So it’s been about five years now since I wrote this to my kids:
Dear Tess and Tucker,
For most of your young lives, you’ve heard your mom and I occasionally talk about your futures by saying that someday you’ll travel off to college and get this thing called a degree that will show everyone that you are an expert in something and that will lead you to getting a good job that will make you happy and make you able to raise a family of your own someday. At least, that’s what your mom and I have in our heads when we talk about it. But, and I haven’t told your mom this yet, I’ve changed my mind. I want you to know that you don’t have to go to college if you don’t want to, and that there are other avenues to achieving that future that may be more instructive, more meaningful, and more relevant than getting a degree.
And today when I read this, I still think that old post is pretty relevant:
Of the 2 million graduates in the class of 2011, 85 percent will return home because they can’t secure jobs that might give them more choices and more control over their lives.
The other day at Tucker’s basketball game, I overheard two moms talking about the “plan” for college. The one mom was very passionate about her son NOT going to a traditional college right after high school. “My kid has no idea what he wants to do, and I’m not sending him to some $25,000 a year school to have him figure it out,” she said. “He can take all the standard requirement courses at a community college, transfer out when he’s ready, and in the meantime see where his interests are.”
The funny thing was that the other mom was shaking her head slightly in agreement but I could tell by her questions that wasn’t going to be an option for her child. “What if he can’t transfer the credits?” “Don’t you think he’ll miss a lot of the ‘college experience?’” “You mean he’s going to live at home?” The horror.
I have a theory, and I may be wrong, but I’m willing to bet that the 15% who do get a job out of college are not necessarily the smartest kids out there; they are the ones who are the most passionate and committed to the life’s work they know in their hearts they were meant to do. It’s not like every kid from an Ivy school is getting a job; plenty of kids from what Newsweek or U.S. News would consider third tier colleges will go on to find fulfilling work that will give them “more choices and more control over their lives.” Or, they will be the creative, self-motivated, problem solvers who will start their own businesses, carve out their own paths to success.
Look, I’m somewhat swayed by the statistics that show kids with college degrees are dealing with much less unemployment that those without, and that they make more money. And I know there can be amazing learning that happens in some university classrooms. But I’m also swayed by the fact that neither I nor even one of my friends from college ended up doing what they got a degree from school to do. Way too many of us are going to college because we’re “supposed to” without any real clue what we want to do with our time there. Thirty years ago when I was in school, that wasn’t such a big hit in the pocketbook; there was always grad school, right? Today, I think that mom at the basketball got it right. Who can afford to waste a couple of years in college? And unless you really want to get saddled with debt, grad school’s not as much of an “hey-I-finally-figured-out-what-I-want-to-do” option.
I’ll say it again: Tess, Tucker, you don’t HAVE to go to college. Nor should your schools have to prepare you to go to college. What they and me and your mom need to help you with is finding your passion, going deep into learning about it, becoming an expert, and then using that expertise to change the world and make a living. We need to help you learn how to cobble together your own education, and you don’t have to wait until college to start down that road. And odds are pretty good that 10 years from now when you are looking to strike out on your own, your passion and your portfolio will take you as far if not farther than a degree that came at a great expense and in all likelihood with only a slice of relevance.
So, college? Maybe. But we’re keeping our options open.