As an education fanboy, I often have opportunities to advise young people about their education options. As an educator at heart, I take these opportunities seriously, and I have given the question much thought.
I know enough about formal education that I do not recommend college as the magic lamp making one’s wishes come true. It isn’t. In many cases, a person is just as well-off if he or she spent as much time, work and money on non-college kinds of self-improvement.
If a person took the 4.3 years of lost earning and $152,000 that a college degree typically requires, he or she could buy a house and live on modest income for a season while learning skills or a trade that could provide a livelihood. Likewise, a similar investment of time and resources could launch a business enterprise which could also offer the rewards of autonomy and profits.
Do college graduates typically earn $22,000 more than high school graduates? Yep. Are college graduates often working in enterprises which are more likely to be mentally stimulating, healthier and indoors? Yep.
However, it is also true that more than half of college graduates have debts averaging $28,400, have lost four or five years training their mind in unused ways and are employed in positions not requiring a degree. This result is more likely for those who have not made thoughtful decisions about what kind of degree makes sense.
One secret of the higher education industry is that not all degrees are created equal. One in five of those with degrees in the areas of “arts and letters” or social science are working in commerce, hospitality or service industries five years after graduation. These are the statistics for those who graduate; the one in three who drop out have worse results.
Graduates with health-related or degrees targeted on a specific pursuit are much more likely to be working in their field of study. Unfortunately, more than half of college graduates select arts, letters or social sciences as their course of study.
Young people who are considering such a costly degree should do what they do when selecting shoes — try it on first. Pretend you already have the degree you think you want, and go job hunting with it. How many jobs? Where are they? What pay? What other requirements accompany that degree?
The real question for young people considering the path forward is, “How do you see yourself bringing value into the world?” What are you willing and able to do that others value? In a free market economy, this is the safest path to a productive livelihood.
I ask young people to consider which of four broad categories of value match their abilities and interests: words, numbers, art or skills? As a young person, the specific vocation can be unclear, but an honest appraisal of the general direction is critical for life planning.
In most cases, post-high school training or education will be required for a livelihood. High school attempts to bring graduates up to a lowest common expectation. But to get the most out of school students need to take the reins of their own education and start learning on purpose by tenth grade.
For example, about half of high school graduates who enroll in community college have to retake high school content while paying tuition. If a young person knows that their path includes college, taking the right courses and pre-college tests can make that path smoother. Likewise, those who know that physical skills are central to their livelihood should take all high school fitness and health opportunities which are available — not because someone requires it, but because it is part of your life plan.
The most important element of preparing for life is doing it on purpose. Accidentally stumbling into your future is risky and potentially soul-crushing. Choosing, planning and doing are the essence of maturity, and these have nothing to do with age.
Jami Lund lives in the Lewis County where he keeps bees, talks on the radio and generally works to move the world from what it is to what it should be. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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