We’re still debating whether college should be encouraged? Really?!?

One of my favorite blogs lately is The Simple Dollar by a guy named Trent Hamm. I was perusing my feed reader yesterday, and one of his latest posts caught my eye: Is College Really Necessary For All High School Graduates?

One of my favorite topics is major life decisions (education, marriage, career path, etc) and how they affect our lives for better or worse. I have found that many young adults often don’t give enough weight to the magnitude of these decisions, and end up facing consequences they didn’t expect because they made rash decisions. So I was intrigued to see what Trent had to say about college and the effect it has on people’s lives.

He starts off just the way I like: with data. He goes over the statistics about how many kids currently graduate high school (less than 70%) and how many kids eventually get a Bachelor’s degree (less than 38% of all kids, though 52% of high school grads will get a Bachelor’s degree). The article keeps up its momentum by then questioning the assumption that the other 62% of kids who don’t get a Bachelor’s are screwed, and offering some very valid career paths available to those kids, like trade schools, the military, entrepreneurship, etc.

So far so good. However, things take a wrong turn right about here. Trent says:

Shouldn’t a Good Parent Expect/Demand Their Child Attend College? This question troubled me for a long while, because I know from my own experience how beneficial college can be. You can learn critical thinking skills and also get the preparation you need for certain career paths. I spent six years earning two separate bachelors degrees and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

He then recounts how he went to school for something, spent six years working in that field in two jobs he enjoyed, but ended up doing something else after that. He then says:

The point is that college itself does not define the path that your life will follow…If you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ve already figured out your internal talents and passions and – even luckier – your parents have supported and fostered those talents and passions.

I would agree with that statement, but I have no idea how Trent makes the logical jump from that to his conclusion, which is that he’s not concerned with encouraging or expecting his kids to go to college. I’m guessing he makes the mistake a lot of people do, which is to say: “I went to school for X and it cost me Y in terms of dollars and time. And I’m doing Z with my life, not X. Therefore Y was a waste.” That’s such flawed logic, and it reflects a very narrow view of the benefits of college.

I didn’t go to college out of high school. I joined the Navy instead, which I hated for the majority of my time. After I got out, I headed back to school, now married, and wrapped up my Bachelors as quickly as possible. It was much harder than it would have been had I done it earlier in life, and a lot less fun too. But I don’t regret it for a second. And I’m going to get my MBA at some point, too. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject:

  • College is not for everyone. It’s true. But I would guess that the number of kids who aren’t a fit for any college out there is only a couple percent. I think a lot of people who argue that they just aren’t cut out for school are using that as an excuse, or they haven’t looked hard enough to find a school that’s a good fit for them.
  • Regardless, we should be encouraging MORE kids to go to college, not fewer. Do we really want to believe that the fact that 38% of our kids are going to college is a good thing?
  • It’s absolutely true that many kids don’t have any idea what they want out of life when they’re 18, but college is the place where a lot of kids find out what it is they want to do. And of the alternatives Trent lists earlier in the post (military, trade school, etc), why are those valid options for kids who have no idea what they really want out of life?
  • This is very subjective, but the majority of people that I know who didn’t go to college certainly didn’t do so because they wanted to join the military, attend a trade school, or start a business. They mainly did it because they either got married and had kids very young, or because they just never decided that’s what they were going to do, drifted around for a few years, and pretty soon life got in the way.
  • If college isn’t really necessary for a lot of kids, why is high school necessary? If your 15-year-old decides he wants to drop out, will you let him? Why is high school the line that we draw?
  • While there are still good opportunities for those without degrees, the data is exceedingly clear that having a degree is a huge boost to lifetime earning power. By not encouraging kids to go to college, they’re missing out on countless life-changing opportunities and millions of dollars over the course of their careers.
  • Aside from financial benefits, college introduces kids to science, culture, art, critical thinking, communication, teamwork, and living on their own. For many of these kids, it’s a great transition into early adulthood. In fact, I would argue that the actual topics you study in college are less than half the benefit, judging by how few people work in the field they studied.
  • Regardless of how you feel about college, the reality is that most good jobs require a degree just to get the person to take a look at the resume. Can you get by without one? Sure. But why set your kids up for life where they’re trying to get by without something they could have had? Why not set them up for success and stack the odds in their favor?
  • While many (most?) people end up in fields that are different than their degree, the purpose of college isn’t to train you for one specific career field. The purpose of college is to teach you how to be an adult, how to think critically, how to effectively communicate, and how to adapt to different situations.
  • Like it or not, there’s a strong correlation between family income levels and matriculation rates, which indicates to me that more affluent families tend to value education and strongly encourage their kids to go to school. Most of the parents I know who have more ambivalent attitudes about college didn’t attend college themselves, which I think is telling.
  • I’m not advocating that the cost of college should be ignored. There are lots of great, affordable colleges in this country, and lots of ways to pay for it, including scholarships, part-time jobs, and employer tuition assistance programs. Even student debt, when utilized correctly, can be a great investment.
  • Finally, my goal for my kids is to set them up with the best odds for reaching their future potential. How many paths in life are there where having a degree is going to have a negative impact on your ability to do that?

When we have kids, they’ll live with the expectation that they attend a good college after they graduate from high school. We won’t force them, and if they feel strongly enough about something else that they’re passionate about, they’ll be supported in following that path. But the onus is on them to make the argument for why they shouldn’t have to go to school. And if they don’t feel strongly enough about an alternative path to convince us, they’re off to college. They’ll thank us someday.