Should you go to college? After all, that’s the advice a lot of students get as they prepare to leave high school. Many of us are told that a four-year degree — or even an advanced degree — is the key to a reliable income and a good life.
But not everyone has a good experience with higher education, and not everyone thrives in a traditional four-year college setting.
That doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a life of scrambling for a living, though. You can do great things and make good money without getting a traditional four-year degree.
Should I go to college? What to consider
“Not everyone is designed for the four-year college experience, and that’s OK,” said Mack Smith, a retired instruction technologist and college instructor who has helped develop educational programs and counseled students about their career paths. “There are good jobs available for those who have two-year degrees and technical certifications.”
Smith pointed out that alternatives to college can lead to good, middle-class jobs for millennials. Rather than trying to fit yourself into someone else’s idea of how you should proceed with your life, he suggested thinking about what you want to get out of your education and future career.
As you consider your future, pay attention to these five signs that a conventional four-year college experience might not be the right move for you.
- You’re doing it for someone else
- You’re drawn to other careers
- You want real-world experience
- You’re wary of costs
- Your academics aren’t great
Smith said one of the worst reasons to go to college is because someone else thinks you should. Whether you hope to impress your parents or want to keep up with your friends, it doesn’t make sense to go to college if you just want to make someone else happy.
“One of my sons thought that he was doing what I wanted by starting out at a traditional school,” Smith said. “It was a disaster. He didn’t enjoy it, and none of the programs interested him.”
Once his son realized that he needed to follow his own path, he quit the traditional school and enrolled in a program that offered an associate’s degree and a technical certificate. Today, he loves working in airplane mechanics, making a good living without a four-year degree.
“Take a look at your own strengths and weaknesses and choose a program based on what works for you, not what other people think you should do,” said Smith. “You’re more likely to have long-term success and avoid wasting time and money if you focus on what works for you.”
Traditional liberal arts schools may not offer the career training that you want, Smith noted. He’s watched as, over time, colleges that offered career training and skilled occupations programs shifted focus to more academically-based degrees. That makes it harder for some students to get the career training they need for the jobs they desire.
“Look at the offerings at four-year schools. If you aren’t drawn to the degree programs, consider looking at community colleges and technical schools,” Smith advised. “College might not be for you if nothing in the course catalog inspires you.”
Pay attention to what you love, and look for a program that fits your needs, rather than trying to adapt yourself to a college that doesn’t offer what you want.
“Not everyone wants to jump into college right away,” said Smith. “Maybe you want to get started earning money. Perhaps you want some real-world experience to help you learn more about what you want to study.”
He added that just about any job can help you learn skills you can use later in your career.
Plus, as Smith pointed out, you might be surprised to discover that a traditional college experience doesn’t always prepare you for the “real” world. In fact, a survey conducted on behalf of the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that employers think college grads are underprepared for work.
That doesn’t mean you should abandon all types of training, though. According to Smith, many career and technical programs help you learn on-the-job skills while you go through the program. Plus, he said, it’s possible to sign up for programs that offer apprenticeships and practicums.
“A four-year college emphasizes book learning and knowledge acquisition. While there’s nothing wrong with that, you might be more interested in getting a jump on actually developing skills employers want,” Smith said. “If you want to get some real experience and practice skills that can get you hired, putting off a traditional college education can help you.”
Sometimes, your post-high school education has more to do with affordability than it does other considerations. If the price tag of a four-year college sends you into sticker shock, attending a two-year community college can save you big bucks.
According to The College Board, tuition and fees at a two-year college ($3,730 in 2019-2020) costs roughly a third of what you’d be charged at a four-year, in-state school ($10,440).
If you can’t afford attendance at a four-year college right now, it doesn’t mean you won’t have any options. Start with a cheaper program and work as you go.
“Your earnings now can be used later, if you decide to continue advancing your education,” said Smith.
Maybe you hoped to go to college, but a few poor grades are holding you back.
“I see a number of students who didn’t get serious about school and college until their junior year,” said Smith. “By then, it might be too late for your GPA if you want to attend a traditional four-year school, especially if you hope for a scholarship to reduce the costs.”
Smith pointed out that many career and technical alternatives to college don’t have the same academic requirements.
“Get your certification and start working,” he said. “Later, if you want to go to college as a non-traditional student, your high school GPA won’t matter as much as your work experience.”
Community colleges often offer a way to improve your grades, too. Once your GPA is higher, you can transfer to a four-year school.
“If your high school grades aren’t good enough for a scholarship or to get into the four-year university of your choice, go to community college,” Smith said. “Focus on academics for good grades and then transfer when you have your associate’s degree. You might even get a scholarship later.”
“Should I go to college?” might not be the right question to ask yourself. Instead, ask yourself how you can best develop marketable skills that will help you advance your career.
“Whether you want to work for yourself or get a good job working for someone else, what you really need are in-demand skills,” said Smith. “Think about the most cost-efficient way to develop the skills you need in a career that you will find fulfilling.”
A traditional four-year college might be the answer for you, but for others, that path doesn’t pan out. In that case, alternatives to college can provide better long-term results for your career and your life.
“Be honest about what you want and where you’re at,” suggested Smith. “There are plenty of career programs and technical education programs that can help you accomplish your goals. Don’t get hung up on going to college once you realize that it’s not actually for you.”
Andrew Pentis contributed to this report.
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