Recently, I attended a college fair as a volunteer recruiter for my alma mater. Armed with the university’s facts and figures, I entered the convention center and waded through hundreds of tables of brightly colored college promotional materials and enthusiastic admissions counselors, and set up my booth to share with high school students all the reasons they should apply to the school that I attended and loved.
We welcomed the students as they filed off the buses and began to shop schools, up and down the aisles of tables. Many were coached to ask intelligent sounding, thought-provoking questions about the school’s mission and how it helped students succeed in the real world. They spouted off statistics and it almost felt like I was the one being recruited. It was clear they had done their homework.
But what surprised me was the large number of students who seemed out-of-place. For every national merit scholar who did not leave my table without bragging about their impressive test scores and class rank, there was another who I thought might have gotten lost and accidentally ended up at a college fair. Children who were barely passing Algebra were just as determined as the valedictorians to learn more about college life.
When students approached my university’s table, I asked them what type of college experience they were looking for. The vast majority of the seemingly lost-at-a-college-fair students replied with answers like: “I don’t really care where I go. I just have to go somewhere so I can make money.” They cited school counselors who pushed everyone in the graduating class to attend college, and parroted the sentiment that without a bachelor’s degree they would never go anywhere in life.
Today, our children are taught that college is the only path to success. Regardless of academic aptitude and true college readiness, too many are pushed toward four-year institutions and told that a college degree is the only way to ensure a spot in the middle class. Trade schools and community colleges are looked down upon as inferior education options that lead to only minimum-wage, dead-end jobs. I heard this message again and again at my booth at the college fair, but it could not be more wrong.
College enrollment has risen from 26 to 41 percent over the last three decades, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in large part because there are more options today. For-profit universities with open enrollment policies have opened the door for students who would not normally be on a college track. It sounds great, in theory, that college is now accessible to so many more students than in years past, but too many of these children are not academically ready for a college classroom. These students have higher dropout rates and are often left with debt instead of a degree.
Many of the students I met viewed a four-year degree as a necessity and a commodity. In their minds, if they just go to any college, they will get a good job and earn enough money to justify the time and tuition they invested. Unfortunately this only happens about half the time. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York cited the percentage of recent college graduates who are employed in jobs that do not require a college degree at a staggering 46 percent.
We need to teach our children that other options exist. Today’s high school seniors are inundated with the notion that if they don’t go to college, they will be failures. Parents and educators need to change that message and not buy into the one-size-fits-all education plan. Trade schools and community colleges offer viable paths to stable, high-paying jobs. Yes, college graduates usually earn more money than those without a degree, but that can only happen if the students actually graduate. If they barely graduate from high school, how can they succeed in college?
A parent’s biggest job is to launch their children. We work for years to guide them and teach them to become independent adults, who one day leave home and hopefully turn out ok. We encourage them, tell them to work hard and to never quit trying. We are their cheerleaders and champions. But our children also need us to be a voice of reason and to realize when they are in over their heads.
I left the convention center worried that many of the students who showed me their failing high school grades were being led down the wrong path. Each child has strengths and more potential than we sometimes realize. Finding those strengths and matching them with the right education is the best way to help them become fulfilled, employed adults. College is not always the answer, and when it’s not, our children deserve a reality check so they can find another path.
Photo credit: Cburypix