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Should Everyone go to College?

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

The keynote speaker at the conference asked us all to pause for a moment and consider why we went into this field. Then he suggested we ask the youth we encounter “Have you thought about going to college? How can I help you do that?”

The first part was easy. I love counseling and I love education. I love to work one on one with students and help them carve out a path for themselves. I can talk for hours about why this field was my destiny.

The second part was more tricky. Sure, together we can plan for college. I can help you choose which colleges to apply to and even help you fill out the applications. I enjoy brainstorming essay topics and figuring out which major to declare. What I can’t do is tell you that college is the next logical step, and that is because I don’t believe that is true for everyone. College is a great option, many times the best option. It opens up doors, helps you earn a living wage, prepares you for adulthood, and may end up being the best years of your life. Or maybe it won’t do any of that. Maybe your destiny lies elsewhere, and maybe you would pass it by if the professionals guide you down the wrong path. The high incompletion rate, exorbitant student debt, and amount of people self-reporting they are unhappy or unfulfilled in their career is a cause for great concern.

“ It seems the only correct path for those in the desirable zip codes, those lucky enough to have a good high school education and come from stable socioeconomic backgrounds, is to get a four-year degree.”

Picture a society full of doctors, lawyers, educators and engineers. A community of white collar, degree holding individuals. Missing would be those with expertise in the things we did not learn while earning our degrees. Small business owners, service staff, technicians, laborers, our fixers and doers, often fall into this category. How could society function without all its moving parts?

In the United States there is a culture of assuming that success requires a college degree. Dive in even further, and the theme is even more upsetting. It seems the only correct path for those in the desirable zip codes, those lucky enough to have a good high school education and come from stable socioeconomic backgrounds, is to get a four-year degree. Those who opt for on-the-job training, vocational programs or community colleges seem to be looked down upon. The stigma is real. I see it in the upper-middle class suburbs where I live and work. As a counselor, we should help the student identify their interests, find their purpose and develop a plan. For many a skilled trade is the calling, and when factoring in the fact that these careers often require less than four years of higher education, they may become an even more attractive choice.

Perhaps a student is not sure what their future goals are, or they have little interest in studying a broad range of subjects. Maybe they prefer working with their hands rather than calculating numbers or writing thesis statements. Could it be that our European counterparts who provide more skills training in high school are turning out a more well-rounded working class? In the UK, for example, students can complete their final two years of secondary school in one of three ways: take up vocational training, complete two additional years of broad-based education, or prepare for a specific university track. While each system has pros and cons, the idea of providing alternative paths to successful futures doesn’t seem to have much of a downside.

People come in all shapes and sizes. Their personalities, thoughts, skills and interests are just as varied. While success in many occupations will require some amount of training, we should be careful not to take the stand that postsecondary education is one size fits all. Many of the high schoolers I meet plan to enroll in a four year college and often talk about medical school, law school or other graduate programs as their intention. Other possibilities are rarely discussed. The suggestion that a student consider courses at the local community college or a certificate program that would lead to a career doing something they enjoy, is usually off the table. Apprenticeships are rarely heard of nowadays, and in affluent neighborhoods the military is practically unheard of. With the cost of college ballooning out of control and crippling student loans forcing people to carry debt for their unforeseeable futures, it’s a wonder that we have not yet concluded that perhaps college is not for everyone. Taboo thought, or realistic conclusion, you decide. But as your counselor I promise to work with you no matter which option you choose.

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