Let’s normalize skipping the traditional college experience.
Did you just clutch your pearls? Hear me out.
At sixteen years old, my daughter is at that stage where adults seem to ask her only a single question.
Where are you planning to go to college?
I get it. She’s a junior in high school, extremely intelligent, and a hard-working student. After she gets her license, college is the next step, right?
Except she doesn’t think she wants to go to college. Her father and I are fine with that. But the people around me don’t seem to get it. Anytime I mention that she’s thinking of skipping college, well-meaning friends invariably cover my hand with theirs and whisper, “Don’t worry. She’ll come around.”
She’s not the only student thinking of alternatives. The pandemic’s economic impact resulted in a 5% drop in college enrollment last year, the largest decline in over a decade. But sadly, these students are also primarily from low-income backgrounds and students of color, – the same students hardest hit by Covid. The cultural messaging still seems to be that if you’re white, middle or upper class, and a fairly good student, you are expected to go to college. As someone who has always struggled with perfectionism and anxiety, the rigors of Izzie’s AP-heavy, college prep schedule has not been kind to her mental health. Last year’s remote learning was especially traumatic, and the year I watched her transition from a student that loved to learn into one that dreaded school. I’m not sure that an additional four years of performance anxiety and sleepless nights worrying about grades is in her best interest.
Beyond the parameters of my personal situation, I’m not sure why, as a culture, we feel compelled to teach our kids that college is the only, or best, option.
The average degree from a US college currently leaves individual students with between $76,000 and $168,000 of student debt. Federal student loan debt sits at a whopping $1.6 trillion. That sort of debt might feel like more of a bargain if Gen-Zers felt secure in landing a high-paying job with their degree. But there is no clear path from classroom to career anymore. Last year, only about 25% of grads ended up finding a job using the degree they earned. According to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the 2020 unemployment rate for young college grads exceeded that of the general population. And, 41% of those grads that did find gainful employment are underemployed, meaning they are working in jobs that require only a high school education, not a college degree. And what about this? The think tank Institute for the Future asked technology, business, and academic experts to imagine our future job market. They predicted that, by the year 2030, up to 85% of Americans will work at a job that currently does not exist. How in the world do you prepare for a career that isn’t even a career yet?
College can be the right investment for many. My husband and I look back fondly at our time at Centre College (Roll ‘Kerns!) as four of the best years of our lives. We studied abroad, had many out-of-classroom experiences that helped shape us into compassionate and interested adults. College was absolutely the next best step for us, as it continues to be for many students.
But let’s stop assuming it’s the only next best step. Monetary considerations aside, why aren’t we asking young people just exactly what they are looking for from the college experience? My friend Lisa, a high school guidance counselor, says she hears many of the same longings. Students want to feel independent. They want to explore the greater world. They want to meet new people. All of these aspirations might be met in other ways, including taking a gap year to travel or spending a service year working abroad.
Izzie has mentioned taking flight attendant training or getting a hospitality license. Either idea would allow her to travel, meet new people, and explore the greater world. Neither would preclude her from having a happy, successful, and fulfilling life. Let’s normalize helping kids figure out what sort of work will pay their bills, serve the world, and fulfill them in an engaging way. It’s so sad that more than 85% of Americans report feeling very unsatisfied with their current jobs. When we consider how many hours we spend at those jobs, shouldn’t it be in work that inspires and excites us?
So, please. When you run into teenagers, don’t ask them what colleges they are applying to. Ask them what music they’re listening to. Ask them about climate change or systemic racism or the situation in Kabul. Ask them what they think they might want to do after graduation. And then listen to their answers without discounting them. They have great ideas and are far more self-aware than adults them credit for.