So it’s been about five years now since I wrote this to my kids:
Dear Tess and Tucker,
For most of your young lives, youâ€™ve heard your mom and I occasionally talk about your futures by saying that someday youâ€™ll travel off to college and get this thing called a degree that will show everyone that you are an expert in something and that will lead you to getting a good job that will make you happy and make you able to raise a family of your own someday. At least, thatâ€™s what your mom and I have in our heads when we talk about it. But, and I havenâ€™t told your mom this yet, Iâ€™ve changed my mind. I want you to know that you donâ€™t have to go to college if you donâ€™t want to, and that there are other avenues to achieving that future that may be more instructive, more meaningful, and more relevant than getting a degree.
And today when I read this, I still think that old post is pretty relevant:
Of the 2 million graduates in the class of 2011,Â 85 percent will return home because they canâ€™t secure jobs that might give them more choices and more control over their lives.
The other day at Tucker’s basketball game, I overheard two moms talking about the “plan” for college. The one mom was very passionate about her son NOT going to a traditional college right Â after high school. “My kid has no idea what he wants to do, and I’m not sending him to some $25,000 a year school to have him figure it out,” she said. “He can take all the standard requirement courses at a community college, transfer out when he’s ready, and in the meantime see where his interests are.”
The funny thing was that the other mom was shaking her head slightly in agreement but I could tell by her questions that wasn’t going to be an option for her child. “What if he can’t transfer the credits?” “Don’t you think he’ll miss a lot of the ‘college experience?'” “You mean he’s going to live at home?” The horror.
I have a theory, and I may be wrong, but I’m willing to bet that the 15% who do get a job out of college are not necessarily the smartest kids out there; they are the ones who are the most passionate and committed to the life’s work they know in their hearts they were meant to do. It’s not like every kid from an Ivy school is getting a job; plenty of kids from what Newsweek or U.S. News would consider third tier colleges will go on to find fulfilling work that will give them “more choices and more control over their lives.” Or, they will be the creative, self-motivated, problem solvers who will start their own businesses, carve out their own paths to success.
Look, I’m somewhat swayed by the statistics that show kids with college degrees are dealing with much less unemployment that those without, and that they make more money. And I know there can be amazing learning that happens in some university classrooms. Â But I’m also swayed by the fact that neither I nor even one of my friends from college ended up doing what they got a degree from school to do. Way too many of us are going to college because we’re “supposed to” without any real clue what we want to do with our time there. Thirty years ago when I was in school, that wasn’t such a big hit in the pocketbook; there was always grad school, right? Today, I think that mom at the basketball got it right. Who can afford to waste a couple of years in college? And unless you really want to get saddled with debt, grad school’s not as much of an “hey-I-finally-figured-out-what-I-want-to-do” option.
I’ll say it again: Tess, Tucker, you don’t HAVE to go to college. Nor should your schools have to prepare you to go to college. What they and me and your mom need to help you with is finding your passion, going deep into learning about it, becoming an expert, and then using that expertise to change the world and make a living. We need to help you learn how to cobble together your own education, and you don’t have to wait until college to start down that road. And odds are pretty good that 10 years from now when you are looking to strike out on your own, your passion and your portfolio will take you as far if not farther than a degree that came at a great expense and in allÂ likelihoodÂ with only a slice of relevance.
So, college? Maybe. But we’re keeping our options open.
Doug Belshaw says
I can remember reading that post, Will. It was a year before our firstborn, Ben, came along and therefore I read this post through different eyes.
At the end of the day – and I believe this to be true of the classic counter-examples such as doctors and pilots too – qualifications are a way of entering a community. There are better ways in this day and age of serving such cognitive apprenticeships. I’ve learned this the long way round as I finish my doctoral thesis (6 years in the making!) in July.
So will Ben (and our other child now, Grace) go to university? Maybe. But the world, and especially universities, will be different institutions from the ones we went to.
At least I hope that’s the case.
Will Richardson says
Fun that you remember that, Doug.
