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Why I said 'yes' when my son said 'no' to college

A mom who works for a university weighs her son's decision to not attend university after high school graduation – and agrees with his choice.

Mark Felix/The Orange County Register/AP
Segerstrom High School graduates stand and sing the school song before they're dismissed from graduation in Santa Ana, Calif. on Wednesday June 18.

My son, an honors student, recently graduated from high school.

He decided not to go to college, a surprise considering his father and I both work at universities.

This has made me wonder what exactly is the value of a college degree.

The Pew Research Center analyzed 2010 Census Bureau data and found that the typical adult with only a bachelor's degree will earn $1.42 million over a 40-year career, or $650,000 more than a typical individual who has only a high school degree. 

When the cost of college and lost income while in school are factored in, the lifetime difference narrows to $550,000.

President Obama has said, “Earning a post-secondary degree or credential is no longer just a pathway to opportunity for a talented few; rather, it is a prerequisite for the growing jobs of the new economy.”

But let’s consider the costs of college.

The average Class of 2014 graduate with student-loan debt has to pay back some $33,000, according to an analysis of government data by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher at Edvisors. After adjusting for inflation that is nearly double the amount borrowers had to pay back 20 years ago.

Many of these graduates must delay purchasing a home, buying a car, and they have to pay back student loans.

Recently, I heard the president of a large community college system bemoan the illogic of not allowing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees.

An audience member asked about the role of community colleges in preparing students for trade and vocational occupations.  

The president responded with, “Would you want your child to be a tradesman? 

I was truly surprised by this response, since it seems the looming shortage of skilled workers is common knowledge.

Before my son declared that he was not going to college, I would’ve chalked up this community college president’s ridiculous remark to those of any outlier extremist. Obviously, vocational occupations are worthwhile and necessary and a career path both a student and a parent can be proud of. 

But is this really so obvious anymore?  Is the push for everyone to earn a bachelor’s degree so ubiquitous, that we’ve completely lost sight of the outcome of earning the degree?

While much is spewed about the value and the cost of going to college, what’s missing from this dialogue are the students. 

So back to my son. When first breaking the news to us, he began his explanation with a reminder that he has always been a self-motivated learner. Choosing to not go to college did not mean he was choosing to stop learning.

This reminder brought back memories of his zeal when learning about frogs and electricity and later computers. Throughout his life, his desire to learn and the classroom curriculum did not meet in a neat union. 

I did not realize the significance of this until the recent memorable day when he told me that he was never going to college. Admittedly, after I recovered from the shock, I searched for a plausible and acceptable explanation. 

I had to find a way to save face. After all, I LOVE college. My personal experience of higher education was so transformative that I’ve dedicated my career to advocating and supporting students to reach the goal of earning a college degree. 

But in my gut, I knew the college route was not the right path for my son.

What if what’s really at stake is not choosing which college, but declaring self-sufficiency?  What if, instead of teaching young children that if they study hard they’ll have a chance to go the college of their dreams, we taught them that starting today, you will be responsible for your future?  What if we didn’t have to beg our children to participate in their lives and instead challenged them to lead their lives?

My son will immediately begin full time employment as a web developer. Actually he calls himself a software engineer, a title that initially made me cringe knowing he did not earn this designation through traditional means. But he is a self-taught computer wiz and his starting salary will be more than mine after 10 years in higher education.

I’ve realized the simplicity of one educational path to success is outdated.  And so is my attachment of him going to college. In the end, he has taught me to open my mind, to question the status quo, to reflect upon my own motivations, and to re-discover the learner in myself. 

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