Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Preparing Our Children for Life: Part One

Why College May Not Be the Right Choice

This is a three-part series running over the next three weeks that will probably make my parents shake their heads--at least at first. Hopefully by the time I'm done they'll renew their faith in me. For the most part.

When I was in elementary school, thinking about my future, it was a given that I would go to college. Both of my parents had college degrees and we six kids were taught early on that college was not only the route to success but a necessary part of becoming an adult.

Before my parents the family tree was full of blue-collar, made-it-through-the Depression, work-by-the-sweat-of-your-brow folks who had little formal education but recognized the value of a well-trained mind and through their efforts the tree has grown to support engineers, dentists, doctors, lawyers, nutritionists, businessmen, statisticians, and educators. Andrew's family is no different with computer programmers, social workers, psychologists, and mathematicians in abundance.

Perhaps it's the recession, perhaps it's the whining of the media, perhaps it's all just sound and fury but I'm hearing more and more about how a college degree just isn't worth what it used to be. Of course we know what it's worth--on average, $80,000 for a private school, $20,000 for public (and that's conservative)--but we've all heard that those with college degrees have a greater earning potential.

However, more and more graduates are finding themselves without the jobs that a degree used to promise. It's the old law of supply and demand hitting us hard. A century ago a college degree was rare and precious and therefore worth more in salary. Nowadays, bachelor's degrees are a dime a dozen and employers set it as the bare minimum for many entry level jobs, often even looking for master's degrees in their future employees, and we're hearing more and more about how a college degree doesn't present the investment that it once did.

Our own family's experience has born this out--my parents were the first in their families to attend college but all 6 of their children received degrees, along with 5 spouses who also earned degrees. Among those 11 people there are a total of 17 degrees, yet of the 7 adults actively employed, 4 have dealt with unemployment and have had trouble finding jobs in the past year.

Again, you can blame it on the recession but I think what we've got here is a lot bigger than a mere economic trend. What many people are predicting--and I think there may be some validity--is that we have saturated the market with university degrees and the market is now swinging back the other way to the point that if you want your children to be assured of finding a job, trade school and skilled labor is the way to go.

Welders, masons, heavy equipment operators, electricians, plumbers, people who spend their days working with their hands are in increasing demand as more and more of the middle class believe that the nobler jobs are those that require thinking rather than lifting. This prejudice against the blue-collar jobs has flooded the market with expensive degrees and left a demand for labor that has driven the prices up and up.

I'm not sure I buy into the idea completely and there is more to college than just a slip of paper with some initials on it but it does make a certain amount of sense. Then, if you think about it in terms of hard dollars it starts to make even more sense. If the average middle class kid goes to college, statistics say he'll (or, more accurately, she--more women are entering college now than men, but that's another post) spend $20,000 getting his four years in. But then the average isn't four years nowadays, but six. So add another $10,000 for two more wasted years in tuition for a total of $30,000 for an ultra-cheap, state school. Not including living expenses, books, fees or frat parties. Now calculate the lost income that those five extra years of university training have cost while her blue-collar counterpart spent significantly less money and time getting a tech-school degree to become a welder.

What are we up to now? Well, welders can make $80,000 a year in some parts of the country in good conditions, so five years would equal $400,000 of earnings while the other kid shuffled around campus trying to decide whether to major in humanities or women's studies. One student is $30,000 in the hole, the other is nearly $400,000 ahead and you tell me who the smarter kid is.

Now don't get me wrong, I happen to think that there are three critical things one gets from college--how to earn money (a degree), how to think (an education) and how to be an adult (experience) and I want my children to attend in no uncertain terms. However, I am saying that perhaps we ought to rethink how we approach the college and educational experience. Gone are the days where you can pack your kid off to college, wipe your hands on your apron and say, "Whew! I'm done!" because a college degree just ain't what it used to be and there is a whole lot more out there to do if we really want to prepare our kids for the real world.

To be continued next week.


emzeegee & the hungry three said...

Oh thank goodness someone has actually said this out loud! I was one of those people who was carried along by the tide of expectation. Finding a job was difficult if not impossible, and I ended up re-training in a trade (in my case, becoming a chef.) I now have a skill which is always in demand, in ANY country, in ANY economy and I'm never worried about being made redundant, or being let go in a raft of budget-induced lay-offs, or being without a job.

My husband (university educated x 2) recently lost his job. It was ME who was able to find a second job (in less than a week) and my skills which are keeping us currently afloat financially while he struggles to find work again.