I love the phrase “cognitive apprenticeships” and the idea that they transcend the school walls. But I’m not sure the institutions will have changed much by the time your kids reach college age. Their choices certainly will have changed, however.
Kent Manning says
We’ve been having this conversation around our house lately too.
I think you’ve nailed it in your last paragraph to Tess. Passion, portfolio, becoming an expert. All good things.
Difficult in my family not to say to our own children what our parents said to us, “Get an education, get a job, then think about settling down with someone.” <~ In roughly that order.
Will Richardson says
I think that’s still the “right” order in my head, too, but the difference is that the education and job parts don’t have the same frame as when they were doled out to me. I’m planning to make sure my kids have all sorts of scenarios laid out to them both in terms of gaining mastery and then using that mastery to make a living. The 9-5 is gone, and I think the 4-year degree at one school is probably pretty close behind.
Now about that “settling down” part…
Amen! It’s a shame that learning has become less about finding your passion and changing the world (while making a living) and more about standardized tests, student loans, and a cost-benefit analysis of your expected ROI. How many people, who didn’t have knowledgeable and understanding parents, abandoned their passion in lieu of a job they’ll hate but will earn the six figures? Too many.
Jacob Williamson says
I don’t have kids but I try to reiterate this idea to students everyday. The sad part is they all look at me cross-eyed and can’t believe that I actually mean it. They’ve been spoon-fed this idea that frankly is no longer all that relevant:
Going to college means success, if you don’t go to college or chose to explore other areas of higher education other than college, then you will not be successful.</ital)
The sad part is that most parents, administrators, teachers, and counselors eat up this idea as well.
Will Richardson says
Well, it’s all about the narrative and making it as simple as possible. As Kent suggests above, the current narrative is really easy to articulate. If we want to compete better in the world we need to get a college degree, not we need to find our passions, construct our own learning (of which college may be a part), become masters at our trade, and change the world. That’s not quite as neat a narrative.
Doug Johnson says
I’ve gone back and forth on this issue with my son who by any measure is a non-traditional student. But I have come down on the side of encouraging (pressuring?) him to finish his BA. Why?
College ought to be a place not for vocational instruction, but as a means of broadening one’s world view. Exposure to new ideas, new kinds of people, new possibilities were for me the real value of college and I hope will prove to be so for my son (and grandsons.) I still think almost everyday about some idea or strategy or concept I learned in college and feel my intellectual and professional life would be much poorer for having to have been self-educated.
Yes, the dedicated and self-directed can might accomplish this wider-world view, but I am guessing most will wind up with a more cramped vision of life if their education is self-directed. We have ego-casting, hy not ego-educating?
Will Richardson says
As always, great to have you chime in.
Our college experiences differ. But then again, I don’t think I challenged myself in the way that I should have. And again, I’m not saying that my kids won’t or shouldn’t experience college in some form. I do think there is value there. The trick, and it’s a difficult one, will be to nurture in kids those learning dispositions and skills that they’ll need to not have that cramped vision of life, which, btw, current k-12 schooling currently delivers to them. If we changed K-12 to focus on developing learners…
Lisa Parisi says
Doug, that is exactly how I see college. My daughter is heading into her last year of high school next year, graduating a year early just to get out. She is not a typical student but does very well. We are sending her to a university that is nearby so she can stay at home for at least a year. She will take science classes (her favorite) as well as art classes, philosophy, and other liberal arts classes. She doesn’t know what she “wants to be when she grows up” but I am hoping she will find a way to make her passions work for her in college. At the very least, maybe she will discover that learning is exciting, even if school isn’t.
I am coming down roughly where you are. I have a son who doesn’t want to go to college mostly because he doesn’t see the point. He’s not motivated at all right now despite being smart. I agree with him to a large degree, but I’ve also emphasized that college doesn’t have to be a hoop that you jump through and if he chooses wisely, it can be a great life experience. I don’t want him just to do college because that’s what you do, but because, as you say, it will broaden his experiences. I, too, draw on learning from my college years all the time, some related to classes, some related to extracurriculars. I don’t want my son to miss out on that, and I know him well enough to know that he wouldn’t pursue a passion on his own. He needs some prodding. I suspect many kids do.
