by and large I feel like I wasted my time because I realized a lot of things that people aren’t ready to hear about.” – Aleksey, writing buddy and fellow Long Beach-ian.
Teenager reading this: “I still have no idea whether I should go or not. All these other choices and all these opinions are actually making me even more overwhelmed. Just tell me what to do, already!”
I get it. I seriously do. No matter what options are available and how many people you ask for “their thoughts”, sometimes you just want an answer.
And I hate to disappoint you, but I, a 25-year-old who’s only walked in her own shoes before, am not going to give you that answer.
The best advice I can offer a confused, pre-college teenager (as someone who has another seven years under her belt) are these steps:
1) Get grades that are as good as possible. Do not destroy yourself if you’re not an all-A student, but focus on doing the best you can do. This preliminary step makes more prestigious colleges, if you fancy them, a better possibility.
2) Participate in myriad activities and talk to as many people as you can about their activities. Find out what you like and dislike. Nothing is a waste of time. You’re eliminating chances to enter into a career you won’t like and producing chances to enter a career you’ll love.
3) Be realistic about the kind of life you want in the future and figure out what jobs can provide you with that life. This will probably change drastically, so give yourself a range of money/comfort you’d like to have in the future, not an exact number.
a) Do not ever pick a job just for the money. As many will attest, you will be miserable if you do that.
4) Figure out jobs that will help you live the life you want while still being enjoyable. My dad calls this “connecting the dots”. It may be a longshot, but the harder you’re willing to work, the more likely you’ll be able to make that profession work with your desired life.
5) If you feel up to the task:
a) Start going to school (vocational, university-level, or otherwise) for that job. Don’t ever think that you can’t change your course. I made a complete 180 on mine and there’s no reason why you can’t do the same.
b) Start up that company or enter that job you think will be promising. You can always come back to college later. It’s also worth noting that according to a recent CareerBuilder survey, over half of jobs occupied by a group of 2014 graduates did not actually require a college degree. Moreover, companies like Google and even Ernst and Young’s U.K. offices have scrapped the college degree requirement as a prerequisite.
6) If you still don’t know what you want to do, take a gap year or work at a family/friend’s company. Do something interesting. Really rack your brain for ideas. Again, figure out what you DON’T want to do, and allow other things come through. Also, read this article that I wrote for Refine the Mind a while back, which talks about figuring out your life’s work any any age through creative, unusual means.
I’ll conclude with a succinct but meaningful adage from yet another friend as a final quotation:
“You’re gonna kill it, whatever you choose.“ – Taylor, fellow Master of Accountancy.
I sincerely hope that helps, because I sincerely think it’s true.
Endnote: This article is largely focused on helping “traditional” college-aged students find their way with regards to postsecondary education. I specifically did not discuss “non-traditional” students (older students who are either re-entering college later in life or entering it for the first time) because I feel that it’s a completely different ball game. If you’d like to see an entry on that, or have thoughts on it, let me know in the comments section!