Dear Class of 2016: It is okay if you’re not going to college.

What’s not okay: (1) Mooching off your your family or society while remaining unemployed and unwilling to put in the leg work to pursue employment, (2) Going on and on about how all the facts and figures you learned in high school (example: Algebra) aren’t things you use in the “real world,” and (3) Assuming that “going to college” is inherently the best choice or a guarantee of future happiness, financial security, or prosperity. And, so I’m clear: I am not opposed to encouraging students to set their sights on college. If you’re headed off to a university next year, best of luck and congratulations.

What I am opposed to is the narrative that we’ve spun for students in our public schools about “college” being the only correct preferred path all should choose.

Notice that once we adopted this mantra, the policy and practice priorities shifted toward the accumulation of scores rather than the acquisition of skills. And notice that once we started focusing rabidly on scores, more and more students (and teachers) felt desperate enough to cheat, more and more students (and teachers) spiraled down into the mires of stress and anxiety, and more and more colleges were getting nabbed for preying on the “college only” mindset by gladly taking tuition money and churning out valueless degrees. Notice that as we focused on college admission as the be-all, end-all, vocational programs were squeezed out of secondary schools and the nation began to cry more and more that high schools were churning out students who didn’t know anything (they’d only memorized it for the test) and couldn’t do anything (they hadn’t been encouraged to gain marketable, real skills).

That’s all very negative, but here’s the upside: Class of 2016, it is okay if you are not going to college. What you do have to do is something that keeps you learning. That learning might be on-the-job. That learning might be trade or vocational specialty schools. That learning might be community college (which I’ve found far too many people in certain corners of secondary public ed don’t consider real college). Whatever you choose to do after high school, so long as you are accepting your independence and trying to continue learning, it’s okay. More than okay, this too should be celebrated the way we celebrate those admissions letters to university.

And know that, despite the common cultural narrative, the door to a four-year degree (so long that it is a degree that matters and isn’t just a piece of paper) is never really totally closed. In fact, I think back to my own undergraduate years at Oregon State and the OTA students…the older-than-average classmates of ours. They’d had jobs or careers, raised families, or just in some other way grown up. They sat in the front row of the classes. They were eager sponges for learning…unlike the many of us who rolled into class because we were enacting the narrative that rolling into class was just what you were supposed to do as a relatively privileged 19-year old now that high school was a memory. Those OTA students? They got their money’s worth in a way many of the rest of us didn’t. They were there because they knew what they wanted, not because they felt like it was the step they were supposed to be taking.

So that is what I wish for this year’s Class of 2016 to hear: No matter what you do next, keep learning. After you learn, grow, and make a little sense of the world, then you can really dive into the deeper learning that makes your life rich and worthwhile… and maybe that’s the right time to choose to open the door of opportunity marked “College.”

And even then, so long as you keep learning, there always will be other just as worthwhile doors from which to choose.

5 thoughts on “Dear Class of 2016: It is okay if you’re not going to college.

  1. Shari Conditt

    Great letter, Mark. Somehow the phrasing “further your education” translated into “go to a 4 year college.” While I certainly encourage my students to think about academia as long as they are thinking of learning something- a trade, skill, how to operate heavy machinery-then at least there is hope for them to increase both their earning potential and self confidence.

  2. Mark Gardner Post author

    Part of the challenge, I recognize, is funding. There is a great deal of cost associated with skills programs that require materials, tools, adequate spaces, etc. The (small rural) school where I was raised had a metal shop, woodshop, and greenhouse structure the combined comprised about 1/3 of the whole campus (again, small rural school, at the time about 125 kids in the whole high school). I can’t say I’m a proficient welder or carpenter or mechanic, but that experience plus growing up on a farm meant that after high school I had even more doors open to me than “just college.” If we want to transform our economy, we need to reconsider the notion that AP is a better investment than skills-based offerings. And just imagine how many doors would be open to a kid who was able to experience both.

  3. Jasmine Lawrence

    My father, sister and I always have this conversation. My father is a teacher, my sister is a teacher and now I am a teacher. My father teachers high school in NJ and he says that for many of his students, they fall in the trap of going to some expensive private college in NJ, and then a year or two later, they drop out. Many 18 and 19 year olds, like you said are not focused, and should go to community college (which is still college) learn and then go on to a four year college.

    In NYC, there are 49 public high schools that are CTE (Career and Technical Education) schools, and this is great, but I do not know how many of these schools actually teach the skill sets they say they are going to teach. I guess it would have to be in the teacher’s interest to foster a talent/ skill that students have such as after school.

    The Common Core State Standards say that we are trying to get students read for College and Careers, but really I think they mean College and THEN Careers.

    1. Mark Gardner Post author

      I’m with you on the “college THEN career” connotation of the CCSS. I think such a mindset is a huge disservice to kids. That approach should be AN option, not THE only option.

      I’m overall a supporter of the CCSS standards (the tests…a separate issue) but if it were really about “career” ready, it seems there would be a stronger CTE presence.

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