It’s graduation season and all the high school seniors are leaving the nest and heading off into the big wide world. I hear people ask them where they’re going to college, as if it’s a given. All the ones I know do happen to be going to college, but I sort of wish at least one of them would answer back, “I’m not going to college. I’m going to spend a year at a research station in Antarctica” (or something equally unexpected).
I have 4 pieces of advice/ questions I’d like to pose to kids trying to figure out the next step after high school. They’re all things I wish someone would have told me.
1. A piece of paper does not make you educated.
Most people in our culture equate education with a formal degree. If you tell adults of a certain age that you’re not going to college, they’ll be horrified. In our culture, college is the ticket to the good life. They’ll think you’re either too stupid to get in or too stupid to take your future seriously.
Well, guess what? College doesn’t make you smart. Plenty of people go to college and binge drink their way through it, only barely graduating at the end. They don’t read, they don’t engage the material, they don’t ask tough questions or allow their proverbial horizons to be broadened. They’re there to party and get laid and hopefully meet the right people who will give them a job afterward. If you’re going to borrow a crap ton of money, you should at least pay attention. Speaking of money, that brings me to my next topic…
2. How much debt do you want to pay back?
I borrowed almost $60,000 to go to college and grad school. I’ve been paying it back for 15 years and I still owe $57,000. That’s because of interest. I’m just now getting to the principal. When I was 19 or 20 and signing my name on all those loan forms, I had no idea how long it would take to pay them all back, how much interest I would end up paying, and how much it would affect my life having to do so. I just assumed I would be a smashing success and make buckets full of money and it would be a breeze paying them back. Guess what? It wasn’t.
I have a Bachelor’s in philosophy and a Master of Theological Studies, both from expensive private universities. If I had gone to a state school, I would have far less debt. Think long and hard about where you go to college and how much it costs. If you can do your pre-requisites at a dinky community college, do it! If you’re having to take out loans to get pre-req’s, then you should be getting them at the cheapest price possible. No one cares where you took Humanities 101. Don’t pay out of state or private tuition for general ed classes.
Second, don’t go to college unless you know exactly why you’re there. Don’t flit around from major to major figuring out your career goals. That is an extremely expensive and impractical way of arriving at a career goal. If you don’t know what career you want, go travel around and work different jobs until you can at least rule some things out. Go work on a fishing boat in Alaska, bar-tend at a resort in Hawaii, live in a van and travel out west. Heck, be the admin at your dad’s company. Just do something where you experience the world, meet interesting people and get to know yourself well enough to make an informed decision about what you want to be when you grow up. Then when you enroll in college, you’re enrolling with a purpose. You’ll spend less money because you’ll know what your end goal is and you won’t waste time and money taking classes that don’t count toward your major. (Fun fact: I changed my major 7 times and still graduated early.)
You’re probably thinking, “Oh, but you should dabble in all the different classes and see what you enjoy!” Nope. I know Bill Gates did that and he became a billionaire, but you probably won’t become a billionaire no matter what your mommy told you and, if you don’t, you just wasted a lot of money. You may say, “But learning is never a waste!” No, but it’s a waste to pay for something you can get for zero dollars.
See, there’s this little thing called the internet where you can learn everything you ever wanted to know for FREE. If you think you’re interested in a topic, Google it and go from there. Find books to read. Email people and ask them to mentor you. Did you know you can take any college course at MIT for free? You don’t get any official credit, but the information is there for you to learn.
If you’ve wanted to be the same thing since you were in the 1st grade and you’ve never wavered in your career goals, by all means, enroll in college immediately. If you’re like the rest of us and you have a vague idea, spend some time researching, working, and getting your general ed out of the way before you commit to an expensive 4 year university. You shouldn’t be paying to go to college unless you know why you’re there.
3. Lots of jobs do not require college.
Here’s another fun fact – I don’t use either of my degrees and probably never will. I will spend my life paying for an education that never helped me earn one single dollar. There are plenty of people just like me. Don’t become one of them.
Don’t rack up a bunch of debt if you’re ultimately going to do a job that requires a very specific education. For example, maybe you want to make jewelry and sell it. You don’t need 4 years of college to do that. You need an apprenticeship with a metal worker or silversmith.
You can be a cop, fire fighter, plumber, welder, commercial fisherman, wilderness guide, or photographer without a university degree. Don’t fall for the lie that there’s no future outside of college, and don’t be afraid to think outside the box. College isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay.
4. Commit to educating yourself, whether you go to college or not.
I recently read a statistic that said most people don’t read at all after they’re not forced to do it in school. Don’t be like those people. I may be a little down on the traditional college route, because I believe it doesn’t make sense for some people, but that doesn’t mean I don’t value education. I am committed to becoming a truly educated person, and I want the same for my kids. For me that means I’m well versed in history, politics, economics, current events, literature and even art. I have a body of knowledge that provides a lens through which I view the world. My formal education certainly helped with that, but my education didn’t end the day I graduated. I read voraciously on a variety of topics. I watch the news. I listen to TED Talks. I am committed to learning as a lifestyle.
Maybe college isn’t for you, and I want you to know that’s okay. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for choosing a different path. But please, for the love of God, don’t be a dummy! Read the books everyone should read. Understand major historical periods, especially the history of your own country, wherever that may be. You should know who Mao Zedong is (and why he sucked). You should know who won World War II and how they won it. Pay attention to politics. Know your congressman and senators. Write to them even! Study art enough to recognize a Monet or a Picasso. Be an informed citizen of the world. You don’t need a college degree to check a book out of the library or do a Google search. We live in the Age of Information. Take advantage of it!