Who Should Skip this Article
If you were in the top 10% of your high school class (top 30% or so of private school), then you’ve proved you can do academics and, more importantly, you probably like school and the way they teach (& the way you learn best). Go to college but spend a summer applying for all the scholarships and grants possible because college has become inordinately expensive. If you were in the bottom 20% of your high school class, you don’t need a discussion of “why college” because you have no interest in nor apparent ability to learn in an academic environment. Unless your brain is fried on drugs, you may have a passion for something else in life and you should do it. (Just don’t ask me to pay your welfare!)
College or Not College
Unless your family is wealthy enough to pay for the “college experience” without any of you having to take out loans, then the KEY QUESTION is: do you need a college degree to pursue your personal (not your parents’) career goals? There are three possible answers to the question:
1. Yes, I Need a College Diploma to Work in My Chosen Field
The jobs that require a college diploma are obvious, but just to clarify: medical doctor, yes, but most medical support roles, no. (We’re focused on 4 year degrees, not 1 or 2 year certificates.) Engineer, yes; IT programmer, CAD operator and dozens of other affiliated jobs, no. High school English teacher, yes; teaching English as a second language, especially in foreign countries, no. If your parents are pushing you toward STEM or other professional jobs, read on.
2. Not Sure Degree Required, But I Just Have a Passion for Certain Types of Work
There are tons of jobs paying six figures that do not require degrees, but most people think they do: commercial airline pilot, computer programmer, financial advisor, nuclear power plant operator/ supervisor, accountant, PR or advertising executive, corporate CEO or high level manager, movie director, producer, writer, or talent agent.
Here’s a secret: most entry level jobs that “require” a college degree do NOT really require a college degree. That is corporate shorthand for saying, “We are selective, and we want employees with a proven discipline, interest level, tenacity, and the soft skills of speaking, writing, and thinking in a broader context than ‘duh’! We don’t want to waste our time.” They want people they can put through their corporate training programs and teach them the career consistent with their corporate culture. There are ways to substitute “experience” and “initiative” and “sample work products” and “contacts” to substitute for the generally worthless $100,000 diploma. Keep reading; keep researching; and, most importantly, think!
3. “I Have No Earthly Idea What I’ll Do! I’ll Figure It Out in College.”
If your family can afford to roll the dice and grant you the “four year college experience” then go for it. (Most likely your 4 year degree will take 5 or 6 years because you’ll change majors or change colleges or both and have to make up for lost ground. This will compound the cost of college, so make sure the family is willing to foot the bill for a $150,000 to $250,000 “college experience”. As a practical matter, you can forget about most significant “scholarships” because your grades and test scores are not high enough to put you in that “elite” category, and you have not otherwise prepared yourself for a focused education.)
Rather than “figure it out in college”, why not take a Gap Year to figure it out? Gap Years are very common in Europe and increasingly so in the US, at least partly because of the skyrocketing cost of educational mistakes in college. There are formal programs you can join, OR you can sit down with your parents and/or with us to establish a concrete set of activities, goals, and timetables. There are an infinite number of ways to plan a Gap Year. Here is one suggestion, for healthy young men, which can be tailored to your personal needs, ideas, interests, finances, and timetable:
A. 4 months hard physical work in a relatively high paying industry, like construction or warehousing, while living at home, with friends or family for free. (Your advantage as a healthy Youth is that typically you have the strength, energy, and endurance to work hard in harsh conditions day after day, and such jobs generally pay a lot more than unskilled labor sitting behind a fast food counter.) While slaving at hard physical work, your mind can ponder more comfortable alternatives for a lifetime career. Or, you may love the industry and decide you want to become an engineer working in air conditioning or, perhaps, you love the great outdoors and want to gain some specialized training that will pay you well and gain you respect in the workplace.
B. 4 months travel: we find that wide-ranging travel, especially foreign adventures, are educational and generally broadening experiences, to say nothing of the maturity that is gained being totally on your own in a foreign culture. Narrow the travel to areas with one dominant language, such as Spanish or Mandarin, and live off the local economy, avoid mostly English speaking groups– and amaze yourself at how much of the language you learn. Combine travel with religious mission work or NGO (non-governmental organization) volunteer work or a paying job with a local employer, and you add a consciousness expanding component to the experience (And it helps defray some of the costs of your adventure. Even missions and NGOs provide some financial support.)
C. 4 months internship or entry level job in an industry that interests you. (After prior months of hard work, travel, experiencing new people and places, as well as being on your own and taking the types of online courses we suggest; you may distill those experiences and observations into interest in a particular field.) If not, at least you will have some savings to help pay for a semester of college and maybe enough life experience to better evaluate what they teach in college compared to your friends who stayed on the educational conveyor belt.
D. We recommend a Dave Ramsey or similar course on money management PLUS a basic online course on investing (plus Jim Cramer’s books on investing and Rich Dad, Poor Dad on real estate) during the 4 months of physical work slogging. Hard work should help you appreciate the value of a dollar, and the information will put you on the path of investing it wisely, whether in education or otherwise. Note: you should save HALF of all you earn during these 4 months to invest in an IRA. Hit your parents up to match your savings during this period, with the caveat that at least half the total saved will be invested strictly for the long term.
An online language course should be taken during the 4 months of travel. (The internet is available today in even remote parts of the world.) During the 8 months of travel and internship, at least 2 or 3 additional online courses should be taken to explore academic areas that may be of interest for a career choice, e.g., geology, geography, history, literature, business development, economics, etc. Note: When the mind is freed to take courses for the love of learning, expanding one’s imagination, and/or solving practical problems vs. taking them for the grades, wondrous ideas can percolate and mature.