By Ashley Lamb-Sinclair
At a recent conference, I listened to a university president boast about a program she had developed in partnership with several local high schools. She told the story of one teenager who lived in a rural area and worked full time on his family’s farm in addition to attending high school. The university president explained that the young man had little promise for attending college because of his circumstances. But through the dual-credit program, he was able to gain college credit while still in high school, which gave him the confidence to seek an associate’s degree in agriculture and return home to work on his family farm. I listened as she proudly told this young man’s story and the audience cheered for both of them, and all I could think was: What an extraordinary waste of time.
It may be shocking for a veteran high-school teacher to feel that a student gaining any kind of degree is a waste of time, but considering that 44 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed, and many employers such as Deloitte are now completely ditching college degrees as a requirement altogether, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sell the same old story—working hard to make good grades to go to college to get a good job—to millennials. When I think of the young agriculture student in the aforementioned anecdote, my heart hurts for him because I believe the system misled him. I wonder if he acquired any college debt during this journey, why he didn’t feel the need to continue on to attain a bachelor’s degree, and why it was necessary for a young man who grew up on a family farm to learn about agriculture miles away in a community-college classroom. I would feel a bit better if he wanted to be a teacher, or photographer, or engineer, and that’s why he went to college, but he didn’t. He went to learn something he probably already knew, but chances are no one had ever validated his expertise, and no one had ever found a way for his secondary education to be integrated into the work he loved.
Obviously, the counterargument here is the largely touted maxim that people with college degrees make more money than those without them, which is statistically true. But this idea is misleading: Crushing student-loan debt increases yearly and ethnicity, class, and gender factor into salary levels, regardless of education. And low-income kids can become “targets for diploma mills that load them up with debt, but not a lot of prospects.” Additionally, the average American worker will spend 90,000 to 125,000 hours working during the course of a lifetime, as Bill Burnett and Dave Evans write in Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, so the greatest portion of a person’s life is often spent at work. Although it is easy to proclaim to students coming of age that “you will make more money if you get a degree,” it is much more difficult to shed light on the intricacies of such a claim. I believe students should hear the whole story and more than one traditional path should be laid out before them.
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