If you sit down with anyone who graduated after 1995 (give or take a few years), you are likely to hear the same complaint, "we were given the worst possible life advice when we were in High School." As a 1997 graduate, I wholly and completely concur.
I vividly remember sitting in the gymnasium at my High School and listening to a guest speaker say, "The most important thing is that you go to college. It doesn't matter what you major in, just that you go. Getting your degree is the most important thing."
I disagreed with him then, I did not follow his advice, and I find myself in a very different place from many of my friends who did.
Now, for those of you thinking this is going to be an anti-college piece, you are wrong, so sit back down. This article is not against college, or a college education (with all of its benefits and pitfalls), but rather is a direct barrage against the "go to college just to get a degree" mindset that has crippled my generation and some of the subsequent ones.
First, let me tell you my situation. I served in the US Army, without having a degree, and obtained both my Associates Degree and Bachelors Degree after that while using my GI Bill benefits. I graduated with zero school debt, and I focused my major specifically on the career field into which I wanted to go. I knew where the jobs were, I knew how to get them and how hard it might be. I was prepared, and I benefited from it.
Unfortunately, MANY in my generation were not so lucky.
You see they heeded the advice of those who were guiding and counseling them. They went to college, they majored in whatever they wanted (because ALL that mattered was getting a degree), racked up TONS of student debt that they are still repaying, and then attempted to enter the work force. Well, it would probably be easier to name my friends who are working in their degree field than it would be to name those who are not.
Yes, my generation likely leads the nation in useless degrees, and if we do not, then it is not far behind us because my generation is now sending kids to college and we have some very different advice for them.
Everyone hears about it now days. A college graduate stuck in a dead end retail job attempting to pay off thousands upon thousands of dollars of student debt while not being able to use their degree in cultural studies, or even in history because there are a flood of history majors out there all trying to teach history. There are only so many history teacher jobs in the country.
Oh, and that is before I get into the cultural studies, gender studies, sociology, and other degrees that became very popular with my generation. At a reunion of my peers, you cannot bump into five people before you find at least one with one of those degrees. What do they all have in common now? Almost none of them are working in their field.
Here is the real kicker though, my generation was the first to get that advice, we got the best of the deal. The Millennials? They got shafted by it even worse than we did, and that is really saying something. What few jobs were available were already taken by my generation, so they had to pick through the leftovers of a meal that was not even enough for us.
I spoke with people who graduated around 1990, do you know what advice they got? Do you know what advice sticks out in their minds? "Join the military and get a skill without having to pay for school."
How about just one actual generation before me? What did they say they remembered? "We had shop class in High School so people who did not want to go to college could get some practical hands on experience and prepare for a job after graduation."
Oh yes, let us not forget the advice that my grandfather was given when he was in High School:
"Find a job that you can make a career, work your way up the ladder, work hard and you'll be successful."
Where were those nuggets of great advice when I was in school?
They were purposely dumped in favor of the Everyone Must Go To College mantra.
Well, in hindsight, how did that work out?
Now you need a Masters Degree to get jobs that you used to get with a High School diploma. A testament to the deluding of our secondary educational system as well as the sheer glut of Bachelors Degrees out there.
Now you do not only have to have a degree in the right field, but they are actually checking and comparing GPA's from applicants since everyone has a degree.
That's right, a degree no longer is enough, now you have to be better than someone else who has a degree also.
So what is the point of all that student debt?
Right now you can get into a two-year program and graduate with a trade certificate and walk into a $25/hr job with no problem. Learn a rare trade, like say Jet Engine Mechanic? Up to $80k annually to start.
Oh yes, the average debt from those programs? $20k.
The average debt for a Bachelors Degree? $100k
See, we have inverted things so badly that we have literally flipped the equation. It is now more beneficial for you to not go to college, but to learn a trade, in both debt and income.
So much for the advice we were given, huh?
Now does that mean I am for Student Debt forgiveness? Nope, not at all. I could be convinced that a restructure is necessary, after all I do believe that these loans are borderline predatory, but a forgiveness? No, that is not right.
But I do want people to understand where this problem has come from. I'm thankful to people like Mike Rowe who have so eloquently pointed out the failure of this philosophy, or if you prefer this pedagogy, in both his books and his television series.
I have two sons, one is college bound, he is an academic by nature, even if I have to prod him a bit too much, but he is beyond intelligent and he wants to teach. For him, college is not only the right choice, it is the best choice.
My other son, however, is not an academic. He is brilliant in his own way, but not in a way that marries him to books. In my day he would have been told that college was the ONLY OPTION if he wanted a successful future and good life. We however have been counseling him differently.
We want him to go to a trade school. He enjoys mechanical things, and his ability to think abstractly is a huge benefit to him when dealing with problems that are not easily defined in a linear fashion. Say, thinking of all of the reasons why an engine might not be working as opposed to being locked in to what a manual said about it.
As I said, he is still brilliant, but chaining him to college would only lead to failure, and it would also likely crush his spirit. He would feel every bit of that failure, and we need to protect him from that. We know there is a better way and we will push him towards it.
Yet again, that is what was done to my generation, and the generation after me. It has taken almost three generations for us to understand what our my parents and grandparents knew instinctively, namely, that people are different and that there is no one size fits all solution for everyone.
Trades are vital to our nation, and we are critically short on them. Now in our society you either have college graduates struggling to find a job capable of paying for their bills or a non-college grad who is getting by on a minimum wage job because they do not have a marketable skill. We never taught them one in school, and no one told them about trade school and its benefits, so they just struggle.
In all earnestness, what we really need to do as a nation is to begin to teach vocational classes in school again. Even for those who are going to college. Learning how to change your oil is never a bad thing, and neither is learning how to be a woodworker. That should all be considered part of a liberal arts education, but it no longer is because it is not academic. How narrow minded and short sighted.
If we want to begin to close the "wage gap" in our society, it starts by being honest about who should go to college and who should be looking at getting a skill that will last them a lifetime and allow them to build a comfortable middle class life.
IT IS in fact societies fault. We have so pooh-poohed away the trades that many young people do not even think about them. Want a really interesting look at things? African Americans generally make up only 6.2% of tradesmen, Hispanics 30.7%, and Asians 2%. That means that 61.1% of all tradesmen in America are white.
When tradesman jobs pay $20-50, why are there not more minorities getting into them?
By the way, those Hispanic tradesmen? They are mostly in "non-skilled" Construction in non-border states.
The key to helping minority families to get ahead, and also to reduce this crippling student debt problem that we have is answered by the trades, not by the colleges.
Heck, right now in San Antonio there is an electrician apprenticeship program that runs five years. You get a steady 40 hour a week job, $18 an hour, and at the end of five years you get your Master Electrician certification and a massive jump in salary to $30-40 per hour. Imagine being 23, no debt, a $30-40/hr income, and a job that is yours for life because the need for your skills will never go away.
So why is San Antonio still hurting for electricians? Oh yeah, because we will tell any kid not going to college that they are throwing away their future.
College is a great choice, trades are a great choice, the military is a great choice.
Doing nothing because you feel that it is college or nothing and you do not believe that you will be successful in college is not a great choice.
Yet it is one that millions of American young people make each year.
Maybe its time to offer them some hope.
Or like my younger son, to think outside the box.
God bless him for that lesson he taught me.