Hello friends! I am back from my usual months-long
sojourn to magical worlds I’m-really-busy-with-life hiatus. If you’re new here (hello!) this is frequent.
But that is not why I reappeared. I wanted to discuss a Thing. This Thing has made me kind of angry, and I’m feeling passionate about it, which equals a lot of words. Here’s the tl;dr version up front: college is not the end.
I’ll say it louder for those in the back:
The end of what? The end of life, the end in the archaic sense of the ultimate goal, the sole purpose, the thing that will drive your life in the right direction.
It’s not that.
It’s not even necessarily the defining moment of anyone’s life.
College has become this thing that we (parents, teachers, well-meaning advice-givers) have made The Goal:
School is important because you need good grades to go to a good college. And be sure to major in something Useful, that will Get You a Job, because heaven forbid you major in English in today’s economy, no, better to do a STEM major or something because then you will Be Successful and Make Lots of Money and Live a Happy Life™
If you don’t do the path right, you might end up in a Dead-End Job or be in Grad School, or live in your parent’s basement because you’re poor! !!!!!
I’m satirizing, but be honest. Isn’t this dumb? I think it’s really, really dumb.
Have you set up this expectation for a student lately? Can we stop freaking them out? Can we stop making College the boogeyman of the over-worked, over-tired high school student?
Can we stop assuming we know everything?
Anxiety among high school students has reached an all-time high, a worrying proportion, and I think this attitude about college is a major factor in that anxiety. It’s a wrong attitude by the way, or at least an outdated one.
See, for a long time, college was the End. It was the promise of a better life, in the world where a college degree and an entry level job got you retirement at 55 and a good pension. Starting with the millennial generation, that just doesn’t happen anymore. The world is different. The economy is different.
So let me explain you some things. High schoolers, listen up. Adults, listen up harder.
In reality, college is important, but not in the way it’s represented to be. In college you have a chance to practice being an adult. You have the chance to take classes in subjects you’ve never encountered before, and to explore yourself and your choices for life. You have the chance to experience the world, through books and classmates and maybe some actual travel. This is all very important, valuable, and possibly life-changing.
Part of the problem of The Goal is that it assumes an intention that most teenagers don’t have. What eighteen-year-old really knows his or her life plan? Very few. If you, a high school student, are pretty sure you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer or any profession that has a specific and required education path, then go do that thing. Be open to change, but do that thing.
If you have an inking, or no idea, then that’s okay! Explore. Take all the classes. Don’t worry too much about a job outside of college. The truth is, many (most?) graduates don’t even work in their major field. That doesn’t mean college doesn’t matter, just that there’s not usually a one-to-one correlation between Skills-Aquired-in-College and Job. A lot of skills that succeed on the job market are “soft skills” – writing coherently, research, problem-solving, collaborative working – which can be learned in a variety of majors.
Yes, even English.
So take something you like. Do that art major and transition into graphic design, or start your own business. Study history because it fascinates you, and leverage that understanding and those strong writing skills in your office, wherever that is. Or become an historian. Or go to graduate school. Or realize you really actually love three-year-olds and go teach preschool.
Remember, too, that America’s definition of Success™ may not be who you’re wired to be. I realized my junior year in college that a nine-to-five cubicle job sounded like the most boring thing I could conceive of, and changed my minor, then my major, as a result. I like school and teaching. I’m nearly thirty and am just starting a Ph.D program in the fall, and am generally “behind” (I won’t have a “real job” again until I’m 35 or something). And you know what?
Seriously. I like what I’m doing, I’m not drowning in debt, I’ll be able to feed myself. So I’m not Successful™, but I’m also not miserable, so there’s that.
Since when was life a race? Since when did you have to arrive at the station of Grown-Up at 22?
I wish somebody had given me permission when I was 18 to do what I liked instead of what was the Right Choice. So let me do that for you:
It’s okay to go to technical school and be a mechanic if machines make you happy.
It’s okay to be a teacher, if you want to.
It’s okay to take five or ten or twenty years to figure you what you want to be when you “grow up.”
It’s okay. To take. Ten years. To figure out life.
It’s okay to go to graduate school.
It’s okay to forge your own path, and do something unusual.
You don’t even have to be the next Steve Jobs (who didn’t actually have a college degree, by the way). You can live a quiet life and impact a hundred people, or fifty, with your art or music or writing or whatever.
It’s okay to pursue a field or job you love that won’t make you super rich. Or won’t even “get you a job.” You would be surprised at how many relevant jobs there are out there for English or music or art majors (or whatever. I feel like the arts and humanities have gotten short shrift, so I’m defending). They’re just not obvious, so the people who are not English or music or art people giving you career advice might not know what they’re talking about.
The truth is, the world and the job market are changing so quickly and so dramatically that nobody who makes pronouncements on jobs actually knows what they’re talking about, and if they’re right today, by the time you graduate in five or six years (because I’m assuming you’re a junior or senior in high school), it will have changed.
Let me say THAT again: People who are saying “major in x, y, z because that’s where the jobs are” will be wrong in five years. The market really changes that fast.
College is not the end.
Study what you like.
STUDY WHAT YOU LIKE.
Your passion will make a place for you better than your “necessary” major will.
Some people go to college, get a degree, and find in five or ten years that aside from finding the possession of a BA necessary for job prospects, the actual college experience didn’t have a huge impact on them. For others, it’s the fulcrum of their lives. People change majors, transfer schools, learn and grow, in those four years of college. They make important connections, and form lasting friendships, and find future spouses (sometimes).
So, yes, college is important. But what is more important is doing it your way, whatever that looks like. Make wise choices (especially financially), listen to your teachers and parents and well-meaning relatives, but feel free to also ignore their advice if it seems like they don’t know you at all. If you really want to study English, then just do it. Don’t get a business degree because it will “get you a job.” Don’t make choices like that. Don’t do it.
What are you good at? What do you love to do? What kinds of questions matter to you? What problems do you see in the world that you want to solve? Answer those questions. Those questions plus some solid effort will get you a job and “success” more than the Right Major or the Right College will. I promise.
College is NOT the end. Not even close. It’s more like a station-stop, a layover, in the journey of life. Not the end.