Is College Really for Everyone?

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One of the biggest questions children get asked when they are young is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” This is a big question, but one that is fun to consider and imagine. Of course, the response often varies over the years as interests change and develop. As children grow into young adulthood, this question often changes to “Where do you want to go to college?” 

Today I want you to consider: Is this the question we should be asking our children and students? Should we be promoting college above all available options? What are the other options? Is college really for everyone? 

We are starting a new series on this topic, and today we will discuss and begin to answer these very questions.

How and Why College is Promoted to Students

In order to promote economic prosperity and opportunity, the United States government greatly encourages college attendance. In 2009, the Obama administration set goals to increase the number of 25-34-year-olds who hold college certificates or degrees to 60% by 2020. This number has not been reached, and it could take until at least 2056 to reach that proportion at the current rate. 

According to a study by The Education Trust, 82% of high school students are graduating, but only 8 percent are ready to take on college-level courses. According to the report, students take random classes that don’t prepare them for life after high school.

High schools nowadays don’t prepare you for college; they prepare you for getting into college, or at least, they try to.

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The expectation in high school is for students to learn and memorize enough information to pass standardized tests. Success on these tests impacts students’ ability to get accepted to universities. Rarely are students taught the skills to think for themselves. This, being able to think freely outside of the confines of authoritative instruction, is an important skill needed for college, the workforce, and daily life. 

The goal under No Child Left Behind was graduation from high school. This was based on students passing tests on the standards developed by states. Under the current Common Core standards, the goal is for students to pass tests in order to enroll in college. This means that the culmination of students’ education is based on how prepared they are for college. This does not, however, necessarily equate to being prepared for a career.

For more information on the current goal of education, check out this series on The State of Education Podcast, or head over to this article from One-Room Education.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Attending College

Many fields require the specific knowledge that necessitates the in-depth study and training of a college education. This includes careers in medicine, science, and education, among others. In addition, many companies will only hire applicants who have at least a bachelor’s degree. In many situations, having a college degree puts you at an advantage in the job market. 

Students’ time in college often leads to more than a college degree. College provides a wonderful opportunity for networking, both socially and professionally. It is unlikely that someone will ever be surrounded by that many peers going through a similar experience in life again. In addition to the networking opportunities, Colleges often offer mock interviews, public speaking courses, job fairs, campus clubs and professional organizations, along with other similar offerings. Taking advantage of these experiences helps build relationships that can expand your network and put you ahead of the pack right out of school.

On the other hand, many young adults don’t know what they want to study or pursue as a career right out of high school. Often, the advice received from college and career counselors, including local school counselors, is to try a variety of classes in order to help students discover what they like. This can cause a number of problems. 


Students waste precious time and money taking courses that may or may not benefit them.


Students waste precious time and money taking courses that may or may not benefit them. Without a clear direction, they may also be encouraged to earn a general liberal arts degree that makes it difficult to find jobs after graduation. 

Another possible scenario is discovering a true passion after a couple of years of study, only to have to transfer schools or switch to a different major. This ends up being a very expensive way to explore your interests. 

The “college experience,” as it is often described, often doesn’t provide the experience that prepares adults for real life. The environment of being surrounded by peers and professors, completing assignments as directed, with minimal other responsibilities, is unlikely to happen again. It does not train adults for the multiple responsibilities they will need to take care of after college. In addition, although colleges teach theories and facts, many career skills are learned on the job or through experience. As Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, puts it:

a great deal of what masquerades as learning is nothing more than credentialing.

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College has a specific setup and structure. Does this work for all students? Not necessarily. 

As is the case in elementary and secondary education, a one-size-fits-all approach does not actually fit all. Some students have had a negative school experience and find that the thought of attending college leaves a pit in their stomach. Those with special needs will find it hard to fit in or learn in a way that suits them. Also, some students learn best by doing, and the college lecture format often does not leave much time for hands-on experiences.

The Changing View of Higher Education and its Necessity 

According to a Gallup poll of more than 2,000 American adults, from 2019, only 51% of Americans see college as “very important”. This dropped from 70% in 2013. In the young adult population specifically (ages 18-29), this number dropped from 74% to 41%. The amount of people who viewed college as “not too important” increased from 6% to 13%.

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There have been two competing theories that have been in an uneasy balance for years. Colleges cite the skills of critical thinking, research, reasoning, writing, and teamwork as worthwhile components of a liberal arts education. These skills are valuable assets in a wide variety of companies and career paths.  In reality however, many employers report that the average college graduate lacks the soft skills of communication, leadership, adaptability, and resilience, or that these skills are at least underdeveloped. 

Promoters of the working class have not always seen the necessity of a liberal arts education. The idea that college is used as a means for developing intellectually in any area of study, has often been viewed as less valuable by those seeking employment. The broad range of knowledge and skills that come with a liberal arts degree are not always applicable right out of college.

During his time as the governor of California in 1967, Ronald Reagan argued that taxpayers should not be paying for “intellectual curiosity” or “intellectual luxuries” (qtd. in Berrett). At that time many students were obtaining liberal arts degrees, but when the economy changed in the 1970s and 1980s, students switched to more practical and pre-professional majors in order to enter the workforce. Throughout the years, this balance has wavered back and forth.

In demand skills are also changing. More and more people are discovering that they don’t need to attend college because there are more options for learning skills on your own. How many people look up home and car repairs online now instead of calling a professional, or develop their own niche using social media and mentors? More and more young entrepreneurs are starting businesses, sometimes more than one at a time. With the increased use of technology, needed expertise in this area is a newer skill that many are developing without a related college degree.


… almost half of millennials think college wasn’t worthwhile. Their main reason? Student loan debt.


According to an INSIDER and Morning Consult survey, almost half of millennials think college wasn’t worthwhile. Their main reason? Student loan debt. Young adults often feel like they should take on the debt, only to end up working in a completely unrelated industry after graduation because they are unable to get hired in their field. The increased debt has also decreased the formation of small businesses, which is not a good indicator of future jobs. 

Having a college degree is less of an advantage today than it was 10 years ago. Because of the high cost of attending college, there is less of a return on investment. 

So, Is College for Everyone?

Even if the topic of this series makes you uncomfortable, I hope it makes you think. Sometimes taking a construct you always believed to be true and flipping it on its head is just what we need to see things in a new way. 

As we discuss students’ futures with them, let’s ask ourselves, is college the main or only option we should be presenting? As parents and educators, we all truly desire to help our students and children succeed. This “success” may not be in the traditional sense. We need to consider and evaluate what is actually best for each child, and that will likely look different for each individual. 

In upcoming articles in this series, we will discuss the financial impact of a college education, alternate options for those choosing not to attend college, and ways to support alternate career paths throughout schooling. We will also share encouraging stories of those who established and navigated successful careers without a college diploma.


Don’t forget to subscribe to receive notifications so you don’t miss any of the upcoming articles in this series. In the meantime, check out these related articles and episodes of The State of Education Podcast

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References:

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