Of Course, Not All People Should Go to College

Defining success is trickier today than it was for my parents.

This time of year, high schools across the country host the parents of incoming freshman, and basically, scare the shit out of them. The same night I sat in Collingswood High School’s cafeteria—in anticipation of my eight-grade son’s entrée into high school next fall—my best friend and college roommate sat in Dallas, Texas at her daughter’s high school’s parent orientation. Naturally, we behaved like freshman ourselves and texted each other the best lines we were hearing from our school authorities:

“The first day of freshman year is the first day on the path to college.”
“Remember, your college entrance exams start the second you turn in your first quiz.”
“You must impress upon your children that ninth grade is serious business.”
“When you and your child choose your courses, I strongly suggest you keep college applications in mind.”
“When your child starts to take AP classes, he or she should have a strong idea of what college he or she wants to go to, to make sure that your student will get credit and see what score you have to strive for … ”
“Soda is not permitted or sold anywhere on our campuses.”

By now, you’re seeing the theme: 1) Your child is going to college; 2) Parents are working hard to get them there; and 3) We are afraid of soda.

I have taught at the college level for more than 20 years, so this statement may sound hypocritical (or like I’m trying to be funny) but it’s one of the reasons I have the authority to say it: Not everyone should go to college.

I am not being a snob, I am being practical. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. Four generations of my mother’s family worked in the steel mills there. My husband was an environmental technician, and yes, he needed a college degree for it, but we used to (try to) laugh at the irony of the fact that the dudes removing the asbestos made more than he did monitoring the removal. One of my brothers is an architectural engineer and lives in a very posh, lovely development in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. His home is a beautiful four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath that sits on a half acre. But, his home is dwarfed by his across-the-street neighbor whose home has a cathedral-ceilinged foyer, in-ground pool and pool house, billiard room, and three-car garage. The owner was a drywall contractor who gave up the business and is now the owner of many rental properties.

I sat in the cafeteria next to a family that owns a paving business. Their home dwarves mine. I wondered how they were listening to all of this talk about college, college, college and not speaking up.

These examples look like I’m trying to say whoever has the biggest house wins, but I’m trying to get to this: Some of this question of what we are going to do with our lives should come from how we self-identify. When you need to introduce yourself, you use different terms, different parts of yourself depending on the situation, right? If you’re traveling, you might only say where you are from. If you are at your son’s soccer game you might say which child is yours. And yes, in many contexts, how we say who we are is by saying what we do for a living.

We need the extraordinarily rare individuals, the ones who don’t go to college and change our culture, like Jobs or Gates or the inventor of email.

But we also need people like my father who keep a culture going. My father never went to college and worked as a traffic analyst for U.S. Steel. I was raised in a four-bedroom, two-bath house with five other children, so it still felt kind of small by today’s standards, but we went on two vacations a year, to Disney World and the Jersey Shore. We had massive elaborate parties for every holiday and every away Pittsburgh Steelers game (unless, of course, the games were somewhere my parents could get to over the weekend, like arch-nemesis cities Cleveland and Cincinnati). My point here is if you had asked my dad who he was, he would have said, “Joanne’s husband, and Jerry, David, Kathy, Karen and Steven’s father.” He in no way identified himself via his occupation, but through what he saw as his “real” life.

I have had so many students who don’t belong in college. They’re here for the wrong reasons; they’re here because their parents pushed; they’re here because they didn’t know what else to do, and while I do think college is a good “place holder” for 18- to 22-year-olds, I don’t know if those are good enough reasons to be in college.

The average tuition at state colleges is $9,000 for in-state tuition (otherwise, tuitions range widely). More than two-thirds of high-school graduates directly enter college, compared to 30 years ago when half the population did. The recession has given us a mixed message. I’ve had students telling me they are going directly to graduate programs because they know they won’t find jobs anyway, but I’ve had students tell me they came in the first place because of this circle: Everyone goes to college, so everyone has to go to college to play on a level field.

My town’s school’s orientation was short and sweet. So is my eighth-grade son. I hope he goes to college, and I even almost said “of course” there, but we have to figure out a way to allow our students (and their parents?) to feel like they’re making a choice not simply following a plan. I stopped at the Wawa on the way home from orientation, bought a big bottle of Coke Zero, and split it with my son.