For twelve years, students sit in schools, going from class to class, in order to obtain an “education.” After these twelve years, they are expected to go onto university in order to obtain a “higher education,” which can be four years or more depending on what level of education they are seeking and if they have to work during those years, take time off, or change majors.
Students looking upon this “higher education” also see other limitations: student debt, limited job prospects with a limited amount of money they can earn, and a lifestyle that their parents say that they can earn with this degree but with stagnated wages seems more and more hopeless as younger generations enter into adulthood. Teachers are reporting that their students continuously ask them “Why do I have to go to college?”
The honest answer—you don’t. But let’s break that down a little more.
First, what is an education? A dictionary definition of education is “the process of giving or receiving systematic instruction,” but the purpose of education has been “to develop the intellect, to serve social needs, to contribute to the economy, to create an effective work force, to prepare students for a job or career, [and] to promote a particular social or political system” according to Arthur W. Foshay in his article “The Curriculum Matrix: Transcendence and Mathematics” in the Journal of Curriculum and Supervision.
Based on that purpose, education isn’t solely a higher education in a university but also in trades, apprenticeships, the arts, and regular “blue collar” jobs.
The Covid-19 pandemic not only showed the cracks in our education system but in our society as a whole. Essential worker jobs that have previously been looked down upon were vital to the economy during this crisis. And yet, students are still being pushed to follow the college pipeline.
The next question is why are we still under a college first mindset?
According to the Forbes article “Is College Worth The Cost? Pros Vs. Cons,” the cost of college has increased by over 25% since most parents were in schools and 62% of 2019 college graduates finished college with debt. That debt could take anywhere from 10-30 years to pay off, and while most college graduates do earn more than those with only high school diplomas, that isn’t a guarantee depending on what major a student chooses. A study at the Manhattan Institute shows that less than 20% of students successfully transition from high school to college graduate to career with most students not even completing a two-year associate’s degree.
Community colleges and trade schools offer programs that can pay higher than the typical starting salary of a new college graduate with little to no debt while also giving people the opportunity to gain knowledge in areas of interest before pursuing higher education if they so choose. But why aren’t those emphasized in schools when most students won’t obtain “an education”? It is because college is still seen as the only way to financial stability even as those norms continue to be challenged.
A college degree is not longer the gateway to a luxurious lifestyle or financial security. And the societal view that someone isn’t “as educated” purely because they don’t have a college degree doesn’t hold weight when the purpose of education isn’t to get a degree but to learn and contribute to society. So whether you’re a plumber or an engineer, a dental hygienist or a dentist, going to college doesn’t have to be the only option to be a successful, educated adult.