When I was teaching first year students at university, I always started my initial class with the question “Are you certain you want to go through with this ‘higher education’ venture you are starting?”.
I pointed out to them the debt they were likely to incur (today the average graduate carries a debt of nearly $40,000); and the temptation to major in something that has little or no application to skills required in the world beyond academia.
I last taught 15 years ago and have recently found myself back at a university to launch efforts to expand their educational outreach division. In speaking with faculty and staff members here, I’m not sure anything has changed for incoming freshmen and graduating seniors.
I realize that for almost all of us, putting our own children through tertiary education is well past us. However, as we are often asked to contribute financially to post-secondary education for our grandchildren, or even asked for an opinion, I thought that I would put down the advice I would give to my own grandchildren at this threshold of their lives.
Unless any student has a full ride scholarship, I would ask if he or she has ever thought of learning a trade and attending a community college or trade school. For many trades, the time requirement for getting licensure or certification is two years or fewer. Obviously, this greatly reduces the financial impact for them and their families. In addition, it has the advantage of almost immediate employment and income in an area that is in demand and in which the student has an interest. Worst case, if the student decides after a semester that this is not the career path for him or her, only a short time has been lost.
If the trades path is not attractive to the young person, I strongly recommend that the first two years of general education studies be undertake at a community college. In my opinion, the advantages in this setting are substantial. Firstly, the cost is substantially lower than most four year institutions. Secondly, the general educational classes are almost always much smaller than the classes of the identical subjects offered at a four year institution. Smaller classes allow more time with the instructor, more time to ask questions, more time to not feel like one is part of a huge diploma mill only interested in graduating a high percentage of the class that started four years earlier (lest you think I am cynical, this percentage is how most state schools determine their funding).
Added to that, no one and I repeat, no one, cares where you got your lower division units as long as they are applicable and transferable to a four year school.
I am aware of the pressure to be accepted to a high level, high prestige university (try viewing a documentary on Netflix entitled “Operation Varsity Blues” to see this at its toxic worse). Again, other than for ascertaining which athletic team one favors, it is the rare occasion in which one gets quizzed about where one obtained one’s degree. There are some instances in which graduating from a particular university will aid in obtaining one’s first employment, but if that graduate fails at the first job, no pedigree will help.
Conversely, no matter from what university one graduated, if that person excels in the job, it does not matter the source of his or her education. I would add to this drive for prestige in one’s university of choice, that if one’s life revolves around such shallow things as picking a particular university merely for its prestige, perhaps one’s priorities are misplaced.
Two other suggestions I would consider. First, I firmly believe that the vast majority of graduating high school students would benefit greatly from a year in which they work, volunteer, or otherwise explore the world and obtain another year of maturation. Second, and much more radical, is the thought of enlisting in a branch of the armed forces. I recently had the opportunity to visit the recruiting offices of each of our services and was amazed at the opportunities available in each branch for learning a useful skill and for formal education. When you add to that the generous benefits of the GI bill in the United States upon discharge, there is much to recommend this alternative.
At the very least, these thoughts might produce a bit of discussion and debate when it comes time to consider the next step in a high school student’s education and career choice.
Even if it did come from old fogies like me.