I’ve had some interesting conversations and read some interesting articles recently that made me wonder if you should even go to college at all! Obviously, I value the piece of paper, as I’m currently working on my MBA, so I’ll end up having more college than the average person. And, that’s the point, right? To make myself “above average” so that I can have a higher paycheck, more prestigious title, cooler work environment, and generally more awesome career! But in today’s economy, should you even go to college?
I will say that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that Americans put way to much value on college degrees. Or, at least, all the people I’m surrounded by put a lot of emphasis on it. I admit that I’ve always kind of looked down on people that chose not to attend college, that somehow, they just couldn’t hack it in the real world. This is actually quite false, as several people I know were more than able to hack it, they just opted out. Our generation has been told to “do something we love”, and quite frankly, not everyone loves a desk job. Not everyone gets warm fuzzies from a glowing computer screen. Not everyone wants to exercise only their brain every day. Some people enjoy… gasp… working with their hands! Or exerting their leg muscles! Or being a starving artist in a garret! How dare these people choose to forgo a boring class that lends nothing to their practical daily lives because it is required by a degree plan? How dare they accept hourly wages over salary, muddy boots over patent pumps, and wrenches over a briefcase? Sometimes I look out my office window at the gorgeous 70 degree day, and think that maybe I’m the crazy one. I could be out mowing a lawn in the sunshine to make a living, or taking tourists scuba diving to earn a wage, or heck, staying inside making cards to sell to pay the rent. There are plenty of people that make a living wage doing blue-collar work, and many of them love their jobs. What’s so wrong with taking a job that allows you to feel good about yourself while to make a paycheck?
This is not to say that everyone with a college degree is miserable, while all the non-degreed people live a life of rainbows and roses. In addition to “passion” you do have to be practical and realize that most college-educated professionals earn more over their lifetime. I would also say that there’s a lot of skills you can learn in school that will improve your ability to move up the ranks, which is difficult to do without outsourcing in a blue-collar job. And, since many blue-collar jobs take a higher toll on the body, you might face physical limitations that force you into retirement earlier than a white-collar profession (we’ll save the debate about stress-induced heart attacks when you’re 40 for another blog post!). For example, take landscaping or construction work. Both require significant physical labor, and to move up in the ranks or start your own business, you’ll need management skills, accounting skills, marketing skills, and possibly engineering skills. For many of those, you’ll need a college-educated or licensed professional, so if your aspiration is to move into management, going to college earlier might have been the better choice.
I do think that post-high school education is necessary to ensure that the US (and the world, since it’s a global economy these days) has an effective workforce, but I think we should make a path for technical or vocational education, the way we’ve done for college. For example, the aviation industry is facing the real concern of a shortage of trained, qualified technicians, because all the youth are heading to college, instead of mechanic school. This article details vocational programs in Arizona high schools, and mentions that in addition to training students for immediate work after high school, the vocational programs are actually encouraging students to attend and graduate from 2- or 4-year colleges! It mentions a shortage of welders and auto mechanics, noting that you can make great money in either of these professions. It’s unfortunate that many high schools are unwilling or unable to offer these types of programs to their students, and that many parents are unwilling or unable to allow their children to take advantage of these programs if they are offered. My cousin went to an ag-centric high school, complete with animals and farm land on the school property. She mentioned that some transfer students made rude comments about the smell surrounding the school. Her response? “That’s the smell of money! You smell cow manure and hay… I smell dollars in my pocket!” Note that my cousin went to college for poultry science (you know, the people that engineer a better chicken for power players like Tyson?) on scholarships from her winnings at county fairs and FFA shows!
So, who’s making the better choice? Me, with my MBA, and my sister in her pursuit of a doctorate? Our one-class-shy-of-a-bachelor’s degree friend, that’s currently working 7 days a week as an electrician, making $20 per hour? Or, a family friend whose son skipped college altogether, went to a trade school, and is now working as an auto mechanic? The word is that he loves his job, he’s contributing to society, and he’s paying his own way these days! I’m not saying that college isn’t important, and I definitely have a hard time accepting alternative paths. But, the more I read, and the more people I meet, the more I realize that a fancy piece of paper isn’t the only way to have a fulfilling, well-paid, successful career.