March 1, 2018

To College or Not?

I’m not inherently opposed to college. My husband and I both have bachelor’s degrees, and I even returned – twice – for additional coursework in order to obtain two different teacher certifications. In fact, I was the first person in my extended family to ever pursue post-secondary education.

I am, however, very opposed to propagation of the myth that a four-year degree is necessary for everyone and that everyone must, therefore, pursue that goal. In actuality, I realized quite quickly after getting my first classroom teaching job that I didn’t really need the certification the state required of me; instead, I saw that I had a natural predisposition to be a very good teacher and that the teacher training coursework had merely been a series of wasteful (and expensive) hoops through which I’d been forced to jump. Likewise, my husband now works at a position for which he “should” have a particular master’s degree. He doesn’t have even one related credit, but he got the job because he proved himself capable and works for a company whose management thinks outside the box. Similarly, a friend was headhunted away from a good job for which he’d earned an associate’s degree into a position that technically requires a master’s simply because he is so good at what he does that he made a name for himself and now supports his wife and four children on his income alone. And did you know that Abraham Lincoln spent only about six months of his entire childhood inside a classroom, yet was incredibly well-read and studied of his own accord to pass the bar and become a lawyer?

Shelves and shelves – whole libraries – could be filled with similar stories, both past and present, about people both famous and “ordinary.” On the other hand, we could each list many college grads now working at Starbucks and the like, toiling to pay off tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt on a barista’s wages. One young millennial I know will owe $100,000 – after having been awarded $100,000 in scholarship money and before having to shell out an additional $50,000 for a master’s degree.

The reality is that good jobs and fulfilling careers in many different fields do not actually require four-year degrees. And we do our kids a grave disservice if we limit them by insisting they all follow a “college-prep” path. As home educators, we spend our kids’ childhoods living outside the “school norm.” Why, then, do we so often fall into the trap of the school-style, college-only myth when they reach adolescence? Shouldn’t we, instead, remember that we’ve chosen a different lifestyle for a reason and, thus, customize a high school program and post-secondary plan for each child, depending on his or her actual gifts, talents, interests, and abilities? Shouldn’t we invest time and energy into discovering whether or not viable alternative paths do exist for each child instead of taking what amounts to the lazy way out (i.e., insisting that everyone “has to” go to college)?

Of course, some kids are actually called into fields which currently require college degrees, for better or worse (i.e., though I didn’t need a degree or certification to be a successful classroom teacher, the governing authorities mandated that I have both). And if we see that one of our kids has such a passion, we shouldn’t deny her the pursuit of that dream; we should take responsibility for insuring that her high school work meets college admissions requirements.

However, even there we should – as those who go against the grain by definition – be willing to consider alternatives. For example, it’s now possible to earn an associate’s degree via a community or technical college that will readily transfer to a four-year university without an ounce of stigma. Since community colleges cost much less than the four-year variety, spending two years there reaps huge financial benefits. And, because admissions requirements to such colleges are less rigid, teens who plan to enroll in them can enjoy much more freedom in terms of their high school coursework. Alternately, one can pursue most or even all of a four-year degree online through a growing number of completely legitimate online colleges. Often these programs are accelerated and specialized, and they are always less expensive than their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

My husband and I were fully prepared to send our daughters to four-year colleges. As it turns out, neither is called in that direction, and so we’re pursuing customized, non-college-prep high school programs for each. We have no qualms about the “what ifs” – i.e., what if one or both later changes her mind and wants to go to college but hasn’t met the admissions requirements. It is entirely possible that will happen for one or both of them, whether now or later in life; after all, who of us is doing now what we thought we’d be doing as adults when we were 15? But that’s normal, as the average adult actually changes careers five to seven times in a lifetime. And in that case, we’ll simply utilize a community college – whose admissions requirements my kids have already met midway through high school – as a useful stepping stone.

We are privileged at this time in history to live in an era of choice. Just as we are no longer forced to send our children to factory-style, institutional schools for their childhood and adolescence, we have alternatives in regards to their post-secondary opportunities as well. So, rather than send every child down the same, cliché, college-only path, we must – if we’re being truly responsible in regards to each individual child we’re raising – fully consider all the options before us and make wise, customized decisions for each one.

To college or not, that is the question. The answer is a unique as each of our children’s fingerprints.


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