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Amy Goldwasser

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RED the Book: The Millennials and the Myth of College

Posted: 04/24/09 05:35 PM ET

This post was written by Jordyn Turney, 19, an author of RED the Book, a collection of personal essays written by 58 American teenage girls, recently released in paperback and being workshopped for theater. She is attending community college in California and just completed her first YA novel, for which she is seeking the right agent and publisher.

It's the perfect storm (if by perfect you mean awful), and we Millennials are at the crux of it. Inflation, recession, and economic collapse are meeting a generation that is particularly ill-prepared to deal with it. We're young, inexperienced in everything besides social networking and schooling (which our whole lives are wrapped around), and we've been groomed to enter not today's world, but the world our parents entered as young adults -- one where college led to a good job and you could be sure your hard work would be rewarded. And for most of us, our school lives have been in preparation for not a career, but a degree. We're not taught to explore our talents -- unless those talents are test-taking -- or think about our future long-term. Long-term meaning beyond college.

Far from being the spoiled generation, older teenagers and twentysomethings are finding the simple things their parents were able to accomplish (like moving out, like newly married couples being able to buy a home) impossible. We were taught that college equaled success and that owning a house was still a reachable American Dream. Promises once thought to be reasonable are now being broken, and I see the results around me. Aside from the friends I have who live in college dorms -- an arrangement that they've all come to accept as just a one- to four-year respite before moving back in with their parents -- none of us can figure out how to leave our childhood homes. It seems impossible, even with roommates. We don't talk about growing up and buying a house; we worry about growing up and earning enough money to rent one.

At the outlet clothing store where I work (for now...), a coworker was telling me the other day how he wants to stay in San Diego but doesn't see how he'll be able to make enough money to stay in the town where he grew up. "We'll be the generation of cardboard boxes," I said, joking. But it's not really, not at all. I'm lucky enough to have parents who are able (and willing) to help me, but what about people who don't? Parents are struggling enough themselves. I fear that without mine I actually would be living in a cardboard box.

For my generation college is, if not a requirement, at least strongly recommended. So strongly recommended that it's often the only thing recommended. The California high school presented attending a UC university as not only the best option for me after high school, but the only one. They didn't discuss going to a vocational school, community college (which is what I'm currently attending) or any other four-year university. And they definitely didn't mention skipping higher education altogether. We have to change this thinking that college is the only way to succeed, and we have to change the fact that the way school prepares us for "life" currently means preparing us for "more schooling."

Coming from out of state I had no idea what UC even meant, but it was mentioned so often and touted so highly I was afraid to ask. High school students are pushed toward having a high GPA, taking honors classes and extracurriculars, and acing the SATs with one goal in mind: college. While the idea behind this is a good one -- according to an article in the Chicago Tribune late last year, the average college grad makes about $25,000 more annually than a nongrad -- the singlemindedness behind it is becoming ludicrous. Because the reality is that a college degree does not guarantee you a good job, and in our current recession, it may not guarantee you one at all. According to CNNmoney.com in November of 2008 there were about 1.413 million out-of-work college graduates. And what does this mean for the Millennial Generation?

As one of my friends -- who may as well have been speaking for all of my friends -- wrote on her Facebook page, "I have absolutely no idea what I want to do post-college. Now what?" Even though the question was around at the time of The Graduate, today it's far more an economic reality than an existential luxury. The average college graduate accumulates about three times more debt than a decade ago after adjusting for inflation, according to the Federal Reserve.

When I was able to graduate high school a year earlier than I'd expected, community college wound up being what I chose by default. I hadn't given college much prior thought, so I registered for community college because it was less stressful for me than scrambling to apply elsewhere and less expensive for my parents. Now, in my second semester here, I'm glad I didn't go to a four-year university right away, both because of cost and because I like the relative smallness and anonymity of my school. I'll actually miss it when I end up transferring elsewhere.

Still, I'm the rare one of my friends who's going the community-college-first route, and who's trying to avoid going to graduate school. I'm the rare one who thinks you should have a career goal (in my case teaching) in mind before spending years of your life, not to mention the money.

High schools, even middle schools, need to have on-track career programs that gear students toward a field, not just a university campus. Students are people and people have widely varied interests. However, in our intellectual society -- one that's unaccustomed to economic recession, really -- many of those interests are not given the same respect as academic pursuits. My sister, for instance, is interested in fashion and design. And she's good at it. But when does school ever encourage you to look into an apprenticeship in fashion over going to a traditional college? All students are shuffled through the same classes and the same tests, but the one-size-fits-all method isn't working.

The Millennial Generation has, you might say, been raised from a perspective of privilege. We came from successful parents who, for much of our childhoods, were prospering. We were told that we were great, special, unique by our parents and teachers. We were brought up never knowing a world that wasn't constantly, instantly connected. And yet the paradox is that as Millennials come into adulthood, loaded up with technology's luxuries (iPhones and DVRs), the things weighing on our minds are still the most Depression-era basics: How am I going to find a job that pays enough for me to live off of? Will it be able to justify the cost (in both time and money) of my degree? What will I do for medical insurance once I graduate? And, How long will it be before I can move out of my parents' house?

And the answers to these questions aren't Google-able. Despite our technological know-how and our higher education, we don't have them. The world our parents grew up in no longer exists. In its place is a world where a college degree is no guarantee of success, jobs are hard to come by, and the young newlywed couple living with parents is becoming the norm. Where spoiled no longer means expensive cars and vacation houses, but a car that works and parents paying for education at a state college.

My generation is growing up, and it is scary. The future is full of uncertainty and the outlook seems more bad than good. It's lucky we're an optimistic bunch, raised on hope and confidence in ourselves, because I have a feeling that in our adult lives we will desperately need it.