“I am much more in favor of a college education than a college degree.”
– study desk in my college library
Disclaimer: I say this as someone coming from a place of great privilege.
I went to college for the education, not for the degree. I know that not everyone has that luxury. But after much deliberation, I attended a liberal arts school simply to learn more about the world and myself. I came out of my four-year experience more well-rounded, a better thinker, more mature, more informed about the world. I was not at all concerned with post-college aspirations. In fact, I didn’t officially decide to become a teacher until the end of April, a couple of weeks before graduation. So sue me. I’m still here.
Anyway, I still had plenty of friends at school who had very clear-cut goals: major in political science, then go to law school. Double major, bio and chem, so they could perform well on their MCAT and get into med school. Travel and intern abroad to get a leg up on their international affairs ambitions.
Whatever. I don’t think that that’s what college is for. Since attending college I have said that an undergraduate degree is the new high school diploma and that any company that wants further training will send you back to a more specialized school or train you themselves if they can see that you are competent and have transferable skills. It just so happens that the transferable skills that most employers are looking for— communication, organization, critical thinking, etc.— were fostered in my college classes.
But enough about me. Why am I writing about this on my public education blog? Two reasons, short and sweet: 1) to admit that my kids don’t have the same opportunities that I had, to spend years in college on a full ride simply enjoying their expanded education; 2) to tell you that I would not recommend the college experience to everyone.
So I recently had to admit to myself that I have been selling my kids short. For years, I have tried to be honest with myself when confronted with questions like, “Do you believe that ALL kids can succeed?” I have found myself able to answer with a firm, “Yes.” I got into education because I believe that a student’s ZIP code should not determine their destiny.
Now, before you attack me, I’m not lying to myself about that. I really do have a deep-seated belief in every single student’s potential. (Ask my colleagues who regularly tell me I’m too idealistic.) But when I think about their futures, I don’t see all of them in college. That means that I can’t honestly commit 100% to surveys that ask if I point them in a college-going direction, which sometimes makes me feel like a poor educator. Yet, I know that my gut feeling— that college just isn’t for everyone— is correct.
Don’t get me wrong: I think that all students should have the OPPORTUNITY to go to college. But, as one of my favorite buttons of flair on my lanyard says, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Some of my students honestly should not go to college. And I’m not even focused on the logical reasons like the astronomical cost, the radically different cultural norms, or the extreme jump in rigor from their predicted high school courses – though these are all valid arguments against it, I really don’t want kids to go to college if they don’t want to. If we force the idea, they are at too much risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, dropping out only after having received failing grades and wasted thousands of dollars.
As Chase Mielke suggests, I will continue to promote college as a lucrative option to my students. I will continue to wax poetic about my own college experience. I will continue to connect skills that we practice in middle school to their prospective college education.
But I also know of plenty of successful people who have not taken a single class since receiving their high school diploma. One of my closest friends growing up has a beautiful family, his own home, and multiple vehicles. He struggled with reading growing up, and though he worked hard to get through school, he decided that, after graduation, he was finished. I’ve not heard him express a single regret. He works with his hands, as he likes to do, and is responsible with the money that he earns. He has practical and social skills that make him a well-liked employee in a mid-level position. He’s happy.
I would never want to force my students to do something that would make them miserable.
If our next president follows through on one of various promises to make college free and accessible for students, that would be a huge step in the right direction. If DACA is expanded and our immigration system reformed to the point that many of my undocumented students, who have been living in the United States for almost as long as they can remember, can apply for scholarships, maybe formal, post-high school education would become a more realistic path for them. But for now, I will not assume anything about my students’ desires, and I will not pressure them into making life-altering choices in their teenage years.
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