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When College Isn’t for Everyone

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lettersA few weeks after getting the youngest of three sons off to college, my husband and I took a trip to Europe.  We were relishing our new ’empty nest’ without the kids, when I received this text from youngest son:

Hey Mom,

I just wanted to let you know I’m in Denver this weekend and I have something I have to tell you.

I do NOT plan on continuing in college. I hope you’re not disappointed or embarrassed, but college is just not the road I want to be on. I’ve thought about all the people who will disagree with my decision, which is basically everyone. Family and friends will say things like,” How can you pass up a completely free education that you aren’t even paying for? You’re throwing away an opportunity”. I’ll smile back at those people and just say that’s not what I want to do in life. I’m not a loser, no matter what I do I know I can succeed at. That’s the thing about me I’ve found out. I can do almost anything I set my mind too, but if my mind’s not set, I’m literally just wasting my time.

I hope you’re having fun on your trip and I hope I didn’t cause any stress with my texts. I should have really told you I didn’t want to go, I just didn’t want to let everyone down. But now I realize, if I do stay in college, I’ll be letting myself down.

Love, your Son

As someone who is always ready for engagement, I initially fired back a very caring ‘mom’ response reminding him of his commitments and urging him to finish the semester and then re-examine his desire to leave college.

Two weeks later he was home.

In April, Harold Sirkin wrote in Bloomberg Businessweek that the debate over the value of a college education

seem to be suggesting that there’s a black-and-white answer that applies to everyone. Yes, college is a great investment; the statistics prove it. No, college is a waste of time and money; just ask the thousands of recent grads who can’t find jobs in their chosen fields and are living in their parents’ basements.

Sirkin emphasizes that it’s the individual student who makes the difference and insists that preparing the next generation for success in the workplace is as important as preparing students for college.

Fortune magazine, in its September 5th, 2014 issue, used a chart from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York  that shows how tough it is for the bottom quarter of earners with a college degree.

"Photo:  Express Employment

“Photo: Express Employment Professionals”

In a white paper released in April, Express Employment Professionals challenge the conventional wisdom of going to college.  The report finds that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 14 of the 20 fastest-growing occupations in America require an associate’s degree or less.  I spoke with Melissa Moffatt Elliott, an EEP franchise owner in Louisiana, who tells me “I have tons of opportunities right now for welders, machine operators and pipe fitters for oil rigs and I can’t get enough of ’em!”

Truth be told, my family background is steeped in education.  Each of my siblings used his or her individual course of study to gain entrance into the workplace.  As I do a mental checklist of all of our degrees, I know our we all got our first jobs after college in large part because of our higher education.

Certain professions demand certain courses of study, plain and simple.  I want to know a physician has spent years studying in his or her specialty, that someone arguing to acquit or convict a defendant knows the law, and that a rocket scientist is just that, a rocket scientist. But if like my son your interest lies in, let’s say, the commission sales profession, you may be able to find your path on your terms.

booksMore than anything, a one size fits all model for higher education simply doesn’t hold water any longer.

Making smarter decisions about college educations is what prompted Stephanie Owen and Isabel Sawhill to release the Center on Children and Family Policy Brief.

Ultimately, higher education decisions are made by individual students and their families, and are based on their unique interests, strengths, and personal values, not only income and career prospects. Students need to have realistic expectations about what they’re likely to get out of pursuing higher education.

As I see it, at the core level, it’s all about honing down your choices:

  • 1.  What do you do well, and can you make a living doing that?
  • 2.  What kind of job can you get with your college/vocational/trade school degree?
  • 3.  Who do you look up to and how did they get to do what they’re doing?
  • 4.  How will you be able to pay off the amount it will cost to get your degree?

Full disclosure, my youngest son is rocking the world selling life insurance.  He’s hit more milestones before the age of 20 than I ever did all those years ago.  Would I trade my experience for his?  Not in a heartbeat.  But I am thrilled that he’s on his own journey with success this early in life. He’s grown up as a consumer and looks at a college education the same way and has decided to take his chances.

Heck, if it doesn’t work out, he can always go back to college.

What about you? Has your college education been worth it for you?  Leave a comment below and share your experience.


Lois’ Living Through It blogs are posted on Mondays and Thursdays.  Join her Monday mornings at 8:45am on Good Day Colorado. 

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