Going to College: Is it the right option?
This article was first published in Home Education Magazine.
“It doesn’t matter to me whether my child chooses to go to college or not. I just want her to be happy.”
As I uttered those words, a look of shock flickered over the faces of the staff sitting in my office. At the time I made that declaration, I was Dean of Students at the University of Texas at Austin.
I had spent the last 13 years working in universities as an administrator and Lily was just over a year old. As it came out of my mouth I knew that what I said ran counter to what the vast majority of my colleagues believed.
When I’ve reflected on that, I sometimes believe I said it on purpose. I could have easily fluffed over the conversation, but I wanted to offer a different, perhaps even a radical perspective, from someone who was supposed to believe that college was the ultimate path to success.
During the time I was working at UT-Austin, we hadn’t yet chosen to homeschool nor had we embraced child-led learning.
But I knew in my heart that college wasn’t right for everyone.
Without a doubt, a college education opens doors for many individuals and families. I had spent much of my career working with students who were from low-income families, or were students of color, or were first-generation college students.
I had seen the power that college had to transform the lives of students.
I had also seen the power that college had to diminish the spirit.
As an insider to the enterprise of higher education, I know that for the most part, students are seen as a commodity. Especially in larger institutions, students have to work hard to be seen as more than just another number.
Granted, I worked with some amazing people and met many individuals who were committed to making the college experience humane and life affirming.
But the system itself, as is the case with large institutions, was more about the perpetuation of the system than it was about the lifting up the minds, hearts, and souls of the people in it.
Many individuals within the system work hard to make it otherwise, but sometimes it was an uphill battle.
One of the roles I played at UT-Austin, the University of Michigan and now at the University of Arizona, was caring for students who were in crisis or dealing with difficult situations.
I also worked with families and parents of students who had died. Sometimes the death was because a student committed suicide or perhaps it was an accidental death. But it wasn’t just the tragic deaths of students that caused me to rethink the belief that everyone should go to college. Often it was merely talking with a student who was there because her parents expected her to attend college even if she didn’t want to be there.
Perhaps it was a student who was pushed to major in business by his parents when he really wanted to study theater. A student who was scared to tell her mom that she wasn’t going to medical school or be an engineer. I even had an experience of having to tell a grieving family that their child, who died on graduation day, had not been enrolled for over 2 years, in spite of what the student led them to believe.
I also worked with incredibly motivated students who loved everything about their college experience.
Students who had this internal drive to get as much as they could out the time they were in college and were in love with the opportunities they had before them.
I saw students come to college and find out who they were outside the confines of high school or their parents.
I worked with students who saw college as the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty or who were working to create a different life for themselves, their families, and their communities.
For almost 20 years, I worked hard to ensure institutions were accessible to those who wanted to attend.
People should have the choice to go to college.
This includes the choice to go even if they don’t have the financial resources and family support to go.
It also includes the choice NOT to go, if they decide college isn’t right for them.
And the decision about going to college doesn’t have to be made when someone is a teenager. So many in our educational systems emphasize the need to prepare for college early.
This is the conventional wisdom: children need to decide to go to college before they enter high school. But the truth is, college isn’t just for those who are in their late teens and early 20s.
The bottom line is, in spite of the rhetoric about global competitiveness and increasing earning capacity, there is just not one simple answer to this question of whether or not someone needs or should go to college.
I had seen this first hand as a professional and when I became a parent, I knew that I didn’t want the children in my life to feel compelled to follow a path that was not right for them.
I think it was the combination of my own personal experiences and my professional experiences that led me to this place of knowing this child, even when she was a year old, had the right to choose whether she was going to college or not.
I have become even clearer as the children in my life get older that college has to be their choice. They have to want it enough to do it. And if they want it enough, they will be able to do it. To me, this is an absolute truth that I have seen over and over in my personal and professional life.
Neither of my parents went to a four-year college. My father started at community college when I was in high school and went on to receive his associate’s degree as an older student. My mother grew up in post-World War II Japan. She did not have the opportunity to attend college after the war.
From those experiences, my mother decided that going to college was not an option when I was growing up. And I never questioned whether I should or not. But I do remember the struggle of finding my own voice. Deciding to switch majors from business to history. The pressure I put on myself to go to law school.
I also remember the pain of being in law school knowing that practicing law would not satisfy my soul.
I wanted more than that.
And even though I discovered that I didn’t ever want to practice while I was in my first semester of law school, I didn’t tell my mom until a month before graduation.
By that time I had already been living with my partner for almost 2 years. It’s funny when I think of it now. I was married, an adult, and still afraid to tell my mother that I was not going to take the bar and become a lawyer. I was not unlike many of the students I went on to work with in my career.
I have no doubt that as the children in my life grow up, they will find the path that suits them best.
It may be college and it very well may not be.
Perhaps they will be like their father, who went back college and finished his degree when he was 35. It was then that he discovered his passion for archaeology and college became a joy, not an overwhelming obstacle.
And even I as write this, I know that their path will not be like mine or their father’s journey. It will be unique.
My role as a parent is to support that process of discovery for them.
I absolutely know that the resources are there for them to prepare for college if that is the path they choose.
They might choose to go to a K-12 school. If that is their choice, I will support them in that journey.
Forcing them to not go to school would be no different than forcing them to attend school against their will. To do so, would be serving my interests and needs rather than theirs.
Choosing to embrace child-led learning and being committed to life-long learning myself, I have come to understand that I don’t have to know the exact steps it will take to get to the place I want to be. Possibilities and options are the hallmark of our lives.
But we live in world where the safe path, the known path is seen as the only path. As so many parents who have chosen to follow the lead of the children in our lives, we take a leap of faith and learn to trust that the power is in the journey.
Taking that leap of faith, trust, isn’t a one-time thing.
It happens everyday.
Each moment is a choice to trust.
As I take each leap, I have to face my fears.
I have to challenge the voices from my childhood. I have to let go my beliefs of who a child should be.
More importantly, I have to let go of my beliefs about who I should be. I learn the joy and challenge of discovering instead who they really are and finding myself along the way.
College may be one path for them.
It may not be.
College is one tool for living the life you want to live.
And there are countless other tools we can pick up and use along the way.
My goal is to offer the tools, show them the possibilities, support the discoveries they need to make along their journey, and try to stay out of the way while I do the same for myself.