For most high school seniors, the months leading up to graduation aren’t just about senior pranks, ditch days, and Grad Nites. These days are also filled with essay writing, scholarship applications, school visits, talks with counselors, and orientations. It’s a process that about 69% of high school seniors go through every year in order to prepare for the next big stage in life—going to college.
After all, you’re supposed to go to college after high school, right? That’s what most of us grow up being told. The idea of high school being a necessary stepping stone to college, and college being a necessary stepping stone to a worthwhile career has been ingrained in our American culture for decades.
Everyone knows that going to college is simply the best way to set yourself up for success down the road.
Or is it?
College, as we typically understand it, is extremely useful. It’s without a doubt among the most effective ways to earn an education—but maybe not for everyone.
Of the high school graduates that go to college, 45% will drop out before earning their degree. Why? Because college is hard, and it takes a particular type of person with a particular type of mindset and a particular purpose to get the most out of it.
And most people don’t know why they should be going to college in the first place.
College helps you learn and grow as a person…
College is a place designed for learning. Not just memorizing information in textbooks, but also a deeper type of learning. College tends to be the most difficult academic, personal, and social challenge ever faced by incoming freshmen. And as with all challenges, students either must grow in order to overcome it or fail to grow and drop out.
On top of what they learn in class, college students are challenged to think critically, communicate clearly, solve complex problems, ask the right questions and find their own answers. College gives you the opportunity to explore your interests in an environment focused on growth. It encourages you to discover what you believe, question what you know, and define who you want to be when it’s time to face the real world.
Yes, academics are what you will (and should) spend most of your time on at college. You should learn as much from your professors and textbooks as you can. But the other lessons—the ones that result in you becoming a stronger, more grounded, more confident person—are equally important.
This growth is one of the primary benefits of college
### AND get a better job down the road
This is, of course, the other major benefit of going to college. College graduates, on average, make more money than those who don’t earn a degree. And although college doesn’t necessarily train you to do a specific job the way a trade school might, it can definitely help prepare you for success in your future career.
The most obvious way that college prepares you for a career is through education. An engineer needs to have an advanced understanding of mathematics. A physicist needs to be an expert in physics; a doctor, medicine; a journalist, journalism. STEM programs are an excellent example of this: these programs prepare students to use a combination of knowledge and creativity to solve difficult problems in highly technical fields. Many modern careers require a specialized education for even a basic starting position. And in many cases, that education would be hard to get without going to college.
The real money maker for most graduates, though, are the connections. Many colleges have incubator programs exclusively to help their student entrepreneurs be successful in business. Or grants available to fund student research. Many colleges have alumni networks to aid in the job search—graduating from the same college as a company’s CEO can be a major foot in the door.
And then there are the students themselves. Colleges are full of ambitious visionaries eager to start the next great world-changing business. With the number of opportunities and connections available to college students, of course college graduates tend to have higher salaries.
Without a doubt, a college education has its benefits. Earning a degree could set you up for personal and financial success down the road. But not everybody needs to go to college in order to be successful.
What about the 31% who don’t go to college?
If college is so great, why would someone choose not to go? For most of us, a high school diploma isn’t going to be enough to secure a livable income. Certainly if you have a family, you’ll need to invest in some sort of education to make yourself more valuable to an employer.
High school graduates who choose alternative educational paths usually have a good reason. College might be too expensive for them or they had poor grades in high school. Maybe they’re simply satisfied with where they are in life or they’d rather go straight to work instead of spending more time in the classroom.
These people want something more from life, and they need an education to get it. They just don’t need one from college.
Instead of paying for their education, they can be paid to learn.
Someone who chooses not to go to college has the opportunity to start their career the day after graduating from high school (if not before). Most often they find work as a tradesman and take advantage of the built-in educational path that comes with learning a trade like plumbing or welding.
Tradesmen primarily learn by doing, often as an apprentice. They work under the supervision of an experienced tradesman who teaches them the basics, not in the classroom but out in the field doing real work. And since they’re working from day one, tradesmen are essentially paid to learn. Getting on-the-job training like this is one of the best ways to get a useful and profitable education outside of the classroom.
Learning a trade this way has the added benefit of leading to significant career advancements almost always in a relatively short amount of time. The more tradesmen work, the more they learn, and the more they’re able to earn. For example, the average salary for an apprentice electrician is around $35,000. But after about four years, when they “graduate” to journeyman, it jumps to $55,000; and again to $67,000 or more when they become a master.
So while people who go to college wait four years to start their career, those who go straight into a trade start right away, earning an income while getting on-the-job training that leads directly to significantly better salaries down the road.
And they have the freedom to grow their own way.
College is a great tool to use for self-development and growing as a person. It’s structured, relatively free from consequences if you make mistakes, and an environment that emphasizes the importance of learning. However, you don’t have to go to college to get the same or similar educational and personal growth benefits.
Life is full of opportunities to grow, and when you don’t lock yourself into spending four years at a university, you have more freedom to choose which of those opportunities to take.
For example, if you want to learn a trade but you’re not too excited about being an apprentice, you can choose to go to a trade school. Trade schools are a lot like college. They have classes, lessons, teachers, and homework. They challenge you academically in similar ways; however, the major difference is that instead of earning a degree at the end of your education, you develop the skills and practical experience needed to assemble an engine or build a house. You can think about the difference like this: while college might teach undergrads how airplanes work, trade school teaches you how to build airplanes.
Alternatively, you could go into public service, start a business, or even join the military. All of these result in similar personal growth (you’ll be thrown into a situation that you’re likely not ready for, and be forced to grow in order to overcome it), and they each can lead to greater opportunities down the road.
While taking one of these alternate paths likely means you’d be sacrificing an opportunity for a more academic education, the benefit is that you’re able to start your career much earlier. And without having to pay for an expensive education at a university or spend an extra four years as a student. You’re able to get a head start on life and make it your own.
Who should go to college?
While going to college is an incredible experience and has become a rite of passage for many young adults, that doesn’t mean it’s the right way for everyone to get an education.
Go to college if you need a degree…
For most of us, a degree is the key that unlocks the door to some future career. While many careers require entry-level applicants to have at least a career-related bachelor’s degree of some sort, not every career requires one.
Do you plan to have a career in the medical field? You probably need a degree. Going into something like construction or aviation? You might not.
And can afford it…
College is expensive. Assuming you can’t pay for college out of pocket, your starting salary as a recent graduate should be equal to or greater than the total debt that you owe for your education. Even then, going into debt for college isn’t a great idea. If you’re not careful, you can very easily spend half your life paying it off.
And have a specific purpose for your time at college…
Most people go to college without knowing why they’re going or where it fits into their master plan. These are the people who spend years trying to figure what major to pick, wasting valuable time that they could have spent preparing for what comes after graduation. Having a specific purpose helps to keep you focused on the end goal and helps you get the most value possible out of your time at college.
And you’re absolutely dedicated to finishing.
There’s no point spending a crazy amount of money on your education if you’re not going to stick it out until the end. Not finishing school is a great way to waste a lot of time and potentially set you back in life by years.
The best way for you to get an education
If you found yourself nodding along and thinking “yup, that’s me” in the previous section, then absolutely go to college. It’s probably the best way for you to get an education.
If not, no worries! There are better paths for you.
The only person who can tell you the best option for your education is you. There isn’t a single best way that works for everyone. The best way for you to get an education depends on where you want to go in life.
So what, exactly, do you want from life? The type of education you choose to pursue should get you closer to it.