It’s almost graduation season. Probably many of you high school grads are tired of thinking about, and answering questions like “What college are you going to in the fall?” Or, explaining why you aren’t planning to go to college right away - or maybe ever. And, many of you college grads are losing sleep at night, wondering whether you’re going to be able to land an interesting and lucrative job after being a student for most of your life.
As a parent, I remember this time last year as my son, Sean, was preparing to graduate from Colorado School of Mines with an engineering degree. I felt a great deal of pride, mixed with a whole lot of relief. No more college tuition bills - Yay! My husband and I started saving for college when our boys were young. Our older son, Jason, had graduated from Mines three years earlier, also with an engineering degree. We scrimped and saved, and still ended up with parent loans. Our boys also ended up with their own student loans. Both Jason and Sean would say they made the right choice, but it was costly - and not just in terms of money spent, but in the countless hours spent sitting in lectures and studying.
College tuition has risen over 500% since 1982, which is about when I graduated from the University of Arizona. At today’s prices, I think it’s a good idea to ask what you’re buying, and whether it’s a good return on investment. I think it’s also important to look at other options. One of my young clients is taking a break from high school to apprentice as a plumber. She’s loving the challenge and feels that she’s learning useful and productive skills. I thought of her as I watched this video interview with Mike Rowe, the star of the TV series “Dirty Jobs”. Rowe is articulate and passionate about breaking through the stigma of working in the trades, or what many think of as dirty jobs.
Rowe explains that there are lots of relatively high-paying jobs that are going unfilled in our country. They require people with specialized skills, like electricians, plumbers, welders, technicians. Skills that traditionally were acquired through vocational training and/or apprenticeships. They also require people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and word hard. He is asking parents, guidance counselors, students and business leaders/owners, to question whether it makes sense to simply assume that a college degree is the preferred choice for everyone. What if… instead of spending a minimum of $80,000 on a bachelor degree, a person used that money to start a small business? Or learned a valuable skill, gained work experience, and earned money for those 4+ years. The alternative for many college students is to graduate with unrealistic expectations of their worth in the job market, along with a heavy burden of debt.
I showed this video to my sons, who are both working as engineers. Jason graduated with a degree in petroleum engineering, just in time for the downturn in the oil and gas industry. He was laid off from Halliburton after a few months and couldn’t find a job in his field. He took what work he could find, and eventually acquired skills and experience that helped him land an engineering position at an aerospace company.
I absolutely loved my college experience. I’ve been a nerd my whole life, and am never happier than when I’m learning. What I discovered after college, however, was how much fun it can be to pick and choose what I want to learn. There is a wealth of classes, workshops, self-study courses available on nearly every subject. They tend to be inexpensive, and in some cases, free. Recently I downloaded a free audio course on genetics, taught by a leading professor at UC Davis. It was so current that the professor kept saying “this is what we know today, but it may change next year”. (Yes, I really am a nerd!)
To be successful in today’s fast-changing world, we all have to become life-long learners. Whether you graduate with a college degree or choose a different path, stay curious.