cTen years ago, one of my friends opened a hair salon, employing two other stylists. She sets her own schedule, usually only working three days a week and leaving time to chaperone her kids’ field trips and take care of household errands. Weekends and holidays are her own, too. She’s been doing hair for nearly 20 years and makes a good living—and she never stepped foot in a college classroom. Her education came from cosmetology school and experience.
The idea that kids must go to college in order to succeed in life, to “make something of themselves,” is a false and damaging narrative. It’s also extremely privileged. Going to college—and graduating with a four-year degree–takes loads of support and access to resources.
We ask kids from a young age, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The younger the child, the more amusing and creative their responses are. They want to be nacho-testers or professional video gamers. Eventually they decide that it would be fun to be a doctor, a teacher, or an astronaut. It’s all fun and games until kids are seniors in high school, sometimes even juniors, and we demand of them that they proclaim the rest of their lives—right now.
The most accepted “path to success” seems to be to get a great score on the ACT and SAT, apply to colleges, choose a college, and then go to school for four to eight years, graduating with an impressive degree, or two or three. Then they should go on to a rewarding career—living happily ever after.
The reality is that many students don’t fit or experience this fairy tale—and that should be okay. Oftentimes, however, it’s not okay—because the child’s parents take issue with any alternative plan.
I understand a parent’s drive to see their child graduate college. On one side of my family, of all ten cousins, I was the first and only one of two to graduate college. The other one was my younger sister. It took years of sacrifice, hard work, and yes, some luck. I worked three jobs to pay my college tuition and lived at home, commuting to and from school five days a week.
My path was college—but it’s when I became a college teacher that I realized the significant flaws in the expectation that the best path to success is a degree. During my nine years teaching students—mostly freshman—I would watch some struggle to keep up with coursework. During our first round of conferences, I would discover why.
The student would walk into my office, plop down in the chair next to me, sigh, and avoid eye contact, sliding their essay draft in front of me. Since I had 70 students a semester, I didn’t have time to play around. I would gently move their essay aside and ask, “So, what’s up?” Before I knew it, they’d pour out the same story I’d heard over and over again.
They never even wanted to go to college, but their parents insisted. The student could barely keep their head above water, trying to simply pass all four or five of their classes while holding down a part-time job and trying to maintain somewhat of a social life.
I would then ask my student a question that their parents did not—what did they want? You’d think they’d shrug and say they don’t know, but that typically wasn’t the case. Often, they would tell me they desired to go to cosmetology school or study heating and air conditioning. Some wanted to become a truck driver, a mechanic, or a fitness instructor. When I asked the student why they weren’t pursuing what they truly wanted, the answer was almost always the same. They’d look up at me, defeat in their eyes, and say, “My parents.”
I fully understood. Whomever holds the money holds the power. One student confessed that his father sat him down and said, “You will go to college.” That was the entire conversation. The young adult had no say-so in the matter.
Even when the student is relying on scholarships and loans, their parents often expect them to plow through college and walk away with a degree. Many believe that a degree is a guarantee—a ticket to a great job and a “promising future.”
This what-I-say-goes attitude was — and is — hurting young adults. I often wondered how many of them were truly gifted in a particular area, but were wasting time and money in college classrooms. Some of them clearly needed to be in hands-on learning environments, unconfined by walls and desks.
I don’t know what happened once these students left my classroom. I would see a few of them in the hallway and wonder if they were okay. Did they have the courage to speak frankly to their families about what they wanted? Would their families support their decision?
Certainly, parents are trying to be practical. We all want our kids to grow up and find a career that makes them financially independent (i.e., we don’t want them living in our basements for the rest of their lives). However, there isn’t a one-way ticket to this success. I’d much rather my child know that they are supported for who they are and who they want to become, then to be miserable in a “path to success” that society has deemed most worthy of accolades.
I wish I could have sat down with the struggling students’ parents and told them the truth. Long-term schooling isn’t for everyone. Classrooms suffocate some students. Book learning isn’t always intriguing or invigorating. Many students don’t fit inside the proverbial learning boxes—and that’s okay. A four-year school isn’t for everyone.
There are so many possibilities, and I wish more parents would come alongside their teens and explore those together. What are the options? Let’s look at trade schools, training programs, community colleges, and jobs that offer great pay, right away, without a higher degree.
I’m not encouraging parents to lower their expectations. I’m asking them to consider changing their expectations—and then watch their young adult soar.
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