Sounds like a strange thing for a high school English teacher with a Master's degree to say, doesn't it? After all, I spend two periods a day with AP students who are supposedly planning to use any credit they might get on a College Board test to help them get through college faster. I spend the other three periods a day teaching juniors American Literature, most of whom will go on to college to earn a degree in their chosen field.
But notice that I qualified that statement with the word "most."
We are in a strange place in American education right now. Some changes are for the better but there many more changes and reforms necessary if we are going to regain our position as a world leader in education, innovation, economics, and politics. There are too many reforms to discuss in just one blog post so I am here to propose one change.
Stop telling kids that the only way they can succeed in life is to get a four year college degree.
I'm not saying that a college degree isn't important. After all, I have two Bachelor degrees and one Master's degree. I loved going to school. I love teaching in a school. I want my students to be successful in higher education. I want to see my son and daughter go to college and get degrees in their chosen fields. A college degree is important IF it is necessary for one's chosen profession. But there are many skilled jobs out there that do not require a college degree. These are important jobs that are no less skilled than my chosen profession. Not just anyone can teach writing (contrary to what some politicians and non-educators believe) and not just anyone can fix my car, my plumbing, or my furnace. Those are skills I do not have. And just as I know there are people who have no desire to teach, I do not have the desire or aptitude for auto-mechanics, plumbing, or HVAC repair.
When I was a young and naive teacher I operated under the mistaken belief that all of my students needed to be prepared for college at a four year university. Each assignment was designed with the rationale "when you are in college you are going to need to know how to do this." It was a mindset that made my job more difficult, made some students hate English even more than they already did, and set up some of my students for certain failure. I had bought into the idea that a college degree equaled success and if I was to be a successful teacher 100% of my students would be fully prepared for college. My views concerning my responsibilities as an English teacher have changed over the last 12 years, but so have my views concerning what my students should be doing as they plan their futures. I've had many smart, innovative students who have the intellect to go to college, but they hate the structure of the classroom. They don't like sitting in classes all day long to learn things that they see as unimportant to their dream professions, many of which do not require a four year degree. And yet the government, national education organizations, and middle to upper class populations believe that students need to be strongly encouraged to pursue four year degrees that may or may not be useful once they graduate. Not only that, but many students are graduating with small mortgages. They graduate with crushing debt that will tie up their finances for years.
There are some voices out there promoting the idea that not everyone needs to go to college. Yesterday a friend posted an article about Mike Rowe (of Dirty Jobs and Deadliest Catch fame). He is making it his mission to encourage young people to pursue their profession of choice, whether or not that means a four year degree. His mikeroweWORKS Foundation offers scholarships to young people who want to go to trade school to learn a trade, finish training much earlier than they would if they were to go to college, and get to work without tens of thousands of dollars of college debt. In my AP classes last semester we looked at both education and the economy, encountering articles that suggested to my college bound students that maybe they didn't need that four year degree after all. One particular article by Matthew Crawford, a writer with a PhD who decided to quit his desk job to work on motorcycles, suggests that there is nothing wrong with pursing an education that requires working with one's hands. Both units sparked a lot of discussion about what it mean to be successful and what they need to do to pursue their dreams. Most of them will go off to college and finish a four year degree in a timely manner, but they need to know that a degree doesn't determine success. Hard work determines success. Acquisition of skills pertaining to a chosen field determines success. Willingness to learn and grow as a chosen field changes determines success.
I have seen this in my own life. My husband started college and never finished but he is one of the smartest people I know. He is a computer whiz who reads constantly and if he doesn't know the answer to a problem, he researches until he finds the answer. He goes to trainings when sent. He's taken classes when required. And his intelligence isn't just related to computers. He reads everything and anything, often reading books before me to let me know if they are books I might be interested in. He reads fiction and non-fiction, magazine articles about sports, media, technology, and politics. And he has a good job that allows him to provide for his family. I have also seen students graduate and enter trade school or the military finding fields that they love and find personally fulfilling. They are happy and successful in their own right, and that is what I wish for my own children. Do I want my son and daughter to go to college? Of course! But more importantly I want them to find professions that are personally fulfilling while also allowing them to be financially independent. In other words, I don't want them moving back in with us once they graduate. I want to them to love what they do and be proud of their work. If that means that they do not need to pursue a four year degree, so be it.
College is important, but more important than college is lifelong education. One does not need to acquire a four year to degree to be a life-long learner, but one does have to decide to learn and grow as a job requires. Instead of telling students that they need to pursue a four year degree we need to be encouraging them to be learners in pursuit of knowledge. We need to encourage them to WORK hard. We need to encourage them to pursue their dreams regardless of the education required, whether it is eight years of college or an 18-month training program. If we do this we may just end up with the workforce necessary to regain our position in the world.