To College or Not to College, That is the Question

I’m one of those people that strangers share things with.  I don’t know what it is about me, but inevitably I find myself in line at the grocery store or seated on an airplane next to a person who looks me up and down and decides to strike up a conversation.  And so all of a sudden I learn their life story even though I haven’t solicited it.

(I’m serious, readers – you should travel with me one time and witness this phenomenon.  It’s crazy!)

The cool thing about these experiences, however, is that often these conversations become interesting and useful.  (This is not a 100% guarantee, of course, and I’ve had some decidedly not rewarding experiences, but I’d say overall I average 75 percent positive and 25 percent not.)

Take last week, for example:

On Wednesday afternoon I was pulled into a conversation with a licensed union plumber working on a boiler on the campus of our local university.  (Don’t ask how I got there; that’s another story.)  But as we talked about higher education (an appropriate topic, given our setting), he said, “I’m glad I never went to college because I wouldn’t have learned anything.  I’m such a hands-on guy that the professors could have talked at me all day and I never would have picked up what they were saying.  I had to be shown things if I was going to learn.”

Now, if you’ve read my book or even been a long-time reader of this blog, readers, you know that I have spent my career in higher education and I firmly believe in its value – but I’m also the first one to say that it’s not a fit for everyone and my new plumber friend eloquently outlined exactly why this is the case.

But Randi, I hear you say, what will my earning potential be if I skip college?  And what if I can’t stomach the idea of being a plumber?

Let’s break down the main point of the whole conversation here, which is to establish that college is not a good choice for a lot of people and isn’t necessary for some depending on the field they hope to enter.  Granted, if you plan to be a doctor or lawyer, then you have to attend college at both the undergraduate and graduate level; ditto the minimum requirement of a bachelor’s degree if you want to be a teacher or work in finance, publishing, architecture, or marketing.

But what if you’re currently undecided?  What if you want to work in the horse industry as a trainer or stable manager?  What if you don’t like school?

To answer those questions, you must first ask yourself about your interests, learning style, and the specifics of your future goals.  Investigate the following:

  • What interests me?  The answer(s) to this question can be as broad as you like; you don’t have to limit them to just school subjects unless you want to.  If you prefer to be outdoors instead of inside, write that down.  If you love to watch HGTV, write that down too.  If you like to write, like to draw, like to garden or cook – all of those things belong on the list.  The idea is to examine the things that you like to do and see what patterns you can draw from the finished list; if, for instance, you’re addicted to HGTV and love to draw, perhaps a career in architecture or a construction-based trade would be a good fit.  Keep in mind that the idea behind the exercise is to get a better sense of yourself; you don’t have to select your exact career from the finished list.
  • How do I learn best?  There are a variety of diagnostics on the market so if you want to get very specific about the answer to this question, ask your school guidance counselor if he or she has one that can be administered.  If, however, you just want a general sense of your learning style, think about your riding lessons and how you best absorb instructions from your trainer.  Do you need to see other riders jump a course in order to know the fence order?  Can you execute your trainer’s instructions based on just hearing them or do you need to try a few times before you catch on?  Do you visualize your course in your mind or prefer to trace your finger across the paper and follow the track from jump to jump?  I, for example, am a visual learner more than an auditory one; if you let me read something for myself or show me a picture, I’ll catch on much more quickly than if you just tell me.
  • Do I like to read and write?  It sounds like sort of silly question, but it’s crucial if you’re considering college because your reading load from high school is nothing compared to what you’ll be asked to do in college, regardless of your major.  I majored in English as an undergraduate – the extreme end of the required reading spectrum, to be sure.  For me, a typical assignment was to read the first half of Hamlet and the second half of Daisy Miller on Monday night and be prepared to talk about both in two separate classes on Tuesday morning.  But my biology major roommate wasn’t spared and spent as much time with her nose in a textbook as I did.  We both also spent many late nights composing term papers in our respective fields to prove that we had synthesized those readings and committed them to educated memory.  If you’re a student for whom that type of learning environment sounds nightmarish, perhaps you’re better off following a more hands-on learning path.

As my conversation with the plumber continued, he was also quick to point out that students who might forego college to pursue a trade don’t necessarily need to fear for their future income either; he said he was an apprentice for the five year period it took for him to become licensed and received pay and benefits the entire time.

(Admit it, parents – with all of the talk about student debt flying around, the idea of your student not only skipping student loans, but also getting paid to learn has appeal!)

For reference, the last Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) study showed that the average plumber made an annual salary of $50,180 in 2013 with top earners from metropolitan areas earning as much as $86,120.  Electricians (another skilled trade) earned an average of $50,510 in 2013 up to a high range of around $80,000 as well.

(All I’ll say, students, is that in a lot of parts of the country, you can afford to live and ride on that kind of salary – particularly if you aren’t paying off student loan debt!)

What’s more, a little research on my part revealed that there is a substantial lack of younger skilled tradesmen (and women!) in the United States because so many students choose to pursue college-related career paths – which means that there are plenty of jobs available to students who choose to enter those fields as the middle-aged workers begin to retire.  (The plumber I spoke with referred to this – he said he works more hours to take the place of the older guys at his company who retired recently and that he’s concerned they don’t have enough young staff coming in at the moment.)  The top ten fastest growing job fields are also construction-related and don’t necessarily require a college education, so perhaps it’s worth at least looking at the possibilities before you join the college admissions race.

And future professional equestrians, remember that I posted earlier about one of the challenges facing equine majors and also about how taking a gap year to immerse yourself in the industry can tell you a lot about whether or not that’s truly a good fit for you and how you should proceed with your education thereafter.

So what’s the bottom line here, readers?  College is a worthwhile investment for many students but a poor one for many others.  Only you can determine which category you fit into – though if you happen to meet a plumber or electrician while you’re out and about, it wouldn’t hurt to ask him or her for an opinion.  You might gain a new sense of perspective – or a new friend.  (I’d like to give a shout out and a thank you to my new pal Jason the plumber for his info last week!)

Want help determining if you’re a college-bound or trade-school kid?  Contact me and we can discuss your prospects for less than the cost of four years of college.

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