I had an interesting discussion with a new acquaintance from England the other day, and the conversation turned to children. She had two - a boy age 19, and a girl, age 17. "Is your son away at school?" I asked, as most 19-year old's are these days.
"No," she replied in her lovely British accent. "He's a musician and composer, and he's trying to make a go of it. He had no interest in college - he just wanted to get out and do what he loved doing. But he'll probably have to go back to England because he's much more likely to have success there than he would do over here."
I relayed my own son's similar feelings about college, and how we had felt lucky to find a technical college dedicated to the field of study he was most interested in.
"It's all so different over here," she continued. "In England, it's not expected that everyone will go off to University. It's rather normal to get a proper job after you finish high school. Here, the kids seem pressured to go to college and all their friends are going so they want to go as well, even if they really don't know what they want to study."
I've had similar feelings about the push toward higher education ever since my son decided not to pursue the ubiquitous four-year degree. Those feelings have intensified in the past 10 years as I've seen several young people feel pressured to attend college, and then feel like a failure when they (a) find out they can't make the grade or the payments; or (b) decide they'd rather pursue some other lifestyle path.
I was reminded of this tonight during rehearsal for the community theater group I'm working with. In the cast of the show we're putting up, there are five young people between the ages of 22 and 30. Each of them has a four year degree from a top state university. Each of them was a better than average student in high school and in college.
None of them has a job.
Well, they have jobs, but they're working in restaurants or retail clothing stores or driving trucks. A few of them are lucky enough to have part-time jobs in their fields (teaching, business, city planning) but nothing that will come close to paying the rent. They also have a student loan or some other college loans which they can't repay. So before they're even established in life, they're in big-time debt.
It made me feel even luckier that my son has been self-supporting since the age of 20, and was able to buy his first home at the age of 22. He's been employed full time in his field since he finished his course of study, a program that was dedicated solely to his area of interest and focused entirely on that discipline. He was one of the lucky ones. He knew what he wanted to do, and he went after it. However, he had no assistance from anyone at his high school. The attitude of the counselors was "if you're not interested in four year college, we're not interested in helping you."
I think we're failing a lot of young people with that attitude. Not everyone needs to or is able pursue higher education in the form of a four year university. Students of all abilities should be encouraged to look for viable alternatives to the traditional university experience and there should be more focused educational avenues available for people who want to prepare for a specific career. Counselors should help young people discover their strengths and interests and guide them toward the proper educational experience, whether that's a four year college, community college, technical school, or an apprenticeship.
Unfortunately many opportunities for trades and crafts persons have been "outsourced," which has not only diminished the possibility for finding employment in those fields, but also devalued the work monetarily and in terms of status. The professional careers are supposedly "where the money's at" these days, but there seem to be too many applicants for too few positions. It's part and parcel of the polarization of our society - the rich and the poor, the educated and the ignorant, the haves and have-nots. The middle ground seems to be disappearing every day, and we all seem to be scrambling toward the high or low ends of society's see-saw.
In the end, how valuable is a higher education if you can neither pay for it nor use it?