I am always telling my kids about the value of learning a skill - the world will always need chefs, plumbers, welders, carpenters... while the world DOESN'T always need an MBA-graduate manager. Simple, really.

So - BRAVO Michelle - I'm right there with you on this issue. College is no longer worth what it one was - both to the graduates themselves and to society at large. I'm not saying it should be done away with, just that there can be equal or more value in trade-based knowledge as well.


Anonymous said...

I too have been thinking that skilled laborers would do well in this economy -- people are having things fixed instead of buying new items.

Both of my young sons are good with their hands, and I thought I would have them learn a valuable skill and later pay with college with the money earned. Having a manual labor skill and a college degree would give them a wide variety of skills with which to provide for their families.

I hope i can come up with manual skills my little girls can learn to help them provide for themselves when they are older

Anonymous said...

My neighbor is good at painting and sewing. She sews capes and Star Wars costumes for Halloween, and sold 125 costumes last year.

She custom-makes clothing for people who ask her.

Mom24 said...

My daughter just started a reasonably-priced public school. Her tuition if $10,000 a year, room and board is $12,000. I wish $20,000 would cover 4 years. If she doesn't change her major, she has an excellent chance of getting through in 4 years, but that money is a real struggle for us and she will be heavily in debt upon graduation, even with a full-tuition scholarship. She wants to be a high school english teacher, here in our community. I worry very much about her chances of finding a job.

Meanwhile, my son has his masters, plus all coursework completed for a PhD, his wife has her bachelor's and only she can find a job--part-time at Starbucks.

Things are very frustrating right now.

Linds said...

So help me, I have been saying this for the past 5 years. I saw it coming. And yes, I have a degree, but you know what? I think if I could have, I would rather have been a carpenter.

Patricia L said...

Learning a trade (whether through trade school or with a college education) is important. As time goes by, I fully understand my mother-in-law's *requirement* that her 5 sons get a piece of paper saying the were good at something. 3 went to college and 2 went through trade school and became union carpenters. The recession hit the carpenters harder-- they've both had lengthy lay offs when their company lost out on bids. I'm not sure anything can make you recession-proof.

Stephanie said...

We again are very much on the same page Michelle. This has been a topic of conversation in our home and amongst friends.

I'll take it a step further though. I am neutral about their attending college. Yes, education. Yes, skills, Yes, experience, but in many situations I don't think that needs to come with the price tag of a college degree.

If they have a specific career in mind that they are suited to that requires college, then by all means I will encourage them to pursue a college education.

But if going to college is just the next step because they are done with high school. I will encourage them to gain those life skills elsewhere, especially if going to college would require them to accumulate a huge debt load. Perhaps they will choose to go to college later. Perhaps they will find it isn't necessary.

I wish someone had told me in high school that it was ok not to go to college. That it is honorable and acceptable to use my intelligence, skills and talents in my home for the benefit of my family without accumulating a debt burden to them for a piece of paper that says I'm "educated"

luke said...

I am Attorney and 31 years old, still trying to make more money than I did as a construction inspector at age 23 but now I pay $740 a month in student loans.....plus I am getting fatter : )

Deb - Mom of 3 Girls said...

I totally agree with everything you've said here (and have thought it for a while too), but with one exception/addition. I have a degree and have been unemployed for 2 years - and none of my friends with degrees are using them in the fields they actually went to school for. But - no matter what route you (or your kids) choose, there's got to be commitment to finish the necessary schooling or training. My husband started college but never finished (has all those student loans but no degree to show for them) and we've struggled for many years since he can't find any kind of a job making decent money. Even with job training, it's almost impossible to get a while-collar job without a degree. He's currently working as a cable installer - which pays fairly well (better than any job he's had before), but the hours are varied and not at all family-friendly. In retrospect, if he'd finished his computer science degree, we would almost certainly be much better off than we are right now. And my husband wouldn't miss every single one of our daughter's soccer games because he works every Saturday, and wouldn't be so tired on Sundays (his only day off) from working 60+ hours every week that he's too grouchy with the kids and too worn out to do much with them.

I guess the answer is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Every person is different and while college is the way to go for some, it's definitely a good idea to look at all of the options too. Great post!!

I'm not sure what the total answer is, but

Annette Lyon said...

Hmm. I'll be reading the rest to see what you say.

