I talk to a lot of high school students and I like to ask them whether they plan to go to college. Inevitably, just about all of them do. Then I ask why. I have yet to hear any answer besides slight variations on the following:
“Because I have to”, or, “To get a job”, or, “Because I want to make money.”
Here’s the weird part. When I ask, “What kind of job do you want?” almost no one has any idea. That’s not a bad thing, and chances are what they want to do and enjoy and are good at will change over time. What’s odd though is that they all feel the need to go to college in order to get something completely undefined. Here’s the basic formula I’m hearing:
Going to college will result in X, Y, or Z jobs. I have no idea if I want X, Y, or Z job, therefore I have to go to college.
If the reason given for going to college was that it will help a person discover what kind of career and life they wanted, it wouldn’t seem so odd. It would bring up a whole set of very valuable question about whether college is the best route to discover what you want to do. Do you learn more about whether you want to work in marketing by taking classes on marketing, or by working for a marketing firm? It’s different for each individual and situation, but if self-discovery is the goal, it’s easy to see the vast array of choices available to help you discover what makes you come alive, many of which do not require four years or six figures.
The same goes for other reasons. If the goal was to learn new ideas, meet new people, have a big party, gain special skills, become well-rounded, or any number of other things, it wouldn’t seem odd, and it would again raise great questions about whether college or something else is the best way to achieve it. It might be for some, it might not be for others.
But self-discovery or any of these other reasons are not the reasons given. It’s “to get a job.” It’s almost like students have a conveyor belt mentality. They’ve been told, and they believe, that if they just stay put and do the right things for their age when they’re told, they’ll be moved along through high school, and then college, and then be given a job. It’s a kind of formula. Get a degree, a job will be there. Of course this story is nothing like reality.
It’s really hard to find a fulfilling place in the market and develop skills, confidence, knowledge, and a network to help you do it. Once you try some things and identify areas you want to pursue – and more importantly, areas you know you don’t want to pursue – you’ve got a lot of exploration, experimentation and hard work ahead of you.
Whether or not you have a degree, and whether or not that degree is a valuable part of getting you where you want to go in life, it is abundantly clear that you need more than a degree. The conveyor belt stops. You find out that the world of schooling is very different from broader society, and the only thing that will move you is your own effort and inertia.
If your reason for going to college, or doing anything for that matter, is, “because I have to in order to get X”, you’d better examine long and hard what X is, whether you want it, and whether there really is but one way to get it. Many of the jobs young people end up taking (and many more they might have taken if they knew) turn out not to have required a degree. It doesn’t mean the degree was of no value. The college experience may have been wonderful and worth the cost, it may have been awful. But the reason the degree was pursued in the first place turns out to have been pretty flimsy and unexamined.
You’re the only one who knows what choices are good for you and your goals. You don’t need to decide whether college is “good for young people” any more than you need to decide if pickup trucks are good for young people. You need to decide if it’s good for you. You need to decide what your goals are and if it’s the best way for you to reach them. Before you jump in to an expensive, lengthy commitment, have a good reason.