We are also considering a gap year for him. He’s very interested in going to Japan, and I’d be willing to send him there after high school. And I hope he decides to go to college after that. If he doesn’t, I’m not sure how I feel about that. I just fear that he won’t really thrive if he doesn’t.
Will Richardson says
Thanks for the comment Laura.
Just wondering as I read that last line…to what extent might that fear be borne out of not seeing a clear option that allows kids to thrive? I share that fear, but I just wonder if it’s misplaced because we haven’t carved out these alternate routes to an “education” that allows us to be successful. I don’t have an answer, but your concerns resonated and made me wonder.
Doug JOhnson says
My son just finished a two year “gap” working in a bookstore in Wellington NZ. Unfortunately, he seemed to come back as aimless as left just having completed his AA in video production.
My sense is that if one avoids racking up big debt, college can’t HURT a person!
Kathy Ziolkowski says
I agree with Doug Johnson. But I also believe that you can’t always learn life’s lessons in the classroom. I went to Europe to live right out of high school for two years before returning to the USA. It was the best multi-cultural experience that I could ever have gotten. I learned the language without formal teaching, I landed a job with American Express in Frankfurt and I traveled to over a dozen European countries enriching my knowledge immensely. I learned much more from those experiences than college could ever have taught me. that being said when I did return to the States i was out of work for 6 months until through networking I landed a job in banking. Then later after returning back to Maryland I went to work for Johns Hopkins University and realized that I needed a college degree to further advance my career. I completed the BA and now after a number of years realize I also need to finsh a master’s to get any further. So formal education and a college degree are very important but also education comes in various forms and you can never discount either life learning experiences or a formal education.
Kathy Ziolkowski says
I understand where Doug Johnson is coming from. The world looks completely different once you finish college and strike out on your own. I opted not to go to college out of high school but instead to go to Europe and live for two years, before coming back to the USA. The best lessons aren’t always taught in the classroom. I learned about culture, language and people though my european experiences. I learned the German language while working for American Express in Frankfurt. I traveled to dozens of countries and soaked up the history and culture of each place I visited. I made friends that I still have and learned life’s lessons in abundace. After I returned to the US I couldn’t find a job. Luckily I knew someone who got me a job in a bank. I moved around a lot and finally moved back to my home state of Maryland and began working at Johns Hopkins University. I worked full time and got by degree at night. Now I am in the MSED program there as well. I can’t say I regret anything except starting my college so late in my life. But I would add that for each person there are different paths and answers which each person must discover individually.
Mary Ann Reilly says
When I say some very similar things at admin meetings, I can see the disbelief that surfaces and the “oh my God she’s so foolish” looks. Rob & I have said similar things to our son. I have worked as a professor so certainly I don’t think college is “wrong”, etc. It’s all about choices.
Suburban high schools are on a one track fits all mode from what I can see and that’s a gigantic mistake. That’s the issue. It’s not about college, it’s about a story we have been telling parents over and over that their kids have to do x, y, z in order to get into college and failure to do this will result in misery–of not getting into the club.
I work with a handful of people who are openly challenging the one path myth. We are very small voices in a much larger cacophony of noise. So leased you have added your voice here, so publicly.
Aaron Campbell says
Thanks for this Will. This is exactly what’s been on my mind these last few years, as my daughter is now 8, and the youngest is 4. It’s also got me itching to fire up my blog again……lol.
Tony Baldasaro says
Will, I think what you write here continues to ring true. Your post reminded me of a story here in Exeter, NH that I think corroborates your argument.
The district I used to work for brought community members together to create a long term “strategic plan” for the schools. In my mind, the entire process was a charade for the Superintendent to buy time until his next contract, but none the less, I played along. Among the many useless events that occurred during the 18 month process was a one where we brought together local “stakeholders”. One member of the panel was an official from the University of New Hampshire and when asked, “What is the most important skill students need when entering college?” he responded with, “Being able to take notes.”
