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The business of not going to college

By Dora Figueiredo

Several years ago, I interviewed for a job with the title of College Career Counselor with a non-profit community center based in the upper west side of Manhattan.  It catered to students who were thought by their teachers and peers to be unlikely to go to college. Their mission was simple:  the opportunity to go to college should be an option for everyone, no matter what.

I wholeheartedly agree. Everyone should have the option to go to college. I made it to the second round of interviews, where I was in a group with everyone working in the center. One person asked me, “What would you do if there was a student who you were unsure would get into the colleges of their choice?” I responded that I would talk to them about their likely college options and help them tailor their applications and schools to their personalities and strengths.

“Would you let them apply to the colleges of their choice, even if they wanted to go to Harvard med school, and it felt clear that this is not where they would succeed?”

I don’t remember my response to this one–I think I said no, especically since they should probably go to undergraduate school before medical school…

The follow up question was: “Do you think college is for everyone?” I am positive this is where I bombed the interview. I said, “No.” The room went silent. I amended, “Not right out of high school, anyway. Sometimes you need to grow a little and decide what is best for you, and college may be a better choice three or five years down the road.” They exchanged glances. Clearly, they wanted college to be an option: the only option. Straight out of high school. Which I don’t necessarily believe in.

What made me think of this almost-forgotten botched interview was this NYT article from last month: Plan B- Skip College.

From the article:

[Some economists] would steer some students toward intensive, short-term vocational and career training, through expanded high school programs and corporate apprenticeships.

Among the top 10 growing job categories, two require college degrees: accounting (a bachelor’s) and postsecondary teachers (a doctorate). But this growth is expected to be dwarfed by the need for registered nurses, home health aides, customer service representatives and store clerks. None of those jobs require a bachelor’s degree.

It’s very easy for me to play the holier-than-thou  here and say that some people aren’t cut out for college, since I have a master’s degree. That being said, I am a strong advocate for everyone having the option to go to college. I just simply don’t believe that everyone needs to go to college. I absolutely believe that we, as a country, need to strengthen our vocational programs so that those that decide that college is not for them have wider options than they otherwise would have.


9 Responses

  1. I think this is really interesting and you are right Dora, there is a growing acceptance that after highschool the only acceptable option is to go to college. The alternative acceptable option is to enter into military service. To be completely honest, I think that I would throw a fit if my future children wanted anything other than to go to a four year college after high school.

    That being said, I think my problem may be the problem of many Americans. We are told that with education you can become anything you want, you can raise your standard of living. By extension that means frowning upon blue collar work that was and still is the backbone of this nation for more white collar, higher paying jobs. Perhaps it is time that we, myself included, reevaluate the worth we assign to the lesser pay, harder work yet completely necessary jobs.

  2. You also have to take into account the math.

    1. At the end of four years of college a student might possibly be well over $100,000 in debt.
    2. With a modest income of say $25k, that same student could have earned $100,000 over that same time span if he or she had begin working right out of college. So, it is really closer to a loss of $200,000.
    3. The person might not have a college degree, but if they began working in a field where hands on experience is preferred they now also have 4 years work experience.

  3. Thanks Kate! I have definitely believe that if I ever have kids, I would push them to go to college. But then I chide myself for thinking this way because I have examples of the best of both worlds in my own family: My oldest brother completed a fantastic votech program through Harrison High School, dropped out of college four months in, and used his votech skills to acquire a job while dropping out of college (and is still at the company he started at over 20 years ago- and competitively paid!). My other brother graduated college and has a similar success story, albeit a more traditional one. My oldest brother is definitely blue collar, and my other brother is white collar. They both have pretty good incomes and comfortable lives. You wouldn’t be able to tell which was blue and which was white collar from just passing them down the street, I think. It’s truly time for people to believe in votech programs–and other successful non-college options as well. No college does not equal flipping burgers forever.

    Tom, you’re right. The math makes sense here. I think about the amount I paid for my degrees (and post-master credits) and it took me years to make up for that money spent (not even including what my dad helped me with as an undergrad).

  4. Tom, problems with your math include the assumption of debt. Most students get financial aid of some sort and what about merit scholarships. I went to college and my debt isn’t 100K. It’s closer to 20k. So just saying, you’re assuming the worst.

  5. Reread my first point and in your head italicize “might” and “possibly”.

    A student might possibly wind up with $20k like yourself (and still the lost wages you could have earned working those 4 years) OR that student could wind up $200,000 in debt if they went to a more expensive school, with books, etc, etc…

    I’m not making the case for all, but it is something to keep in mind.

    Also, I think Dora’s original point was that some students might benefit from college later in life. Despite the fact that my first two years of college saw my GPA the highest, I definitely didn’t start engaging in the courses until the latter half of my collegiate career.

  6. I realize you said might, but the scenario you present is definitely on the worst case possible and I felt for balance that should be pointed out. For example, you assume that students aren’t working during college, “lost wages,” when it’s quite possible they could get a job either full time or part time depending on their schedule. While I get your point, I think its important to acknowledge that its the worse case.

  7. My question is this–why did that organization stop at undergraduate school? Why don’t they believe every student should have the opportunity to get some sort of or multiple graduate degrees?

  8. […] again, we just wrote about how college is not for everyone here — but that doesn’t seem to be where he was going with […]

  9. “Several years ago, I interviewed for a job…………..”

    Who did you interview?

    With English like that you should have been enrolling for classes not seeking employment at the college.

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