I did the IB program in high school, so teachers were typically very college-conscious. Everything towards the end seemed to be about how to prepare for college: essays, SAT’s, recommendations, etc. Many teachers would warn us, “When you all get to college…” One teacher stood out, though. He bluntly told the class one day that college isn’t for everyone.
“The freedom you experience in college is amazing,” he said, “and there are so many opportunities to learn. But not everyone needs to go to college. If you want to be a chef, for instance, college might not be the best route for you.” His candor was surprising. No other teacher (that I remember) had ever acknowledged alternatives to college. We never heard about trade schools or internships that would take us right out of high school. The only mention of community college was in the context of how it would lead someone to a 4-year institution. Gap years, on the other hand, are gaining popularity as an alternative to college. My friend traveled for a few years after high school and told some of my college friends about it. Many of them asked him, “Oh, so you took some gap years?” He told them yes, but the truth is that he didn’t intend it that way. He simply wanted to travel. The shame of not being a student, or an aspiring student, ended up making him feel alienated. The real reason we glorify gap years isn’t because they are eye-opening and adventurous; it’s because they promise college in the end. They are not a true alternative.
Why do we hold expensive 4-year colleges in such high esteem when a growing number of graduates end up jobless in the future? There is an emerging stereotype of a liberal arts major who lives with his mother. This character reminds me of a movie I saw recently called Adventureland. The main character has just graduated with a comparative literature degree from a prestigious university, and he’s off to Columbia in the fall for grad school. He plans to travel with his friends in Europe over the summer, but his parents experience financial trouble, and he can no longer afford to go. He stays home over the summer and tries to find work. While applying for a job at a restaurant, he awkwardly (but confidently) cites his research and GPA, but the boss seems unimpressed. Eventually an amusement park hires him, but only after other jobs–that he has scoffed at–have rejected him.
My friend from the Netherlands has told me before about the ubiquity of trade schools. Even though traditional college there is tuition free, many just know that they want to pursue other endeavors. Rather than stigmatize these desires, the Dutch provide people with opportunities and training. I have some friends here who have gone to similar schools, like beauty school, but this track is not wildly accepted. For instance, when I told my parents about my friend taking classes to become an esthetician, their first instinct was to ask if she had plans for college down the road. Maybe that says more about my parents than about society as a whole, but I’ve found this push for college in most of my circles.
As a college student, I know this post seems a little ridiculous. I’ve told myself for a long time that I am sure college is the right path for me. But I do wonder how that certainty would waver if I’d learned about other options.