The following week I wrote a blog post that ended with this: “If that is the way that colleges think, itâ€™s time for k-12 to push the conversation and to force colleges and universities to think more globally and realize that our students deserve more.”
I do question why we put higher ed on the pedagogy pedestal. I do think k-12 needs to push reform “up” to higher ed because all too often they employ tired practices, impersonal learning, and provide too little support in the sink or swim atmosphere of a college campus. (The college drop out rate hovers around 50%.)
So, Will I couldn’t agree with you more that we need to light passions within our students so that when (and if) they decide to go on to high ed it makes sense, they are committed to their passions and they now that whether or not they can take notes plays no role in their success.
Gary Stager says
There is no “what colleges think.”
Mary ann Reilly says
This is important, Gary. Where I work “colleges” are represented as an entity. Colleges want…Colleges will only accept…We can’t do that because Colleges…
It is so outrageous and maddening that this inept characterization of colleges as a single entity, a one voice sounding judgments, has permeated where I work. There are some talking back but just like the fear card that has been played politically, I see the same thing being played locally.
Gary Stager says
I’ll say it again:
1) If schools are to prepare kids for all options, then it needs to prepare them for college too.
2) That said, there are 30 colleges in the US that are hard to get into and thousands of others where kids can enjoy a really fine education.
3) Education â‰ vocation
4) Schools lie to kids by pretending that all colleges/universities are the same. My kids went to three wildly different schools and all had good experiences. As for vocational “training,” for a time last year, our only employed kid was the art major. The history major with an MA in education and teaching credential had to move to South Korea to find a job as a teacher (formerly a “safe” profession).
5) Some of the grandest most progressive implementations of educational innovation in the world exist in American higher education.
Will, I’m going to strap you to the hood of a Prius and drive you to see some.
There are PLENTY of four-year colleges and universities where you don’t have to declare a major for 2+ years and where “finding yourself” isn’t viewed as a waste of time.
6) As someone with a Ph.D. from another nation and who has worked in lots of countries, higher education is the jewel of America.
7) Regarding the “gap year idea…” Scooping ice cream for minimum wage and taking community college classes – where you can get one – isn’t a great way to inspire a kid to love to learn, make a life or find themselves. It’s just more high school.
Some kids need to spend time with mind-blowing professors who light a spark they didn’t know existed.
If the soccer moms were buying their kids “round-the-world” plane tickets, that would be a different story.
8) The fact that so few people end up working in the field for which they have a degree is a beautiful thing. It means you can spend 4 years learning, loving and developing expertise AND STILL GET A JOB – OR NOT.
Doug JOhnson says
Regarding your comment: Scooping ice cream for minimum wage and taking community college classes – where you can get one – isn’t a great way to inspire a kid to love to learn, make a life or find themselves.”
I didn’t scoop ice cream, but I did work as a masonry contrator’s labor – scooping cement, hoisting block, setting scaffold, shoveling sand – for a year. It made me realize that I did not want to still be doing this when I was an “old” man of 30 or 40 and provided a hell of an incentive to go back to college and take college seriously.
I suspect, as the rest of your comment suggests, that no one experience or learning opportunity can claim to be good or bad for every person.
Gary Stager says
We are not disagreeing. The kids who loved masonry used to be able to join a union, have insurance, buy a house, send his kids to college and have a pension.
Now a kid with a $200k education is expected to work unpaid internships AFTER college.
Higher-Ed isn’t the problem. Our mean-spirited Darwinian economy and national selfishness is.
Kourtney L. says
I recently left a university after much resilience. Instead I decided to transfer my credits towards an associateâ€™s degree. I left because the university was too expensive and I had no idea what I wanted to major in.
