“Support your child’s dreams – even if their dream isn’t the same dream you had for them.”
Scrolling through Facebook I came across a picture of a mother and a toddler, standing in a field, the above quote sprawling over it. I took it in for a minute and thought back to the number of parents I have met in the last couple years whose goals and expectations for their children varied drastically from what their child wanted for themselves. Families who had raised their children to say, “no” to drugs, only to find them resisting substance abuse treatment. Parents who taught their children better than engage in sexualized behaviors. Maybe most commonly, parents who don’t understand their child’s lack of motivation to succeed in school-who had imagined saying tearful goodbyes to their 18-year-old freshman, and crying tears of joy at a college graduation, only to find their child chomping at the bit to get out into the real world and succeed on their own without a college education.
For someone who was raised believing that a Bachelor’s Degree was the new high school diploma, I have to admit that it was a challenge for me to step back and acknowledge my bias. As a therapist, I want my clients to live their best life. Until the last few years, I believed that a person’s “best life” begins with a college education. It’s not my job to put my expectations and values on my clients, and as I got to know them (and started taking a hard look at my own student loans) I found myself shifting: maybe the college degree isn’t a necessity for someone to attain their dreams and live a fulfilling and successful life.
There have been a lot of factors that have influenced this change in the way I feel about a college education.
Making Decisions at 18
Working with juveniles, I often find myself discussing brain development with my clients. Their brains aren’t fully developed until their mid-20s, therefore they should not be using substances that interfere with how their brains are functioning. But if a child or young adult is still functioning in a pretty impulsive part of their brain, which is less aware of long-term consequences and more tuned into instant gratification, why are we pushing them to pick a degree program in a subject they may have zero passion about 8-10 years from now?
Many students walk the stage on graduation day and continue on to a career in their field that they love, but just as many struggle to attain work in their field. Graduates find that the niche degree they loved studying does not have much practical application or demand in the working world, or that jobs they were qualified for did not give them any kind of satisfaction.
I personally could not be where I am today without my education. I am lucky that I have never doubted my calling to become a therapist. Even at the graduate level, we find some students realizing that they had no interest in the career they had prepared for. The thought of spending four, six, or eight years working towards a goal and then finding the reality to be so unfulfilling can contribute to feelings of depression or being lost – which impacts our adult relationships and view of ourselves. Some of this could be mitigated by going into a field at a younger age -learning a trade that offers some stability and gives you the option to go back to school later in life.
Young people often view college as a time they will explore independence and blossom into the person they want to be. A lot of personality and relational development is still happening from age 17 or 18 into the mid-20s, and an important part of that development is the culture we engage in. Universities, from what I have observed, seem to have moved from a safe haven of education to a place of indoctrination – some have even referred to it as a war zone of ideology. College can be a place where we are not taught how to think but what to think.
Not everyone agrees with this perception, but I’ve watched teens from my days as youth minister move ahead through both the college system and the school of life. Some of the most beautiful souls have flourished by following their own paths -and if we’re thinking of the welfare of our children’s spirits, it could be a very beautiful thing to see them figure out their calling in a community without an agenda.
In the Catholic world, we do have universities that encourage Catholic culture, values, and formation – but even these “bubbles” are not perfect. Some top Catholic universities have been in hot water lately with accusations that victims of sexual assault are met with resistance when trying to report their attacks – or worse being blamed or shamed for it. Those aren’t the only places that this has happened, but it does show that even the most revered Catholic universities have some cultural issues that absolutely need some examination and reform.
“My intent is to remind people that a university is not the only place to enrich your mind or prepare yourself for the real world. Nor is it necessarily the best place. It’s merely the most expensive.“ – Mike Rowe
Along with asking teenagers to make big decisions about the career field they want to spend the next 30-40 years in, we are also asking them to figure out how to finance expensive eductions before they have much understanding about what it’s like to carry around massive debt. Some parents have prepared for this financial burden and can pay for their children’s education, but not every teenager goes off to school knowing that the bill will be footed.
Sometimes I say, “I wish someone would have told me how crushing this student loan debt would be when I signed those papers.” Then I realize someone did… my dad. But I was 18 and thought I knew better than him. When I realized that I couldn’t make enough with my undergraduate degree to pay them off, I found myself bitter that I did not have a better understanding of what I was signing up for. Do I regret it? No – I made the best friends of my life in college and found myself in a wonderful place to challenge myself mentally and spiritually. But again not everyone in my position feels that way.
Rather than taking on absurd amounts of debt to finance a degree, going to a trade school or learning a craft that does not require an expensive education can be a tremendously beneficial financial decision. It costs a fraction of what universities do, and often these trades pay very well. Trades are also desperate for new blood -they’re getting dangerously low.
Before asking our children to make huge decisions about debt and career paths, it may be helpful to examine what we believe a happy and healthy life looks like. If your child is happy taking a gap year to explore their options, enrolling in a technical school, entering the military, or beginning a job that does not need a college degree, are you?