Like many of my peers, I was raised on the idea that college is synonymous with a better life. I was taught that education was key—that going to college meant getting a job. But the longer I’ve been a teacher, the more I’ve realized that this mindset doesn't always ring true, and college isn't right for all students.
I strongly believe that education is valuable and I've been lucky to observe its effectiveness firsthand. I know that higher education is the right option for many students, as it was for me in college and graduate school. The issue is that for many others, college is positioned as the only option. It shouldn't be.
There is no denying that college can is beneficial. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), bachelor degree holders earn $400 more per week in median weekly income as compared to those with a high school diploma alone. A Georgetown University study reports that by 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require some at least an associate degree. But the road to success is paved by more than education.
You can almost see the weight lift off a student's shoulders when they hear that it’s okay if they don’t want to go to college. The worry and stress just disappear from their eyes. Sometimes, students feel like they need permission; they need someone to tell them that they’re allowed to decide their future for themselves. When students come to me to admit that college doesn't feel right, I tell them to go with their guts, even if it means a change of expectations.
Some students seem shocked when I’m not disappointed by their confession. After all, shouldn't teachers be advocates for higher education? For some students, I am. For others, I know when it's not right—and I have no reason to push them. Here's why.
I’ve had a lot of students who were extremely intelligent but struggled in class because traditional education didn't allow their skillset to flourish. Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences suggests that there are nine different types of intelligences, and not all of them translate well in the classroom:
Looking back, I can picture former students who embodied these types of intelligence. Students with strong verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence tend to do well in school. Other types may not, but it doesn't mean they won't succeed in life. One former student, for example, had a strong spatial intelligence. He opted out of college and used his core intelligence capacities—such as mental imagery, spatial reasoning, and imagination—to start a successful contracting career. Another student used her communication and empathy skills to care for children at a daycare.
When is the last time you took your car to a mechanic who had a master’s degree? What about the guy who installs your high-speed internet? He doesn’t need a four-year degree, but you and your neighbors still want plenty of people with his skillset around when the Wi-Fi starts acting up.
In certain fields, high school graduates who want to show prospective employers that they're fit for a job don't have to rely entirely on their educational background. Writers, for one, need portfolios that showcase their work. Developers need solid GitHub scores. Chefs need knife skills.
A lot of my students grow up believing that college is their only option after graduation. To prove them wrong, I bring in speakers from trade schools and the military to talk about their career paths and educational backgrounds.
Many of my students want to learn a skill or trade and become interested in different types of education or training after high school. Entrepreneurially minded students can pursue mentorships that can be more valuable (and inexpensive) than a four-year degree or take online courses through platforms like edX and Skillshare. In many other cases, students can get the skills they need for a job through certificate programs, workshops, or two-year degrees.
The price tag of higher education can be a burden for students who choose college simply because it’s expected of them. As a teacher, it pains me to see students accumulate thousands of dollars in debt for a degree that they didn’t want in the first place.
The United States currently houses a collective student loan debt of $1.5 trillion. Under Federal Student Aid's standard repayment plan, it takes roughly ten years to pay back school loans. Under income-based repayment, that timeline stretches to 25 years. Not every student is prepared to start adulthood with such intense financial expectations.
Some of my seniors feel ready to start life out on their own, while others need more time. I’ve seen many students come into their own by joining the armed forces, entering the workforce, or even taking classes part-time at a community college. I've seen students mature in college, too, but within that group, there are students who struggle with the transition and drop out their freshman year.
For students who aren’t as self-directed and responsible, there’s no shame in taking time off to work, travel, or participate in a gap year program as a way to gain skills they’d need to balance college-level work with the responsibilities of being on their own. Even if they don’t end up choosing a college, those skills won't go wasted in the long run.
Alicia Betz is a writer and high school English teacher. She earned her bachelor’s in education from Pennsylvania State University and her master’s in education—as well as a certificate in online teaching and learning—from Michigan State University.
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