Building a Better Student: The College Question

A friend of mine has a son who dutifully sent off college applications and was accepted by two of them. He then promptly announced that he really didn’t want to go to college. His father’s response: “You will go, like it or not.”

In my opinion, you could easily swap the father’s words to: “I am going to flush tens of thousands of dollars down the toilet.”

Two questions: Does your child need to go to college? And, if so, should they go immediately after high school?

Let’s start with the first. If you’re preparing important legal documents for me or my business, I hope you’ve completed extensive schooling, including college and law school. If you’re taking a scalpel to my chest cavity, I’ll insist that you finished medical school, and that you didn’t specialize in keg stands.

But if you’re building a custom entertainment space in my basement, do I care if you have a degree? Nope. I’d like to peruse your resume, see samples of your work, and ask your previous clients if you pilfered their collection of superhero DVDs. I won’t care if you went to college.

If you’re listing my home for sale, I’ll examine your track record and marketing efforts, perhaps discuss your strategy, and certainly judge you if your business card sports a picture of you talking on a phone. But I’ve never once asked a real estate broker about their college experience. Have you?

Some well-intentioned advocates for education have sounded a trumpet for all young people to go to college. Education expert and author Sir Ken Robinson, however, makes a valid point by suggesting that we actually demean some of our most important vocational fields by attaching a stigma of “no college” to their talented and hard-working laborers.

This is not an anti-college column; it’s an anti-pressure-to-always-go-to-college column. It’s not necessary for everyone, yet we warn kids that they’re making a huge mistake if they don’t automatically march off to a university and shell out thousands of dollars. Too many of them will march right back out of college with nothing to show but student loans and empty solo cups.

Sure, a college degree might mean a significant increase in lifetime earnings. At the same time, a friend of mine with an MBA is currently waiting tables. There are no guarantees of anything. There likely are many people reading these words who are quite successful – and debt-free – with only a high school diploma on the wall.

However, should college be the right choice for your child- and often it is – perhaps it’s not so much a question of ‘if,’ but of ‘when.’ I propose that a university education could very well be a nice option for many students . . . if they wait a year or two.

How many young adults truly are ready for university life from a maturity standpoint? I’ve heard the argument about how important the social development aspect can be, but does anyone really question the social skills of teenagers today? I’m not sure these additional social lessons are worth a mountain of student loans.

The primary goal of college is to prepare a young adult for their professional career. But the thrill of tasting independence for the first time has the same brain-numbing effect on most of us, and at eighteen we’re not exactly focused on the task at hand.

Consider another path. Suppose that a student went to work for one or two years before heading off to college, and learned a few things:

–  What they’re really preparing for

–  Work ethic

–  The value of money

–  How to get up before eleven

A young adult would receive an entirely different form of education – and potentially bank some money – instead of running up loans for a college experience for which they’re not quite ready.

And if they’re going to celebrate their freedom with natural youthful exuberance – along with the usual questionable choices – it’s better that they do it before investing their time and your money into a college career, would you agree?

With suffocating debt a real problem for millions of young people, we need to consider different options. Pressuring every student to make a decision they’re not emotionally ready to make – because we’ve always done it that way – makes no sense.

Just something to think about.

Dom Testa is an author, speaker, morning radio show host, and has kept a ficus tree alive for twenty two years. He’s also the founder and president of The Big Brain Club, a non-profit foundation that helps young people recognize that Smart Is Cool. More info at

Earnest Parenting: help for parents discussing college with their students.

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2 Responses to “Building a Better Student: The College Question”

  1. Great article, and perspectives I mostly agree with! As a mom of four kids: 20, 18, 15 & 12, I agree that they shouldn’t be “forced” to go to college. So far, one of ours has chosen college, the next the military, and the younger two are talking about college, but we’ll have to wait and see.

    However, one aspect that I think comes into play in many parents’ dilemmas is this: In my opinion, they don’t “have to” go to college, but they do have to do something. Something significant. (Such as going to a trade school or getting a job at a company where they plan to work their way up, or some other forward-moving thing.) And I think this is where many parents feel at an impasse… they don’t want to charge their kids rent, or tell them to get their own places, or “pressure them” or whatever. So instead, they find themselves with an adult child living at home who works part-time at McDonald’s for spending money, plays video games the rest of the time, and expects to still have their laundry done for them and borrow the family vehicle daily.

    In our household, it’s made clear to our kids that once they turn 18, they are expected to be responsible for themselves and their own lives. We are supportive: If you’re doing something temporary (such as school or a training program) that is toward building your future in a significant, real way, you can continue to live here for free, borrow the car, etc. But we seem to be the anomaly more than the norm. Many of our friends think we’re downright “cruel” for having these expectations.

    On the other hand, those are the same friends who are horrified that, as long as they uphold their responsibilities, even when they’re younger, we give them a lot of freedom. Thus eliminating the issue of them going wild when they leave for… whatever it is they decide to pursue after high school.

    • Amy LeForge says:

      Lori, I couldn’t agree more! We’ve long told the boys that college is an important possibility, but we know that it may not be exactly right for them. They are expected to do “something” though.

      We’ve been encouraging them to take what is called a Gap Year. Go off and explore the world in some kind of work-study experience in their chosen field. One path from there is to get an associate’s degree from the local community college, setting themselves up to transfer where they please. For my boy who doesn’t have a definite path in mind, this is an especially flexible plan. But we’ll deal with whatever life presents as it happens. As long as they’re growing and learning (and taking responsibility for their futures) we’re supportive.

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