A little mental and emotional fitness for high school kids and their folks

collegeOMIGOD!!!! What if I don’t graduate high school in the top 3% of my class? What if I’m not
valedictorian? Or salutatorian? What if I screw up the preSAT, SAT… or the ACT or FRE, or TFU or
whatever alphabet soup test is the latest and greatest determinant of my worth as a human being and chance of a real future? What if I screw up my college essay? What if I don’t get into blah blah university?

I’m here to tell you you are just fine. And your future can be just fine even if you.. gasp… don’t go to college. I am a supporter of nontraditional education. I think it creates stronger and more empowered people.

The opportunities for knowledge are endless these days. There is just nothing you cannot learn on your own, except MAYBE certain things that you need to physically do, like surgery or welding.

Some years ago, I came across the phrase “gap year” and I was intrigued. A gap year is a year that high school students take just after high school to go do something before starting college. I thought it was brilliant. I still do. And many colleges still do.

The gap year has lost some of its luster over the years with the idea that parents could not simply afford to send their kid to Europe for a year. But I think many people have missed the point. While many kids from higher income families did take a gap year funded by their parents, many kids figured out how to do it on their own. They could take odd jobs or become au paire overseas. They could find long lost family in another country and make arrangements to visit long term, and do some work or chores to earn their way. They could join an international organization and go with a group to some far off place and do whatever it is that group does.

The point is that these opportunities are still out there and are endless. Rather than going right into college, take some time off. Get a feel for the real you. Get a feel for the world, because it isn’t what you see on television, no matter what the station.

I recently was referred to Mike Rowe and his projects concerning education. I was nodding so much I felt like a bobble head in a rear window of a car. He is absolutely right, not everybody should be going to college.

I went to college. I have several degrees. I loved college. I have an enormous student loan debt. And nothing I learned in college needed to be learned in college. Nothing.

I have had many many jobs over the years, and not one of them needed a college education, or at least the one I had. I took a job as a teacher in China, and they demanded I had a 4 year degree, which I did. But the job itself did not require it, just the hiring process.

I was recently having breakfast with my nephew, a very bright, witty and hard-working when he wants to kid. He is a college student. His major is some sort of engineering. I started thinking about just who needs college. As he described his classes and his goals, I thought college was a good fit for him.

I can see people in the medical field needing to go to college. I can see high levels of science needing college. But really… who else actually needs to go to college for their education? Attorneys? I don’t think so. Go back to apprenticeships and passing the bar after clerking for a while. Get some books and dive in.

Who else? Teachers? I think no. While it has always been a college degree, I think it would be better served as an apprenticeship also. Writing? Painting? Anything in an art field? I don’t think so. A better education would be had outside of college.

I can completely support the attendance of tech schools, as Mike Rowe suggests, but only as a way to hit the ground running afterward. If you want to be a mechanic or a welder, you would be greatly served in an apprenticeship. While the country needs skilled labor, I think the best skills are taught by other skilled labor, on the job. Our system has moved away from that, though. It is expected and now mandatory that you attend classes and get a piece of paper.

But really, even though the vast majority of these other fields, even professional, have always been based on college, I don’t think it it is necessary. On the job, learn as you go. Just about every single career I can think of, that does not have human life and death in its hands or a need for an incredibly heavy understanding of certain fields like engineering needs math, would be best served in an apprenticeship program.

“You gotta go to college” may be the way things are right now, but that will change.  It’s already starting to. We will see more and more apprenticeships open up, and that will be an amazing time. In order to apprentice under someone, they would need to be qualified with a certain number of years and success, and a would-be apprentice would convince them to take them on as one.

Now, I should point out that I am talking about a traditional apprenticeship where the apprentice gets paid for work he does and learns as he goes, NOT that he works for free or is paying for the opportunity. He is paid a starting salary. In some cases he might live under the same roof as his teacher, and work for even less pay. As he learns, his salary goes up. And eventually he is on his own and charging his own fees per job.

You know what, I think I see the bigger picture. College was meant to give the individual a head start in a field. You would be able to hit the ground running. You would already have a good understanding of the systems in place and how to work them. Everything else you learn as you go. College was kind of like paying for a jumpstart. So, the college education is giving us a few steps ahead. We then need to weigh the cost of that boost against just starting the job at a lower pay grade and working to get caught up with those who have a degree or other experience.

I remember seeing job announcements that would ask for a certain degree OR a certain number of years in a certain job. That makes total sense to me. That puts the college degree in the perspective it belongs. If a person has the idea they want to make cogs they have a choice of getting a job in a cog factory, maybe in the mail room or with the janitorial staff, and educating themselves about cogs in every spare minute they have; reading books, etc.

They could, at their first interview, mention their goals and ask for every opportunity to learn and advance. Theoretically, in order for college to be worth the investment of time and money, it should spit you out at point much further along the chain than had you just started at the beginning of the chain. If it simply spits you out at the same link you would have achieved without it, then you are actually behind because of the investment of money.

So, what a potential student would need to do is determine where in the chain they will be spit out at with a degree and what that income is. And then they would need to figure out where they could reasonably expect to be if they just started at entry level and worked hard. At 4 years you might have a debt of $50,000 (These numbers are just for example). That’s a payment of maybe $200 a month, give or take because there are so many programs to defer it forever and just keep adding the interest to the balance. So, you would need to know that the link you are starting at pays $200 more than the link you would be at if you just started at the beginning sans degree.

And how do you know that?

You ask. You talk to people who have started at that company 4 years earlier, without an education, and WITH a desire to advance and a work ethic and knowledge similar to yours and you see where they are. And then you find a college degreed employee with the job and education you are seeking, and see what he was able to do just out of school.

I am willing to bet that the majority of careers would be better started with an entry level position where we start our lives, get a place to live when we can, maybe a roommate, a used car, some thrift store furniture and no big debt. And we just go for it. What we will have learned in those 4 years, on our own, out in the real world… could be so much more valuable than if we had gone the college route.

My other advice is go do something else. Join the Peace Corps or any number of other organizations that will get you out of your home town, away from people you know, and doing something you have never done before and perhaps had never even contemplated. There are so many of these organizations, anybody can find a fit for themselves. You’ll be fed and housed. Really… what more do you have to have in the beginning?

Go do something. Throw yourself into it. Learn who you really are. Get a good feeling for what you want to do for your life, even if just for next few years, because really… who wants to do just one thing for the rest of their lives?