When I was in the process of making this decision I received a lot of criticism from my peers and family. Most people tilted there head, like a curious dog, and said something like â€œWellâ€¦if thatâ€™s what you want to doâ€¦â€ My mom did not attend college herself, but she still suggested I should finish out obtaining my thousands of dollars in loan debt. My uncle (a successful and smart man) thought I was making a dumb move. My aunt (who is a librarian) disapproved of my decision as well.
I think the degree in general is a social status. Before the internet, self help books, blogs, and how to guides it was necessary to obtain a degree. Now, unless you are some sort of doctor it seems unnecessary and more of a life burden then a life advancer.
People disapprove because they believe a degree is the normal and right way. This is common in our society and common ideals help people define what is normal, we use ideas like: you should go to college (for education), you should get a 8-5 well paying normal job (donâ€™t create or do anything different), you should get married (to the opposite sex), and you should have kids (2 preferably).
Doing something against the grain was hard for me so thank you for posting this to prove in some way that I am not as crazy as my family and friends think I am. (It would have been nice to hear my family say “You don’t have to go to collge.”)
Mary ann Reilly says
Kourtney, you inspire and humble me. I’m 52 and thinking I might want to make a career change but am scared of what it might mean I sous also need to give up. your words give me pause. Thanks.
Have your kids’ aptitudes tested at Johnson O’Connor Foundation in NYC. Found out about their natural talents. Chances are, you already know a few of them, but this testing gives you confirmation. The more of your natural aptitudes that you use, the higher your job satisfaction. From there, you can have a conversation with your kids about future career and education paths that will prepare them for highly satisfying work using the areas they are naturally good at. Yes, it costs about $700, but it is money well spent BEFORE spending gobs of money OR time on college or pursuing another career path. My sisters and I learned about this AFTER college in our twenties when we had no idea what to do with ourselves. It helped us figure out what we like, why we like what we like, and what to do next. It can help you focus. I just took my 16 year old daughter to get tested over Christmas break. Based on what we learned, she went from ideas about fashion to thinking medicine, specifically radiology. Johnson O’Connor ends up testing many “lost” lawyers who decide they do not have job satisfaction AFTER they earned their law degree. It is worth a look.
Steve Goldberg says
On the idea of a “gap year,” I was at an event last night for Global Citizen Year (great organization), and the head of a UNC scholarship program in attendance said a gap year needs to be “safe, structured, educationally sound and well-planned.” I agree wholeheartedly. Expanding one’s global horizon before going to college seems like a good thing, especially if you reflect on the experience.
You might want to check out http://globalcitizenyear.org/
Sandy Wagner says
I started college because it was what I was supposed to do. After wasting a year with no direction at all and little motivation I transferred to a community college. There I discovered a love of literature and philosophy and tranfererred back to a 4 year school to obtain a degree in literature (which was my passion) and minor in education (so I could get a job teaching my passion).
It is now 20 years later. My passion has evolved to technology and learning environments. To that end I now have a Master of Science in Education and a Can in Educational Leadership. I am Director of Technology in a small school district and am passionate about my work and earn a living.
I had no idea when I started college what I would discover but I can assure you without it I would not have found my path. Does that mean college is the pat? I don’t think so. There are many ways I could have arrived at the same or a similar place. I would agree that what we need to be looking at is finding passion. Figuring out what we want as individuals does not mean following a prescribed path. Affording our children the opportunity to find that path is where the focus should be regardless of whether that means college, travel, internship, service, or any other path.
Unfortunately we continue to work in schools that operate under the mandate that our goal is to get them to college, all with the same skill set, all without passion for what awaits them.
Jennifer Watson says
For me, the aha moment here is helping young people find their passion. That, in my opinion, will empower them to find what makes them happy and makes decisions that are best for them. Check out this video about helping kids do just that. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TqzUHcW58Us
Doug Manning says
Will, I appreciate your focus on ‘passion’ and ‘portfolio’, rather than a blind faith commitment to ‘college’ and ‘career’ as the answer for all. Our traditional life planning question for kids is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The answer we adults seek is the name of a college program we respect, leading to a profession we admire. It is difficult for young people to develop an appreciation for personal identity when everyone keeps asking them image-based questions.