According to some research I've done 90% of jobs require at least a high school diploma, and anything that pays a decent living requires more than that. I wonder how many so-called blue collar jobs now require college degrees simply because the competition is there?

My mom once worked for WordPerfect--was hired w/out a degree. A few years later, she was in a manager position and had to hire people. She wasn't allowed to even consider people w/out degrees. The irony was awesome.

Lisa C said...

I was just voicing this opinion in a friendly debate with my father a month ago - the issue I'm dealing with now is how best to encourage my children to make the decision that's best for them. (But isn't that always the big question?)

Michemily said...

I love that in Germany, it's not shameful to go to trade school. Kids are even separated into different schools at age 12 depending on their skills, and people look at it so differently than in the U.S. We would say, "That's unfair. You're limiting them. You can't condemn him to be a mechanic." Germans say, "He likes to work on cars. He's good at it. He'll make good money. Of course we're going to put him where he'll do his best."

Even with the logic of the second view, it took me some time to realize that the guys wearing blue jumpsuits who built the house next door were just as educated and just as happy in their careers (I assume, anyway) than people who went to their offices in suits.

BUT, I still can't get over myself wanting all my kids to go to university where they'll learn abstract things, learn a lot of money, dibble around in different subjects, and end up working in a job that has nothing to do with what they studied . . . those things run deep, don't they?

Scribbit said...

All good comments--the subject is so vast and intricate and there really is no solid, easy answer. I think what I'm suggesting (mainly) is that it bears thinking and consideration. You know, putting all those years of college training and thinking to work? :)

Education IS more than a paper and I'm grateful that I came from a home where learning was a part of our lives and a habit. I love that as siblings we can get together and have interesting discussions about life and the world. Though we always end up talking about movies sooner or later :) We're hicks at heart.

Check back in next week when I take the next step on this. I'll be talking more about pitfalls of traditional routes, possible solutions and how that translates into new techniques in parenting.

It's scary how many anecdotal evidence people present about the inefficiency of their degrees. It used to be that a degree guaranteed a good wage . . . things are changing so fast and predicting the future is impossible.

Kayris said...

A person has to do SOMETHING after high school, because you can't support a family on minimum wage. But I agree that college is not the right place for a lot of people. I will definitely encourage my kids to consider a trade school. IF their interest lies there. Some people aren't suited for trade school either. And I don't believe a person should follow a career path simply because it's a money maker.

Also, no profession is recession proof. Our neighbor is a plumber and while he always has burst pipes to work on in the winter, his really reliable work (on new homes) has dried up because no one is building new houses right now.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you've said part of what I've been thinking as my kids get older. (Although the oldest is only nine - but still, never too soon to have a pervading philosophy in your home!)

The other part is simply: how to decide do you want to do with your life and what is most important? There is no "stigma" with a blue-collar job, as far as I'm concerned. My kids could end up janitors, but what's really important is: Are they on the path to heaven? That's really the crux, although the world would have us believe otherwise.

Not that I'm encouraging my kids to be janitors and housecleaners, mind you. I want them to reach their full potential. But that potential is a lot more than just what their job is - it's the well-rounded whole. And if a job as a welder lets them add better to the whole than a job as an engineer, excellent - I hope I can help them figure that out!

I will say that the number one best thing that my engineering degree bought for me was a sharpening of the ability to solve problems - how to think something out clearly and evaluate solutions. Then again, that was already part of my natural makeup, so perhaps the refining would have occurred at some point anyway.


Kelly @ Love Well said...

Fabulous post, Michelle. I'm certainly of the mind that college is the way to go, because I grew up that way. (I'd have to go back about 3 generations to find people who aren't college-educated.) But in this economy, at this point in time, a bachelor's degree seems to be nothing more than the new high school diploma. Only it comes with a much higher price tag.

I look forward to more in the series.

Shannon said...

My oldest informed me two years ago that he didn't want to go to college, not right away anyway. After some talk about his options and year of high school ROTC to make sure he was really interested in the military he enlisted in the navy nuclear program. Ironically he will spend the next two years going to school training to be a reactor operator on a submarine. So even though he isn't going to college he will be going to school.

He will be ensured of a job for the next six years, assuming he successfully makes it through training. He will have 6 years to mature, to earn money, to see the world, to decide if this is something he wants to turn into a career. If he decided it isn't for him he will have the GI bill to use to go to college so no college loans to pay off. I couldn't be prouder of his decision.

