You’ve felt it. Your face begins to redden, heat forms a patchwork quilt up your spine. You’ve begun a conversation with a new person, one who isn’t familiar with you or your past. They mention their work and then they ask you what you do. At some point they casually pose the question you loathe, the one swarming with a humiliation you haven’t yet overcome:
“So, where did you go to school?”
For millions of Americans, there is a simple answer to this simple question. But for so many others, the decision to not attend college, whether out of necessity or choice, is laden with embarrassment and shame.
My own story is one of choice. At nineteen, I had been attending an extremely small college in Manhattan, studying philosophy and politics and nearing the end of my second semester. It had become quite obvious to me after my first semester that I was dispassionate about the subjects in which I was spending vast amounts of money to study. I am a musician and a performer and I knew that I should have been focusing on that, however unnerving the idea was.
I vividly remember a phone conversation with my father while wandering the perimeter of Bryant Park. Spring was on the horizon, and it was an unseasonably warm afternoon. I was terrified to tell my father that I didn’t think I should return to school in the fall — terrified that he would think less of me, more terrified still that he would force me to stay. Shockingly, he said something quite novel for a 21st century parent: “Then don’t go back. Take some time, figure out what you want to do.”
I did just that and I never looked back. While most of my peers are now racked in debt, getting paid a pittance at their tech start ups and applying to graduate schools, I am debt free and have spent the last ten years living the creative life I craved, the one I knew I was born to live and explore. Had my father told me that I could not leave school, that I must complete the four years with a degree in something, anything, then I would currently have a useless degree, a lot of regret, and a whole lot of debt.
I do not intend to demean higher education here, but to shed a little light on the lives of those to whom higher education doesn’t apply. Depending on what it is you want to do and if you have the means to do it, higher education can be a tremendously important and essential next step for many young Americans. But we need to begin having another conversation — with rising costs of education and less jobs available upon graduation, parents must begin talking with their children about what they want to do after high school and break the notion that college is a must for every single child.
In 2012, 71% of students graduating from four-year colleges had student loan debt. In 2016, we know that that debt totaled an average of $37,162 per student. And according to a study in The Washington Post in 2013, only 27% of college graduates have a job relating to their major. This, of course, opens the divisive discussion of education costs, high interest rates on loans, and many other multi-faceted issues of which it is not my objective to discuss here. But I mention these statistics to highlight the very real financial burden that most students will be encumbered with upon graduation, and whether or not it was necessary for a number of those students to have put themselves in that position in the first place.
It is essential that we also address the cultural stigma surrounding community colleges. The view of most high school students is that community college is for unintelligent kids, those who couldn’t get into a “real” school; though for millions of America’s youth, community college is not only the most affordable option, it’s the smartest. One can spend two years completing every single general education course, having spent time figuring out their next move without paying thousands upon thousands while doing so. As I can attest, high schoolers are by and large deathly afraid of admitting to their peers that they won’t be attending a university in the fall — they’ll be living at home for a few more years while everyone else is afforded the classic campus experience. Parents: it is your job to squash this stigma for your children — it is also essential that you squash it in yourselves.
Parents are often loathe to admit to family and friends that their child isn’t attending a reputable university. That disdain trickles down, and it sets in motion a mental block for the child that becomes increasingly difficult to kill. We need to recognize that at seventeen, eighteen years old, our children mostly have no idea who they are or what they want to accomplish. They may have dreams and aspirations, but to assume that they have already mentally formed their next chapter and know exactly which path to take is naive and could ultimately be destructive to the child in question.
I am one of the lucky ones. I had parents who fostered my creative ambitions. They pushed me forward with confidence. They knew college wasn’t for me and they didn’t force it. I’ve had to learn to find pride in my decision, regardless of the societal perception surrounding those who are not college educated. We need to allow room for our kids to grow into themselves, and sometimes that means giving them space after high school to figure out which road is theirs. We live in an age of unimaginable innovation — who knows, maybe your child already has all the skills they need to go forward and become the person they were meant to be. There is no shame in taking the time to discover who that is.