Is College for Everyone?

Hey Paul: I just graduated from East Jessamine. I was an ok student making mostly B’s. I didn’t take any AP classes. I haven’t decided what I want to do next in life. I’m thinking about working for a while and then maybe going to college. Do you think that is a good plan?

 You should join me at Asbury University this fall. Sorry, I’ll try to provide unbiased advice on this very important life decision. There is much I don’t know about your exact situation so some of my advice may or may not apply to your decision.

First let me congratulate you on earning a high school diploma. In doing so you’ve demonstrated a number of key life skills. You’ve avoided and perhaps overcome the educational derailers of trouble with the law or starting a family a little earlier than planned. You’ve been able to sit in a seat and listen for several hours each day – no small task and one that I didn’t do too well.

There are three general paths following high school – college, work, or the military. Of course there is a fourth path of living off your parent’s or the state’s generosity – but that’s not what we aiming for here.

Joining the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines is not only patriotic but also a great way to build a career. My suggestion is to binge watch war movies ranging from Saving Private Ryan to Lone Survivor. If you end your movie marathon feeling called to serve your country then contact your local recruiter. My recommendation is that you go to college with the ROTC providing an introduction to military life as well as potentially covering your educational costs.

Taking a job after high school can literally buy you some time to figure out your next move. In some cases it may be necessary to have an income as you move on to living on your own or perhaps to afford paying for college. My observation has been that taking a year away from school can easily become a few years and then a permanent break from the classroom.

If you start a job I recommend at a minimum taking one course at JCTC in a subject that really interests you. Take a class that they didn’t offer in high school – auto technology, nursing, or marketing. Learn a practical skill and see if you have a natural flair for that type of work. This will keep you connected to formal learning that is essential for almost any career of choice.

What about college? Well despite what some say, college isn’t for everyone. Less than 20% of Kentuckians have a bachelor degree or higher. This statistic could suggest that only those in the top fifth of their high school class are solid prospects to go on to complete college. In your case I wouldn’t buy into the theory that because you were “average” in high school that you won’t be able to complete college.

I have been a professor at Asbury University for four years and before that taught a Marshall University – yes, as in the movie, We are Marshall! I’ve got to know hundreds of students that are probably much like you. They weren’t academic stars in high school but they made a decision, really a series of decision to make it through college.

Rev. Chuck Swindoll has a famous quote on how attitude and the choices we make are much more important than our circumstances:

“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company… a church… a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our Attitudes.”

The “average” students who succeeded in college found a balance – finding a major they enjoyed while sticking out classes that seemed a waste of time, connecting with a core group of friends through FCA, the Greek system or other gatherings of like-minded people. They went to class – 15 hours a week isn’t too much to ask, is it? Being successful in college is more about being wise than being smart.

To many people going to college is about preparing for a career. A rule-of-thumb is that college graduates makes about twice what high school graduates earn over a lifetime. At the state level this rule holds as states like Colorado and Massachusetts that have roughly twice as many college grads as KY and correspondingly about double our income per capita.

The formula: college degree = money = happiness, doesn’t hold true for many college graduates. A cynic could modify the equation to college degree equals huge student loans working in a job that doesn’t require a college degree equals regret. Perhaps this cynic needs a poster size version of the Swindoll quote.  My college equation looks like:

Wisdom + Grit = College degree = Fulfilling Career & Personal Life.

Of course many people can substitute “Army”, “Working” or “Being a Mom” for “College” and end up with everything you could want out of life!