[Stacia] said...

Great post! I grew up in a home with parents who had gone the 'skill' route. They encouraged us to attend college but expected us to work hard. My husband grew up in home where both parents had their degrees before they were married and expected all of their children to attend college. It could be debated that one or the other is better but I think the most important in both families is that we were all raised to be hard workers. Both my husband and I worked full time while going to school so that he could graduate with zero debt. Now that he is working on his MBA and will go on to get his PHD, we are SO grateful we did that and don't have student loans to pay off. I don't say this to toot my own horn, I just think that the bottom line in anything is that you are working hard and trying to do the best you can. That's what will be expected in my home.

Anonymous said...

I recently read that a Bookstore bought a painting from a local artist for $60,000 so they can sell prints to their customers.

It would be a wise idea for all people to develop their talents to the point that they can have income coming in from various sources.

Kimberly said...

My family prizes higher education. But more and more I see kids of my friends staying home, taking comm college classes, working for a bit and "figuring themselves out" for a lot less than traditional four year colleges. The "Traditional" education path may be on the way out, and not just for college, but for high school, etc....

Stephanie said...

I appreciate your thoughtful posts, Michelle (and I look forward to the next 2 parts of this series).

I have a Bachelors degree and a Masters degree. I'm glad that I earned both degrees because I learned valuable lessons about life, learning, and perseverance.

That said, I think those same lessons can also be learned through traveling, mentorship, and philanthropy.

The media tends to give a black-and-white analysis of these issues - "All young adults should go to college and here's why..." or "College is a waste of time and here's why..." The reality, however, isn't quite like that. Every person is an individual.

If I were an employer, I would look for integrity, good character, motivation, and strong people skills...before degrees (or even skill sets). Skills can be taught; character cannot.


Daisy said...

At this point I'm more worried about the kids who do not graduate from high school. I have some really low readers - kids who might not pass 4th grade. Then what?

Blog O' Beth said...

I am a college professor. The problem I see again and again is that EVERYBODY is being funneled into a college degree whether they should be there or not. Some kids would be better off going into the military, a trade school or a 2yr degree. Not everybody is cut out or should be pursuing a 4yr degree. The US has the highest college enrollment rate, but we also have the highest drop-out rate. We need to open our minds and recognize that there are multiple paths to success and they don't all start with a 4-year college degree

Lisa @thebeadgirl said...

one of the best...most thought provoking posts i have read in a very long time.

thank you for inspiring me to think....

GR said...

Quite the topic! Over a third of folks entering the work force have a degree today. And yet, so many of the kids I see at the entry level don't have a clue what it is to work. What the degree certificate tells the hiring authority is that you are willing and capable to stick with something for four plus years to better your career. That's a big plus, and not to be discounted. In theory, humanities reqirements also "make" you a better rounded and more civil human being, but (forgive me all of you highly educated types) I haven't found that to generally be the case. I've found at least as much genius and compassion among those who "work with their hands", and I've worked with multitudes of both. I love mentoring the kid who has worked through high school (and college?), has struggled (and failed?), is hungry, and driven, and humble, and willing to outwork the competition to be the best in his/her field. To reach the highest levels of pay and achievement, it can't hurt to to be versed in the MBA theory from the finest schools. To be happy and earn a living commensurate with the skills acumen that suits your personality, it only takes recognizing that you are not, or may not choose to be CEO material, and taking pride in becoming the best welder/plumber/technician you can be.
In this labor market, you'll be valued. I'm looking forward to the next installment, Michele.

Galloping Goats Farm said...

With the focus of so many on college partying and the sky-rocketing cost, am on the side of trade school. Appreticeships are also a good way to go. My son got into the electrical apprenticeship program through Labor & Industries. He works, goes to school for no cost to himself and can support himself while doing so. On the other hand, my daughter went to college out of the country(Canada) on student loans and now has 30,000 in debt and a degree that didn't transfer.

Anonymous said...

I've read so many negative comments about college that I'm compelled to write a little for the other side of the argument.
I graduated with a BS from a private school in 3 1/2 years with less than $20,000 in student loans. I've been lucky enough to use my degree in my career, although it's at a nonprofit organization so I don't make too much money. The past couple of years, though, I've been working a second part-time job to cover the bills and get ahead. I'm now starting my master's degree, and I expect I'll graduate with a grand total of around $40,000 in student loans. And with the field I'm in and will be going further into, I feel pretty secure that I will find a job that allows me to continue doing what I do with a master's degree.

