At 71, I am still paying off my student loans. (Thankfully, I’m almost finished.)
My experience making payments on these loans — and sending four kids to college — has led me to one inevitable conclusion: Every kid who graduates from high school should not go to college. At least, not right away.
Parents need to stop thinking that their kids should always go to college, no matter the circumstances. There are a number of good jobs that don’t require a four-year degree, and often pay more than what a college-educated person earns. These are respectable jobs — firefighter, web developer, dental hygienist — that any parent should be proud of their kids for taking.
So let’s stop with the default expectation that every kid should go to college. Most 18-year-olds really don’t know what they want to do with their lives. While they figure it out, let’s not push them into a four-year degree — and the associated lifelong debt — that they may never need.
I could have really used this advice when I graduated from Northeast High School in 1968.
I wasn’t ready for college at 18. I was accepted into a hospital-based nursing school program (to be a registered nurse, or RN) and left after 10 months because it was too restrictive. I became a licensed practical nurse (LPN) (who often work under RNs) and worked at that for 10 years before going back to community college and graduating with an RN degree, which gave me more responsibilities and better pay. It wasn’t until my late 40s that I started a bachelor’s degree in health-care administration, followed by an MBA focused on health-care management, getting both degrees online. At 52, I had five kids and roughly $80,000 in student debt.
Although I’m still paying off my education, I’m glad I made the choices I did. I wasn’t mature enough right out of high school to have the discipline needed to complete the work. If I had forced myself to go to college before I was ready, I would most likely have dropped out and been left with debt and no degree to help me pay it off. Once I matured, I got the degrees I needed to have a wonderful career. So for me, all that debt was worth it. (And I only have a few thousand dollars left.)
But there’s also no shame in not going to college, ever. That was a mindset that started years ago, when the children of immigrants and blue-collar parents felt that their children should go to college to show that their children would have better lives than they did.
“If I had forced myself to go to college before I was ready, I would most likely have dropped out and been left with debt and no degree to help me pay it off.”
Times have changed.
High school counselors should be talking honestly with students and their parents about their goals. If it’s unclear, counselors should recommend that the student work for at least a year or two to get a better idea of what they may be interested in pursuing.
Of my five children, four went to college. All five have careers, but only one of them who started college right from high school finished in four years. They needed time to figure it out, and if we had forced them to finish in four years, they likely would have ended up with a college degree that didn’t suit their interests. Think of all the money they would have wasted.
I see students go off to college and take courses in the liberal arts, business, and the sciences. Often, they think that they’ll teach or be an engineer or work in business, only to change direction when it’s time to pick a major. And that’s if they even get that far. Some drop out, some graduate with a degree they can’t use. More often than not, these students will accumulate thousands of dollars in debt and not much to show for it.
Did they need to go to college for four years to work in a restaurant as a server, bartender, or in another retail environment, because their degree didn’t really prepare them for anything? And if they do manage to get a job “in their field,” are they making a sufficient salary to be able to live on their own and have enough to pay back these loans?
There are students who would probably fare much better considering a trade that doesn’t require a college degree, where jobs may be more plentiful, and they can be productive and not accumulate thousands of dollars of student debt.
At 18, our kids don’t always know what they want to do with their lives. Let’s give them time to figure it out.
Linda Tait lives in Lansdale and recently retired from working for managed care organizations.