Higher Education

I had an interesting discussion with a new acquaintance from England the other day, and the conversation turned to children. She had two – a boy age 19, and a girl, age 17.

“Is your son away at school?” I asked, as most 19-year old’s are these days.

“No,” she replied in her lovely British accent. “He’s a musician and composer, and he’s trying to make a go of it. He had no interest in college – he just wanted to get out and do what he loved doing.   But he’ll probably have to go back to England because he’s much more likely to have success there than he would do over here.”

I relayed my own son’s similar feelings about college, and how we had felt lucky to find a  technical college dedicated to the field of study he was most interested in.

“It’s all so different over here,” she continued. “In England, it’s not expected that everyone will go off to University. It’s rather normal to get a proper job after you finish high school. Here, the kids seem pressured to go to college and all their friends are going so they want to go as well, even if they really don’t know what they want to study.”

I’ve had similar feelings about the push toward higher education ever since my son decided not to pursue the ubiquitous four-year degree.  Those feelings have intensified in the past 10 years as I’ve seen several young people feel pressured to attend college, and then feel like a failure when they (a) find out they can’t make the grade or the payments; or (b) decide they’d rather pursue some other lifestyle path.

I was reminded of this tonight during rehearsal for the community theater group I’m working with.  In the cast of the show we’re putting up, there are five young people between the ages of 22 and 30.  Each of them has a four year degree from a top state university.  Each of them was a better than average student in high school and in college.

None of them has a job.

Well, they have jobs, but they’re working in restaurants or retail clothing stores or driving trucks. A few of them are lucky enough to have part-time jobs in their fields (teaching, business, city planning) but nothing that will come close to paying the rent. They also have a student loan or some other college loans which they can’t repay. So before they’re even established in life, they’re in big-time debt.

It made me feel even luckier that my son has been self-supporting since the age of 20, and was able to buy his first home at the age of 22. He’s been employed full time in his field since he finished his course of study, a program that was dedicated solely to his area of interest and focused entirely on that discipline. He was one of the lucky ones.  He knew what he wanted to do, and he went after it. However, he had no assistance from anyone at his high school.  The attitude of the counselors was “if you’re not interested in four year college, we’re not interested in helping you.”

I think we’re failing a lot of young people with that attitude.  Not everyone needs to or is able pursue higher education in the form of a four year university. Students of all abilities should be encouraged to look for viable alternatives to the traditional university experience and there should be more focused educational avenues available for people who want to prepare for a specific career.  Counselors should help young people discover their strengths and interests and guide them toward the proper educational experience, whether that’s a four year college, community college, technical school, or an apprenticeship.

Unfortunately many opportunities for trades and crafts persons have been “outsourced,” which has not only diminished the possibility for finding employment in those fields, but also devalued the work monetarily and in terms of status. The professional careers are supposedly “where the money’s at” these days, but there seem to be too many applicants for too few positions. It’s part and parcel of the polarization of our society – the rich and the poor, the educated and the ignorant, the haves and have-nots. The middle ground seems to be disappearing every day, and we all seem to be scrambling toward the high or low ends of society’s see-saw.

In the end, how valuable is a higher education if you can neither pay for it nor use it?

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13 thoughts on “Higher Education

  1. Excellent and thoughtful post. I agree that all students should be encouraged and supported in whatever field they choose to pursue. Your son is lucky he had your support since he didn’t get it from the counselors at school. Not everyone has that.

  2. Just perfect, Becca, and a post I’ll be passing along to my own daughter… if only to reinforce some things we discussed with her before she left for school. It’s interesting to us that she seems to have completely forgotten much of what we told her back in August, but with a few weeks of school under her belt, she suddenly seems much more receptive to our suggestions.

    And, personally, I’d be very happy if she could define some kind of work she wanted to do, or begin establishing a business/generating an income for herself before she graduated. It didn’t escape my notice that the Harvard students in Social Network were positioning themselves to run their own businesses from their first days in school.

    • The times are so different now than when we were in college. In those days, if you finished college you were guaranteed a good job. But not so any more, for a myriad of reasons. That’s why I think young people need to start thinking outside of that four year university box, and they need help doing it. It’s so hard to tell teenagers anything, though – sometimes they have to learn by hard experience!