I know not all kids starting out will travel down the same path I did. I just feel like for some people, if you really do it the right way, it can pay off and be a better choice. Yes, I know plenty of people who have a high school diploma and make more money than I do without having the burden of student loans, but I'm doing something I love to do.

Anonymous said...

And to add to my above comment, kids can't be afraid to work during college. I'm amazed at the people in undergrad and grad school who refuse to work while they take classes - instead, they take out loans to live off of while in school. Anyone else see something wrong with this? This is exactly why they're taking out $20,000 a year for school - school does not cost that much, but rather they are not working while they attend school. I understand med school and law school folks - they have to study every waking moment of the day so they can't necessarily work. But for everyone else, get out there and work!!! :)

Anonymous said...

My Dad learned a trade, my Mom had degrees from good schools. And it was my Mom that stayed at home... My Dad was able to start a business and now employs 40+ people. I think that there is nothing wrong with learning a trade. Out here in France I think a plumber probably does better then your average office worker. Much better. I know my husband has said if he could do it over he would learn a trade... And I think I would too. Seamstress would really interest me... Good post and thanks for the food for though. :)

Jen at Semantically driven said...

There's a shortage of tradespeople I think so if someone can learn a trade and then carry it out while also having good customer service then they will go a LONG way. I'd be quite happy for my son to not go to university and learn a trade instead so long as he was employed.

jacjewelry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jacjewelry said...

I grew up in a household where I was expected to go to college after high school. And so I went and got a science degree. Upon graduation, my mom suggested I get a job, or else she was worried I'd go to school forever because I was good at it and enjoyed it. My sister, however, got her degrees over a number of years, while working full-time. She did it on her own terms, and my parents didn't push her to do it otherwise. Now we are both paying back loans and will be paying them back for a number of years from now, but to me, it's the best investment we could have possibly made - an investment in ourselves. I think it's important to let your kids make their own choices and let them decide what works for them.

On another note, what degree you get matters. If you get a ubiquitous economics or business degree, a career path is not necessarily defined (and a result you may take a job that has you doing neither business nor economics). If, however, your dream is to cure cancer, a science degree is a must. Same goes for engineering and more technical professions. Of course, that brings up the risk of outsourcing, but that's a separate discussion for another time...

Finally, on the subject of MBAs: where you get your MBA matters, so the choice to me was not between getting or not an MBA - it's getting it from a top school or not getting it at all. I researched the schools, employment statistics and all relevant information, ran the numbers, and it was clear: I either go to a top MBA program, or I don't go at all. It worked for me, but it's smart to be open to pursuing another route when the potential is just not there.

Krista said...

I agree with you whole-heartedly and I can't wait to read the rest! And as a teacher (also married to a teacher) I firmly believe there are many kids who just don't need to go to college (for many reason), but trade school would be fabulous. I really believe if our country is going to survive we need to make our educational system more European.

Bright Kids said...

I full-heatedly agree. In fact, I'm a strong supporter of parents urging high schools to start apprentice/trade programs so that when a child graduates from HS, they also have a valuable hands-on skill (that doesn't include flipping burgers). In fact, I think this is possibly more important than lots of academics--'cause they're just going to repeat many of the HS class topics in college again.

Maktaaq said...

Agree with the anonymous commenter at 4:29 - why don't students work while in school?

I held at least one job during each school year (and 2-3 jobs during the summers) so I could graduate debt-free from university. I also travelled on alternate years to Europe for 3-month trips while I was in university. I did work in high school as I knew that I wanted to go to university. I was the first person in my family to go to university and I knew it was the best thing for me. I also knew I hated debt and made sure to balance studying, work and fun.

Also, I had to get an art history degree: how useless is that? I did have a hard time getting a job, but when I decided I was going to aim for the pinnacle of art history jobs (the curator position), it took me almost a decade of working my way up, but I did it. So it can be done. The time it took me to get to this position shouldn't sound daunting - how long does it take CEOs to get there?

I am rather annoyed when I hear complaints about arts degrees. I think there are jobs out there, including in the field one studied, but arts majors need to stop listening to the naysayers. Yes, there aren't enough jobs for everyone, but for those people like me who absolutely can't function in a corporate environment, the jobs are there. But one needs to be driven, be willing to continuously study (not necessarily in a formal environment), have some business acumen, and really enjoy talking and listening to people.