One of the first gifts my son received as a newborn was a tiny T-shirt with the name of my alma mater emblazoned across the front. When I unwrapped it, I forced a smile and said, “So cute!” But inside, I was grimacing.
College and I did not get along. I went for two years before dropping out, and the whole time I was there, I felt like I was drowning. It was the most miserable that I’ve ever been in my life, and my friends and family knew it. Yet when I left, everyone acted like I had just dropped out of life, not school. I could tell they thought I’d never be able to get a job — that I would struggle for the rest of my life. I have three siblings, one older and two younger, and I’m the only one who didn’t graduate from a college or university.
Don’t get me wrong: I think education is important, and I love learning. In fact, I probably read more than all three of those college-educated siblings combined. But the thing is, I don’t think it matters that I don’t have a degree — and I don’t care if my son never gets one either.
I distinctly remember failing a math test in sixth grade and hearing my teacher say, “You need to study harder; you’ll need good grades to get into a good school.” I was 11 at the time. And from that moment on, I heard it talked about more and more: college, college, testing for college, preparing for college, which college, you have to go to college, but what about college? The older I got, the more the pressure piled on. And by high school, forget about it: College was the entirety of every school-related conversation. What are your safety schools? Are you a legacy? (No, sorry, my dad never graduated either).
Most of my high school memories are college-related memories. There were college admissions lectures, conferences, color-coded notes and stacks and stacks of applications. My classmates took weeks off to visit schools, every extracurricular was counted and classified, PSATs and SATs were taken again and again, hoping for ever-better scores. But even after all that, after the stress of tests and applications, after waiting for weeks and checking the mailbox every day — that was only the beginning of the college-related stress. Because after all that was when we actually had to go to college.
My generation is the most educated in American history — but at what cost? And I mean literal cost: Graduates are emerging hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. My college-obsessed sister is in her mid-30s and still only barely chipping away at her student loans. And for what? Thanks to the recession, every millennial I know, graduate or not, is fighting for jobs and struggling to get by. Some are living paycheck to paycheck, some have moved back in with their parents. They’re putting off having kids, putting off buying homes, putting off everything but the day-to-day necessities so they can continue to afford to exist — and so they can afford to pay off the bare minimum of student loan interest that’s required of them (never mind actually beginning to pay off the principal).
A diploma is just a piece of paper that congratulates you on the thousands of dollars you’ll spend the rest of your life paying off. It doesn’t guarantee a job or an income or security.
And sure, those college years may be the best years of your life — you might make lifelong friends, maybe meet the love of your life. And maybe, although you’ll be exhausted and live on ramen, you’ll love it. I get it. I do. I see the appeal of that kind of community, of time dedicated to learning, of a few more years spent expanding your horizons before being suffocated by the responsibilities of the real world. But do you have to go to college to experience that?
College forces you to “choose” (for now) a career path at a very early age, whether that’s declaring a major your freshman year or deciding to apply to art school or technical school or culinary school when you’re 16. That’s insane. Who on Earth knows what they want to do for the rest of their life — and can confidently and correctly make that choice — at age 16? And if you pursue that specialized degree in sculpture/mechanics/pastry/underwater welding and fall out of love with it? Forget it.
I attended a specialized school for two years, which was about one year and seven months longer than I would have stayed if I hadn’t felt so guilty for wasting everyone’s time — and my parents’ money. Eventually, wanting to spare my own last tiny shred of sanity won out, and I quit. And let me tell you: If you quit school or even just take a year off, society wastes no time in making you feel like you’ve failed. And I wouldn’t wish that feeling on anyone, especially not my child.
If my son wants to be an astronaut and work for NASA, I will do everything I can to make that happen. MIT, here we come. But if he wants to open a doughnut shop or a bookstore or a laser-tag arena, then so be it. If he wants to take some time off after high school to see where his interests lie, that’s fine by me. And if he just plain doesn’t want to go to college at all, that’s fine too.
Sure, not getting a degree might make it take a little longer for my son to achieve his career dreams — but it might not. And as long as he’s doing what he loves, I’ll be one happy mom.