Double Take: Is a College Degree an ATM or an Educational Journey?

Double Take: Is a College Degree an ATM or an Educational Journey?

Katie: Every year I was in junior high, the guidance counselors showed a PowerPoint on making post-high school plans. First we’d calculate our GPAs, determine the number of credits we needed to graduate, and then consider a bar graph comparing the average salaries between high school and college graduates. The point of the presentation? You have to go to college to be successful.

For most students, some form of post-secondary education—whether a traditional 4-year college, juco, or vocational technical school—is the best post-high school destination. Our minds are far from finished when we toss up our caps at graduation and the time spent between high school and the workforce is integral in both our socialization and acquirement of new skills.

Unfortunately, college is being sold to kids as something like a printing press of cash, with the value of a degree measured in dollars, not in the intellectual lessons and life experiences learned. In kindergarten, we’re told we can be anything we want to be. In high school, we’re told we can be anything we want to be—if we can make money at it. It is wise to guide young adults toward self-sufficiency. But with the blank canvases of our lives yawning before us, that “if” clause generates a mountain of anxiety climbing into a cloud of question marks. Who and what can I become? Will I succeed in life? What happens if I fail?

I don’t know the answers to those questions. Few teenagers do. But I do know that if we all go to college expecting that our diplomas will easily shed a pile of Benjamin Franklins, we’re not going to learn or earn much.

Jobs are important—careers are even better. But as we transition out of high school, students should make their educational plans based on individual goals, not on bar graphs and statistics. Each student’s college experience will be unique and personal, because there’s more to an education than the salary that comes after it.

Wes: Katie’s column made me want to stand up and shout, “Amen;” to join hand-in-hand with teens and parents, take a deep breath and for a moment bask in the peace and harmony of a better tomorrow for our teens. She’s right. No matter what kind of higher education you pursue, it should be about—well—higher education. If you learn to weld you should do so because you love the art, science and sheer beauty of welding. But it might also be worth knowing that welding is a high demand profession right now. Why spend all that time learning a trade, only to find yourself doing something else—something you hate—all because nobody needs what you learned?

America sends more kids to college than any other nation. Makes you want to salute the flag, doesn’t it? The problem is that we also have the highest college dropout rate in the world because too many of those kids, including quite a few who did well in high school, have no idea why they’re in college. They just wake up one day in Beauregard Lecture Hall with 954 other kids learning Chemistry and they say something like, “Oh shoot! How did I get here?” Then they become statistics. And by the way, student loans are difficult to pay back if you drop out, and they’re exempt from bankruptcy.

So, considering post-secondary education as little more than an ATM absolutely detracts from the greater and permanent good it can do for each young person it touches. But likewise, treating it only as a path to self-actualization (or worse, a path to the ultimate-party) misses the point every bit as much. Instead, late teens must strike a balance between what fulfills them intellectually, spiritually and emotionally, and what will yield a real paycheck.

And last but not least, they must always use their educational opportunities to learn how to learn. Our world has changed to an astonishing degree in the eight years since Double Take began. You can bet it will change ten fold more over the working life of our current teens. So, I don’t know where they’ll be in ten, twenty or thirty years. I don’t know what they’ll be doing to earn a living then or how they’ll prepare themselves to do so. I don’t know what sort of economy they’ll find or which new challenges they’ll face when they get there. But I do know that’s where they’ll be and they’ll have to be ready. And apart from good luck, education is the only way to make that future pay. So, whatever you do, make that education count.

Wes Crenshaw, PhD owns Family Psychological Services, LLC. He is board certified in family and couples psychology (ABPP) and author of the books Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens and Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens. Learn about his writing and practice at Katie Guyot is a senior at Free State High School and is the ninth in a series of teen co-authors featured in Double Take, an advice column for parents and teens published weekly since 2004 in The Lawrence Journal World. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to Opinions and advice presented herein are not a substitute for psychological services.


Dr Wes

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