      I’m interested to know how your daughter is finding her experience, and how you’re doing with the “empty nest.” Drop me an email sometime if you have time.

  3. My son has the “ubiquitous four-year degree.” He’s doing very well so far. So far… because no one knows what will happen next in this economy. I sometimes think his work ethic had more to do with his success than his degree – starting at the bottom, working his way up and all that.

    The kid next door (same age as my son) was not interested in college and even had problems with high school. However, he knew what he wanted to do from a very young age and he also had a great work ethic. He was gifted in drawing, building and repairing anything on the planet. He secured a good job after high school and bought a house before my son even received his college diploma. He bought a fixer upper in a good neighborhood and made it gorgeous, and when they needed more space, he built the addition. The house is now worth much more than he paid for it – something many Americans can’t say. I’ve always believed that where you start is not important. It’s where you end, and there are many paths to that successful place.

    • The will to succeed is all important, and if you have it and the ability to find a good pathway, then the sky is the limit.

      I’m glad our sons are doing well.. I like to think their parents had a little something to do with their success, too 🙂

  4. Amen to that, Becca. Some kids are ready to move on to college — some aren’t, and I’m not sure it’s in anyone’s best interest for them to slug it out (at great expense) and end up quitting, adding to the sense of listlessness and possibly failure when they just haven’t had the right fit. I’m not sure of the answer overall, but I do think the Brit “gap year” makes a lot of sense.

    • All too often kids don’t really know what they want to do, and they end up going away to college and spending tons of money when they could just as well have gone to community college, or taken some courses in things they were interested in to see what really sparks their interest. The “going off to college” thing has become an expected rite of passage, and one that is very expensive and not always in the best interests of the family.

  5. I enjoyed reading your article and agree with you on all points. I spent the last 22 years working in the I.T. Industry. I have some college credits but no 4 year degree. I remember my parents trying to get me to follow in their footsteps and get a 4 year degree. Sadly enough I was adopted and we never got along that well. I sometimes wonder if our relationship had been better if I might have gone through with college. I might be in a much better position today in my industry. After 25 years I am taking online courses at Trident Tech. I would like to get a 2 yr degree in my field.

    • James, it was my parents dream that I finish college. Neither of them finished high school – my dad quit to join the service in WWII, and my mother quit at 16 because she hated school! It was 1943, and you could do that then!!

      I did finish, but it took me 10 years to do it. In between I got married, had a child, and worked. When I finally went back, it was because I wanted to and I was ready. I did it for personal satisfaction more than anything.

      I wish you luck with your higher education plans – if you want it, it’s never too late!

  6. Man, this sure is me. Try as I might, I couldn’t stay in school. Both of my parents got master’s degrees and stayed in the same career their whole lives, so every time I thought about which direction I was headed I felt like I had to decide the course of my entire life right then. I was driven to follow my heart, away from school, which made for a lot of struggle but a lot of interesting work and colorful people. I think the thing I really didn’t want was for my work to be my life, and I was afraid that school and a career path would ultimately mean settling in a way that made me feel trapped.

    I did feel like I’d failed, though, and was really self-conscious about it for many years. I felt like my inability to stay in college meant I wasn’t really very smart, so I read and studied on my own to gain confidence in my intellect. I’m in school now and I’m taking it very slow because I’d like to finish and not abandon it. Because I have a full life, I’m no longer concerned that acquiring a degree confines me to any specific path. I just want to learn and I’m loving doing just that. So glad to hear that you support your son’s unconventional choices.

    • Anne, I truly believe in the value of experience, and coupled with natural intelligence and curiosity it’s the best possible teacher. It’s hard to buck those traditional expectations, and that’s why I hate to see young people herded into that four year tunnel if they aren’t suited for it. As you know, there aren’t always good alternatives.

      As for supporting my son’s unconventional choices – you and your mother are largely responsible for my willingness to do that. I learned from her that sometimes you have to give the wild child their head and let them ride 🙂

  7. I think in Belgium you are pushed to further educate after high school…but there’s also short-term skill training and in fact our professional market need more of these skilled profesisonals. Yet the perception is that they are lower class and therefore less popular.

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