It’s nearly fall, which means football, cooler weather, and all things pumpkin-spiced once again return. Another tradition upon us is the dread of school, and further, college. Whether you’re a junior trying to create an impressive resume in arguably the most important year of high school, a senior facing daunting applications, or even an underclassman beginning to place feelers out for your future, the threat of “the after” of high school looms.
As a student at El Segundo, you’re probably familiar with the A-G requirements, or at least have tailored your schedule to a UC-approved list. You might be in classes that feel harder than you’d wish, or in subjects you don’t appreciate, but they “look good on applications.” Perhaps you’re in a club, organization, or sport because “colleges want this kind of stuff.” Or, worst of all, you’re chasing classes for a major and career you’re not invested in, but it “makes a lot of money.”
Pushing yourself is wonderful, and it would advise you to put yourself in situations you might not think you are ready for! But if you’re putting yourself in AP Calculus because it makes you look more intelligent, you have the wrong idea. The intent of real education should be the pursuit of topics you admire and feel a connection to; instead, the system is creating STEM-oriented, 5.0 students living a good enough life to write a 500-word personal statement.
But what about the people who don’t want to pursue engineering? How about all the people who do not grasp economics or politics? Who have no intentions to write any more essays and other English-based curricula? Well, you might say they just haven’t found a major they like yet. Yet, why do they have to find a major? Why do people feel the necessity for college when they have no clue what they want to do, or are just taking a broad major because it can be easily applied to multiple jobs?
The nation’s college debt crisis is at $1.2 trillion. Just for some perspective, a million seconds is a little under 12 days, a billion seconds is almost 32 years, and a trillion seconds is roughly 31,710 years. If you’re going to college, you will probably add to this accumulation, and if so, hopefully, this debt will be retracted after a couple of years of FAFSA or other loan service payments which are easily negated by your high-earning job, thanks to a new and shiny college degree hanging in your office! Or, of course, you could be one of the 364,000 business majors, 216,000 health majors, or 98,000 engineering majors who graduated, looking for a job in this highly competitive market (according to estimated 2019 graduate numbers). Your degree might just equal you fetching coffee at a low-paying (if anything) internship.
In an ironic twist, the normalization and standardization of college degrees have led to a higher demand for blue-collar workers who did not need to go to college, but instead were apprentices and/or went to trade schools. And this is entirely understandable; when you scrap woodshop, mechanic classes, and cooking classes for engineering, biomedical work, and business electives, people do not pick up basic skills. Now, the engineer must find a carpenter, the medical researcher needs to locate an auto body shop, and the economist will have to eat out. This is not necessarily chaos—this is how an economy should work! But if a town has three psychologists for every plumber, then there could be problems, at least for the psychologists. Most everyone will need a handyman, but not everyone will need a therapist.
But why the influx of college students? It is routinely looked upon as achieving “more” if you work at a white-collar job. There are heartfelt news stories of the parents who worked overtime at a factory to put a child through college debt-free. And those are wonderful events! The child achieves his or her dream of being a doctor or lawyer, rewarding the parent or parents tenfold. How about though, the more common narrative of the child who is attending college because his or her parents did, and the child is taught it is either fast-food worker or elite Wall Street mogul. The child wants neither, but it seems better to have prosperity and dissatisfaction than only the latter.
The blue-collar workforce is not such a drastic barrier in economic prosperity. Yes, the lawyer will in most circumstances, make more an hour, and might even enjoy the work! But for those that cannot find a case to represent or are only in it for the income, there is little value to the job. According to CNBC, only 23% of lawyers find that their education was worth the cost, which can total around $200,000 or more. In comparison, trade school costs around $33,000, not including the many scholarships and subsidies provided. While a six-figure salary is not as likely for vocational students, at least not initially, they are in turn able to begin work at least two years earlier than their collegiate counterparts, and usually, receive steadier work. On top of this, determined workers with insight for business function might begin their own contracting company or the like, which would eventually produce a substantial return. The baby boomer generation, a strong blue-collar workforce, is in retirement. Who will fill their needed work boots?
Again and again, however, schools discredit those with aspirations towards technical schooling. There is always an emphasis on a four-year, or at least a junior college stint that leads to finishing at a four-year. This is highly detrimental when it comes down to the output of these students; people forced into supposed prosperous fields find their pursuit is hard in an oversaturated market, yet at least they are not a blue-collar worker right? The one who is not as developed because he or she did not attend university, even though their typical base pay of $50,000 significantly triumphs an unemployed college graduate. If you want to pursue a college degree for a field you find you have talent or interest in, that is excellent, and anyone would recommend you push yourself to achieve in that field, but if college is on your horizon so that at least you can prove you are smart, capable, or a commodity, you are wasting every cent. College does not make you any more intelligent than someone in trade school. If anything, going to college to prove something to everyone around you is a truly senseless choice. You would choose to go into six-figure debt, spend countless hours in pursuit of a degree, and then work a job you have no internal attachment to, just to prove your worth to others?
Not everyone wants to choose the technical path; which is fine too. But if the truth is you would rather not work at all, then why put added pressure on yourself in college? By choosing a trade, you can usually work on an hourly wage, which means that you are not working 9-5, but instead of hours that you might have a say in (in some scenarios). And, if you work for a couple of years without any intrinsic reward, then save up and go back to school, or become an entrepreneur, or just continue with your job until you can retire. But don’t go to college because you’re unsure of yourself, or because it seems like you should do that. You wouldn’t blindly marry someone without knowing who they are at all, or buy a car without knowing its specs, so why spend thousands on an education you’re not sure if you need? There is always a gap year, yes, but what happens if by the end you decide you do not want to spend hours on press releases or studying the effects of pollution on certain demographics?
There is no shame in deciding what is best for you is an associate’s degree or certification for physical labour. What should matter is that you can find value to your profession. No, you may not be able to recite Joyce if you’re a dental hygienist or know how to find a derivative in calculus as an electrician, but you will be able to complete a job that they cannot. You will learn a different set of skills that, in turn, makes you just as valuable to the economy and to society. It is not “wasted potential” or “underperforming” to pursue trades, it is just you know where you fit best. Karl Marx said that what made capitalism so dreary was that most people did not see the fruits of their labour; a carpenter lost enjoyment by simply manufacturing and not seeing the actual customer’s joy at the final result. This can be applied to those in office cubicles, churning out work. Some will find this satisfying, with coworkers or their boss congratulating them. But some need the physical rewards of working on a project that shows instant results: a mechanic making a car run again, a truck driver’s long journey completed, or a brick mason’s completed house for a client. And, we must keep in mind that if it were not for the bus drivers, janitors, electricians, steelworkers, or any other similar work, then there would be no building or transportation for the office workers.
If you feel college is what is best for you and your dreams, by all means, go, live long, and prosper. But if you think that you should go to college for a counsellor, a parent, or friends, or even out of confusion towards other options, look into alternative programs. No, you probably will not be a millionaire. But neither does a Hearse have a trailer hitch. If at the end of the day, you are satisfied with what you do, and the steps it took to get there, you are richer than any CEO alive.