College Is Not Always the Right Choice

“Can we stop talking about this?” That’s what my son said the last time we started having a conversation about college and alternatives to college.

He’s a sophomore in high school, so it is a little early. And it makes him anxious and cranky. For that matter, it makes his parents anxious and cranky. But we’re going to have to talk about it eventually. He’s 16, and it feels like we’re already supposed to figure out the perfect school for him to attend, which sets him up to live a perfect life. 

It’s a lot of pressure. We have trouble collectively keeping our various fluffy cats from escaping whenever we open the door. How are we supposed to keep the college process from biting us and then irritably squirming out of our grasp?

One of the reasons dealing with college can seem so terrifying is that success is defined so rigidly. You graduate high school, go to college, get a job, live happily ever after. But the truth is that most people don’t follow that path, and maybe most people shouldn’t. If a young person isn’t ready to go to college at 18, that’s not a disaster. And we shouldn’t just parent out of habit. Parents sometimes see college, and a practical degree in business or engineering or pre-med, as a sure path to success. But grinding along at course work you’re not interested in for a career you may not actually want isn’t much of a recipe for happiness. Young people might get more out of college if they had more choices about when, or whether, to go.  

Only one third of Americans get a 4-Year degree

Putting off college, or finding alternatives to college, isn’t that unusual. People with college degrees often treat college for their kids as an inevitable progression. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, high school graduates gotta head on to college. But in 2018 only about 61 percent of those over 25 had gone to college. And only one-third of Americans over 25 have attained a four-year college degree. In the US, graduating with a BA is somewhat unusual. As the numbers show, most people don’t do it.

Failure to finish college is often framed as, well, a failure. But Linda Tirado, author of Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, told me that she left school not because she couldn’t handle the course work, but because she was bored and didn’t find the assignments challenging enough. She tried a couple of schools in Utah, but “the classes bored me, so I just didn’t go to them.” 

Rather than taking out loans, Tirado decided it would be best to drop out and look for a job rather than plunge ahead. “It might be one of the most mature things I ever decided, when I decided I wasn’t mature enough to handle the busy work,” she told me.

Tirado went on to work various jobs before a viral post about poverty made her semi-famous and gave her the opportunity to pursue a career as a writer and reporter. That’s an unusual path. But as she pointed out to me, historically journalists didn’t go to college. Young reporters served an apprenticeship in a newsroom and had on-the-job training. The idea that you need a degree to be a journalist is relatively new.

Don’t forget about vocational schools!

n so many fields, more and more jobs require some college or a four-year degree for an employer to even look at an application. A 2018 study found that 9 out of 10 new jobs were going to those with college degrees—despite the fact that there’s limited evidence that college graduates make better employees. 

There are still jobs, good jobs, available to people without a BA, though—particularly in technical fields. There are 30 million jobs in the US that pay an average of $55,000 and don’t require a bachelor’s degree; many of these jobs go to people with vocational degrees. A 2017 survey found that 70 percent of contractors have difficulty finding qualified craft workers. There are not enough electricians and plumbers today in part because people are so eager to steer young people into four-year college degrees. 

Technical fields are sometimes stigmatized as requiring less intelligence or as leading to lower earnings. But why is a useful skill, like fixing a broken pipe, seen as less valuable than pushing paper? And while people with college degrees do make more money overall, less than half of those who start a four-year degree finish it. This is especially disturbing given skyrocketing tuition costs, which mean that even those who don’t finish a degree may leave school with thousands of dollars in debt. Trade schools average only $33,000 for a degree, while four-year institutions cost $127,000.

College is no longer a “safe” choice

My son is an actor. He’s thinking about taking some time off after high school to see if he can get a theater career started. That’s a bit nerve-racking for his parents—but, on the other hand, is it really more nerve-racking than the college process itself? You don’t need to take out loans to apply to theater gigs, and we’re in Chicago, so he wouldn’t have to move or pay rent. 

College can seem like a safe choice. But there’s nothing especially safe about paying tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend years doing something you don’t want to do. Yes, it’s an expectation we often have, and it seems like the responsible thing to do. But college can actually hurt kids who are pressured into it. It also hurts kids who go to trade school but are considered less successful or less intelligent for doing so. We need to stop treating alternatives to college like a bad thing. 

Young people would all be better off, and considerably less stressed, if parents and adults recognized that college is just one potential option, and not always the best one. We try to keep our kitties from escaping, but kids aren’t house cats—you don’t need to keep them from exploring.