There are two aspects to the exploration of identity and one of them, the value of developing a sense of personal passions, has been well discussed here. A continuous commitment to development of a personal ‘portfolio’ is equally important as a person builds out a life. Whereas the pursuit of passions is the road to ‘fulfillment’, the development of a portfolio of assets is the path to personal ‘sustainability’. Encouraging young people to build a diversity of high demand/low supply skills, credentials, experiences, and personal networks through active involvement in life is the ticket to survival in a job market that keeps shifting and changing at a rapid pace.
When you talk to Tess and Tucker, don’t forget to encourage them to get involved with everything – examining their interests while developing personal assets. Teach them to keep and continuously update a portfolio of skills, credentials, experiences and networks – ones they will use throughout life to access various types of financial aid, post-secondary instruction, volunteer opportunities, and work. Their capacity to adapt within a changing living/learning/working environment is as important as the appreciation of things that matter to them.
Kyle Simon says
I started at a four-year school (Kutztown University) the fall after I graduated from high school. After year one I transferred to another four-year school (Pennsylvania State University) after I decided that playing football was no longer important to me. My post-school plans solidified while at Penn State, I graduated with an education degree and an info sciences minor, and now I love what I do.
Sometimes it does work. I’m glad I was prepared for college.
Suzanne Kelchner says
Unfortunately, too many jobs require the degree for HR to even look at the resume. That’s why I went back after 20+ years.
Our alternative education plan started when I began homeschooling my oldest. His preschool teacher told me he wasn’t ready for kindergarten since he could not color in the lines or cut straight. He’s 24 and still can’t.
After high school, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. He had a choice: get a full time job and pay rent or go to community college as a full time student. He chose the latter. He took classes to fulfill the GE reqs, but also took a class he was interested in. I didn’t care if it transferred. He needed to find out what he liked. It took him three years, and then he took a couple of years off. He spent part of that time traveling. He just graduated from University (on his own dime :)).
The second son will graduate from a state school next year. He’s always knows what he wanted to do and went after it.
The third one graduated in a month and will get a technical certificate from the community college. His area of giftedness is hands on.
I want them to find an area that they can feel accomplished in. This may make them happy, or it may not. I’m happy to put food on the table. Work is the way to do that, even if I’m not happy at work. With today’s economy, if you have a job, you should be happy.
Kathy Ziolkowski says
I understand your dilemna concerning college.For the longest time in our society and still prevails now in the 21st century, that as Heidi Hayes Jacobs puts in her book, ‘Curriculum 21’, on page 16, “that the tradition of the rugged individual who makes it on his own is more widely regarded if that person is not educated. Intellects are scoffed at in the United Sates.” Wow that couldn’t be more true. I also waited 20+ years to go to college so that I could advance my degree. Otherwise I would not be able to get a better paying job at the place where I was working. It is hard out there and I think that students graduating and in school should find their ‘spark’ in life. Something that they enjoy and really produces self-satisfaction for them. Otherwise they will end up not liking what they do but stuck in it because like you said ‘we should be happy we have a job.’
Thanks for sharing your post with me!
My son graduated from college a few weeks ago. He does not have a job. Nor does he have any desire to be chained to a desk doing non-creative work. He’s moving several hundred miles away, to live w my cousin who is on the board of a huge comic convention. He’ll work for free with her, and try to make the contacts he needs to get into that line of work. In the meantime his aspiration to pay his bills is to wait tables.
I’m hoping this is his year off. The problem is…that college degree will open doors. I see it as a necessary evil. And my son will hopefully be able to use it and won’t stay in his waiter career very long..
Kathy Ziolkowski says
I understand completely! My son didn’t finish college as he has ADHD and strays from idea to idea and now he is waiting tables to pay the bills. But in the long run I do believe that a college would certainly help him. I agree that it is a necessary evil as well! It sounds like your son will do well in the creative world. It is the same world that my son also like!
Thanks for writing!