Maybe this title sparked a visceral reaction from you. Maybe you think I’m wrong. Maybe you’re offended. Maybe you clicked on this solely to make it to the comments section and give me a piece of your mind.
Let’s talk about it.
Why does this title seem so inflammatory? Why does it seem like such a negative statement? Why does it seem so derogatory?
This has been a topic that has been on my chest for quite a while now. Ever since graduating college, really. Growing up, my family was hanging by a thread to what is considered “middle class.” During the summer, when my mom wasn’t working, things were tight for my sister and I. In many ways, we were very fortunate: we always had a roof over our heads, and we always had food on the table.
But there wasn’t much room for luxury.
Because they wanted us to grow up and do better for ourselves, they expected us to go to college. It was never a question of “if” I went, it was always referred to as “when” I went . In that time period, growing up in the early to mid 90’s, having a bachelor’s degree was a big deal. Having a degree set you apart from other people. Having a degree guaranteed you’d have a sweet paying job and would be able to support yourself as soon as you graduated.
Unfortunately, every other parent in America had the same idea in mind.
Neither of my parents had a degree. They grew up in a time where people could earn their way up the totem pole of a company and still afford to raise a family. But they always wondered where they would be if they had gotten a degree. Maybe they would’ve been better off. Maybe they would have had higher-paying jobs. They truly thought that us getting a degree would open every possible door for us. Therefore, this became an expectation through primary and middle school.
So when I got to high school and found out that a few of my friends weren’t going to college, I was shocked. “What do you mean you’re not going to school? Don’t you want a future? Don’t you want a real job? Why are your expectations so low for yourself?”
These guys were going to trade schools and apprenticeship programs – and they were ostracized for it. People in my high school – adults and students alike – looked down their noses at them, wholeheartedly believing that the reason that they weren’t going to college was because “they weren’t smart enough to get in.” And even if they were accepted, they “wouldn’t be able to keep up.”
I hate to admit it, but, for the longest time, I agreed. They didn’t care about AP classes for college courses. They didn’t worry about class rankings, SAT’s, ACT’s, or college application deadlines. But they could weld like no other. They could build things. They could repair cars. The bottom line is that they had a marketable skill set. They would leave school for half of the day and work with welders, mechanics, and other skilled tradesmen. I couldn’t imagine these people having a
“real” desk job. I imagined myself in comparison after my four years of schooling, waving around my degree and showing them how much better life was with a college education.
And ooooh, sometimes feel like I bet on the wrong horse.
Those who know me know that things have been tumultuous – to say the least – since
graduating spring of 2016. I wouldn’t even say that it began after college graduation. It was before that. Spring semester, I knew that I couldn’t go back to South Bend, and there were no jobs for me in Fort Wayne, where my fiance lived. I was about to graduate with a degree in Sociology, with a specialization in Anthropology, Criminal Justice, and a minor in Communications. I had been working in my field for about two years and was already burnt out in social work. Graduating in the field that I was growing to dread made me feel like I was at the edge of a chasm with nowhere else to turn.
Luckily, my saving grace came in the form of Orr Fellowship, a program that takes the best and brightest college seniors around Indiana and pairs them with a start-up in Indianapolis, regardless of prior experience or study. However, after a very short, euphoric period in my safety net, it fell out from underneath me again. My department was downsized, and I was faced with trying to find a job yet again.
I wasn’t the only one of my graduating class who wasn’t working in my field of study: I had friends that moved back in with their parents; I had friends that were now the manager of a Family Video, or Menards.
Now, let’s think about that for a moment. In the state of Indiana, as of 2015, the avergage student loan debt was about $29,000, with the proportion of individuals with student loan debt being 61% (The Institute for College Access & Success). The school that I went to was about $40,000 a year. $20,000 of that was just tuition, the other half was technology fees, housing, meal plans, etc. With my university, you were able to get a lot of scholarships: some of them being up to half of the total cost from the school alone. So, your debt upon graduation could be anywhere from $80,000 – $160,000 to get your Bachelor’s degree.
Imagine being $160,000 in debt, and working in retail.
There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you want to do. However, many of my friends weren’t there by choice. They needed some kind of employment. They now had student loan payments to make, housing and car payments. So they took what they could get while trying to find a job relevant to what they actually wanted to do.
But the problem with that is that in this day and age, everyone has a bachelor’s. The value of this degree has become so diluted that it is now a requirement on many job applications, regardless of relevance. Even some retail management positions require at least a bachelor’s. When everyone has something of value, it becomes worthless. And that’s what a traditional four-year education has become. People are now forced to go into even more debt for graduate degrees to put themselves above the competition for jobs they may or may not get.
And then there are the guys who were “too dumb to go to college.” They’re doing what they love, what they’re good at, and were able to graduate from their apprenticeship or trade school with little to no debt. Not only that, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2014 the median hourly earnings of an electrician was $24.57, with the top 10% in their field earning more than $41.15 per hour (www.ieci.org).
Now, this isn’t meant to be a post bashing college. This is a call to attention. A call to at least have a deep and meaningful conversation about this. If you’re in high school, don’t allow yourself to be pigeonholed. College isn’t for everyone. Maybe you’re not someone who wants to spend four years on a degree you may or may not use and be up to your eyeballs in debt. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. If you’re lucky enough to have found your passion early on, follow it. Don’t try and force yourself to be a Political Science major if what you really want to do is welding.
Working with your hands doesn’t mean falling short of intellectual achievement. It means that at the end of the day, you have a specialized skill set. It means that you have something physical to show for your work. It means that you can walk away saying, “I did this,” and showcase your abilities in a very objective way.
I envy that. There’s no good way of showcasing my skills in Sociology. I don’t have something where I can say, “Here is an example of what I can do. This is why you should hire me.” Everything in my field is so subjective and abstract. If you have the opportunity to begin a field where you feel a sense of worth, a sense of accomplishment, you owe it to yourself to pursue it.
And parents, if your student is thinking of going into a trade instead of college, don’t panic. Talk to them. Make sure they have all the information possible to make an informed decision. Don’t blanch at the thought of them not going to college and have a knee-jerk reaction of “Yes you are!” At the end of the day, it may be better for them.
Things have changed. College shouldn’t be treated as a universal path, but it should be seen as a tool for specialized areas. Obviously, we still need colleges for career paths such as medicine, but getting a degree in underwater basket-weaving just for the sake of having a degree isn’t going to benefit anyone anymore.
Only you can decide what’s best for you: not your guidance counselor, not your peers. Find what truly makes you happy and run with it. And if that means taking a year off of school to figure out what that is, do it. You don’t need to waste your time and money doing something that you won’t find fulfilling.
Maybe you’re just not “college-material.”
And that’s okay.
What do you think? Are colleges the way to go? Or would you prefer to go to a trade school? Need some recommendations? Let me know in the comments!
Feature image courtesy of Jack Moreh.