Maybe Your Kid Doesn’t Need College

This started off as a follow-up post to Why I Choose Curiosity Over Passion on encouraging kids to follow their curiosity, and turned into this: a discussion of whether or not our kids need to go to college.

Spoiler Alert: No, not all kids need to go to college.

I’m not saying college isn’t useful. A lot of careers require college (or more) for good reasons. And enough companies require their employees to have college degrees even if they aren’t useful for the work being performed. (Companies should stop doing this, but parents and students should recognize that it happens frequently.) For some kids, college is the only way out of a bad situation. College can also act as a stepping stone between being a teenager in high school and being a full-fledged adult.

It’s a really expensive stepping stone. According to Forbes, the average college student graduating in 2016 has $37,172 in student loan debt, which is definitely more than my first salary after college. I went to college because it was expected of me, I didn’t know what else to do, and I’d been told that I’d be stuck in a minimum-wage job at McDonalds if I didn’t go. I didn’t go to college because I wanted a specific career and I knew college would get me there. I went because I was told I could “figure it out after I got there.”

It’s true: the first year (or two) of college can be incredibly helpful for giving students a chance to take interesting classes and follow their curiosities for students that can afford it. But if the student doesn’t know what they want to do by the time their Sophomore year is complete, maybe they should drop out. GASP. I know, I just suggested students should drop out of college. But college is so expensive, and there’s no point finishing a degree you don’t even know you want.

I’m also going to suggest the option of not going to college. EGADS! Baby Boomer parents reading this are freaking out right now. The children of Baby Boomers (like me) were encouraged, even expected, to go to college. For me, the question wasn’t would I go to college, it was where would I go to college. Of my graduating class of 299, 4 students did not go to college.* I believe these expectations lead to graduates with huge debt and worthless degrees they felt like they had to get because it was expected of them. Now that we have children of our own, we’re questioning that “you have to go to college” philosophy.

Here’s the thing about Freshman college students: they have no idea about being an adult. Of course they think they do, because they’ve graduated high school. Say a semester of their college of choice cost’s $20k and their parents can’t afford to pay it, but they have the option of taking out loans. That’s $40k a year. When I started college, I had no idea what $40k meant. It was just this abstract number. Now, I could tell you what kind of apartment or house I could afford on $40k in a few American cities. High schools could help by teaching practical skills like budgeting. Kids could learn what kind of jobs might afford them the lifestyles they want.

Student Loans
Me in 50 years. Image via AAEC

College students don’t know what it’s like to spend 40 hours a week doing one thing. High school is broken up into 50-minute chunks, and college students usually have fewer classes plus activities and a part-time job. Then you get your first real job and it’s like, okay, I did that for 8 hours, but now I have to do it again, 5 days a week…forever? I navigated my career by seeing other people in my office doing something and thinking, “Okay, next I want to do that. What do I need to do to get there?”

I’m going to encourage my son not to go straight to college after he graduates. I like the idea of a “gap year” or even a year spent working part-time and earning some money for college (or trade school, or starting a business, or getting an art studio) and following various curiosities until he’s really ready to land on something—or not. Because if has a roof over his head (preferably not mine) and he’s fed and happy, then I don’t need him to have a Capital-C Career.

I want him to figure out what his goals are and do what he needs to do to achieve them. I know that will take some time and a lot of following his curiosities. Maybe that’s college. Maybe it’s something else.

*I went to a private school where most students came from middle or upper class families with parents who were paying for their high school education. I realize this number isn’t normal. It does illustrate how affluent families specifically insist on college for their children.

The cover photo by Matt Ragland on Unsplash reminds me of these people on Instagram who take incredibly gorgeous and organized class notes. Check out #studyinspiration for some studious eye candy.