College: Is it necessary for a successful life?

“I could pressure my son, but the skill of reacting to pressure I put on him is not the skill I want him to have.” Sebastion Thrun- cofounder/CEO Udacity

Asking Julia, 18, what she was planning on doing after graduating from high school elicited a look of disbelief. Her answer of, “College”, omitted the unsaid, “Duh!” When I asked her why she wanted to go to college, she was stumped. She stammered something about getting a good job and making a good living, words that I am sure were verbatim from numerous parental lectures. I could tell I’d hit a nerve.

Julia finally admitted that what she really wanted to do was attend beautician school because she dreamed of doing the hair and makeup for celebrities on the red carpet at the Oscars. Her parents had thrown a hissy fit when she told them of her plans, threatening to withhold any support. A girl at her private high school two years earlier decided to go the beautician route, and when she crossed the stage at graduation they announced several colleges she had been accepted into but couldn’t bear to divulge her real plans.

It’s true that the typical bachelor’s degree graduate worker earns about twice what the typical high school grad earns over their entire careers, and that recent college grads have an easier time finding employment than peers with only a high school diploma. There should be a lot more that goes into what path a young person chooses than money and initial employment.

What every young adult needs is usable skills, and college is hardly the only source for developing these. Too many young people today turn their noses up at good paying jobs like plumbers, carpenters, firefighters, or electricians, perhaps one big reason why we are losing our middle class. Teenagers have been conditioned to follow one regimented, prescribed path towards a successful life, and attending college is not negotiable for most of them. Trade schools, the armed services, and other types of post-high school education are given short shrift even though they are a better fit for the majority of people. That needs to change.

Don’t read into this that I think a college education can’t be valuable; all three of my kids have a college degree. It was totally their choice based on their own unique interests and needs. What I want is for everyone to develop more of a ‘different strokes for different folks’ mentality as opposed to ‘one size fits all’.

I urge parents to value passion where you find it. When Julia described doing her friends hair and makeup before proms and homecoming dances, her whole being lit up. Those are the times when she is most alive and authentic; that is her intrinsic motivation. Pressuring kids to do what we want them to do results in discontent, unhappiness, and resentment. Autonomy of choice and full engagement in doing what you love is the prescription for developing mastery, as well as ownership, fulfillment, and joy.

Is college necessary for a successful life? I believe the answer is a resounding no, and we need to appreciate that all young people aren’t cut from the same cloth. Support your kids in finding their own, unique life path that fits their interests, passions, and aptitude, and watch them soar.

3 thoughts on “College: Is it necessary for a successful life?”

  1. Many of these posts seem to follow the pattern.

    “While an Ivy League is not the right choice for everyone…it was the right choice for my child” and “While college is not the right choice for everyone…it was the right choice for my child”.

    Bit of elitism here??

    Having said that, I do know college is the right choice for my kids, just not sure an Ivy is though. But I think the Ivy’s are way over rated for undergraduate purposes.

  2. Very good article, Dr. Tim, and well-timed for me. My daughter, Andrea, who is a high school freshman, has recently become adamant about her desire to bypass college in favor of other pursuits.
    My husband and I are both college grads, as well as our oldest child, and our second is a junior in college. I will admit that I am worried about the direction she is leaning, but I do understand that a person needs to follow her passions in order to be happy.
    Obviously, we want what all parents want for their children – success and above all, happiness. Unfortunately, the ideas of how to achieve those things can be conflicting.
    Andrea has always had a determined streak, a mind of her own. I know that is a good thing, but still I worry about her. We don’t feel that what she wants to do is necessarily the best thing for her in the long run.
    What do you suggest to help us better understand and deal with her choices? She has been known to change her mind frequently about what she wants to do. Should we just wait this one out?

  3. Marilyn Barrett

    Well, I went to college for two years then onto beauty school. I had to resolve those feelings of inadequacy because I had no college degree. A lot of family unspoken messages there. I love going to work everyday. Every part of my work fits my personality as a hair designer/organic colonists! I can’t believe, some days that I do this work and get paid for it too! At work I’m known as the scientist and because of my love for chemistry and art I have a deeper understanding of hair color and therefore can do more to gain my clients confidence. They know that their hair will look great and be in great conditition too.

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