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.

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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.

Why I Choose Curiosity Over Passion

It was the worst date of my life. After being told I “looked nervous” I was being bombarded with questions that made me wonder if I was being interviewed for the position of preschool teacher. What’s your favorite color? What’s your favorite dinosaur? He came in with a new question too quick for me to, in turn, ask him about his favorites. Then he asked, “What’s your passion?”

At this point I wanted to throw my glass of water at him. I’d been on a lot of bad dates, like the one in Arlington, Virginia where the chain smoker wanted me to vote for him on some board–even though I told him several times that I was still registered to vote, and thus would be voting absentee, in Michigan. But this was the first time I’d gotten this angry at a date just for conversing with me.

“I don’t have one,” I said. I didn’t feel like explaining to him that instead of being super amped up about one thing, I was mildly interested in a whole bunch of things. This was the early 2010s, and it was when advice like “find your passion and you’ll never work a day in your life!” was being spewed by self-proclaimed gurus all over the internet and repeated ad nauseam. People were eating it up. I felt like I was different and something must be wrong with me.

As a college student I briefly toyed with being an Elementary school teacher because it was the only way I could see taking classes in everything and having it be actually useful. (I’ll be ever grateful for the summer I spent working at a summer camp that showed me I definitely did not want to be an Elementary school teacher.) In college you get 1-2 years of “no pressure!” before suddenly a switch flips and it’s “OMG you have to pick a major now or you’ll never graduate and you’ll be in college forever and it’s expensive, doncha know?”

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The article I grabbed this image from talks about finding a dream job, and it also says “find your passion” is bad advice.

Much of my adult life has been filled with people telling me to narrow my focus and me digging my heals in with a solid refusal. Sure, I’ll get an English degree, but I’m not going to be an English teacher. I might knit, but I’m going to try crochet, too, and embroidery, and take this hand-lettering Skillshare class, and do Inktober. Blogging? “Blogging is easy, you just need a niche. Find the one thing you’re really passionate about and write…” No.

I’m never going to be passionate about only one thing. I’ve tried to squish my round-peg self into that square-peg hole and I’m done. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about being curious instead of being passionate. I loved the book, but this was my favorite part, because it gave me the courage to let go of this burden where I felt like I had to find my One Creative Passion. She says that people who allow themselves to be curious are actually more creative.

Lately I’ve been really into knitting, and all the knitting has made me curious about hand-dying yarn. So I’ve been giving that a try. I’ve also been itching to do a little sewing and maybe make some of those macrame plant hangers. It doesn’t mean I have to stop kitting, and even if I do, I can always go back.

Most of us live in a capitalist society where we need to find something we tolerate enough to spend around 40 hours a week doing in order to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, and support our curiosities. If there’s one thing you love doing and it supports you financially, awesome. If not, that doesn’t mean something’s wrong with you. It means you’re curious. Let yourself be curious. Who knows what will happen?

Cover photo by Dmitriy Karfagenskiy on Unsplash. Of course I had to use a cat for this.

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