The weather notwithstanding, the calendar says spring break is over, and we are entering the last push before the end of yet another school year.
With that comes graduation and college announcements, and many may be feeling the pressure now about their future plans: Did you get into your “top choice”? Is your school a “good” school, a “safety” school, or a “party” school? Did you get a scholarship? Were you recruited for sports? Are you ready to leave home and excited for college (or do you just think you should be)?
In a community like ours, filled with high achievers, the best schools, and the wealth to pursue all available opportunities, it can be easy to get swept up into college fever. The recent college admission scandal just serves as a reminder as to what some will do to get into the “right” school, even if it’s the parents that want the bragging rights, not the kids that want the education.
Of course, that was an extreme situation, but it’s no secret that college admissions aren’t always “fair.” There are many applicants for few spots, with a random combination of qualities and achievements sought. Relationships may tip the scales as much as any individual qualifier, and there should be no shame in a rejection letter.
Nor should there be shame in opting out of college. With our high school graduation rate of almost 100% and the vast majority continuing on to a traditional four-year college, it is easy to forget that there are many other options available for our children who may feel that the college track is not for them.
Online programs, community college, and vocational programs may be a better fit for students who wish to stay close to home, who don’t want to incur the exorbitant cost of college tuition, or who benefit more from hands-on learning than listening to lectures. Some may take a gap year or participate in a transitional program while they decide their next steps.
These students should be lauded for their plans as much as those who choose the traditional path of higher education. Too often those who take an alternate route are questioned rather than supported, assumed to be doing poorly academically or behaviorally, when the reality is that they may find more fulfillment on the job than in the classroom.
Across the country, the emphasis on higher education at a four-year college has distracted us from the value of vocational training. Many college graduates are coming out saddled with debt, under-employed, and disillusioned by the realities of climbing the corporate ladder. But those who pursue vocational careers building, creating, and repairing in fields such as mechanics, plumbing, HVAC, technology, beauty and manufacturing are finding more fulfilling, stable, and lucrative job opportunities at a fraction of the cost of a traditional college education. Sounds like a good plan to me.
Some high schools have started celebrating graduates that are going on directly to vocational programs, jobs, or apprenticeships by having “signing” days similar to those more traditionally held for sports prospects. Similar to their athletic brethren, these students wear the hats and shirts of their employer and sign letters of intent, and are cheered on by family, teachers, and classmates.
We spend so much time talking about the high levels of anxiety, stress, and depression among our teens. We worry about astronomical student loan debt ($1.5 trillion in 2018), the return home after college, and the lack of stable employment. Consider how the acceptance of a broader level of post high-school experiences beyond college could affect this.
Also, did you know that almost 40 percent of those who start four-year college programs don’t complete them? Many of these “dropouts” then follow a vocational path as a “second choice,” now identifying as a “failure” what may have been a “success” if initially considered a viable option.
I may be talking a little out of school (pun intended) by addressing this topic, as I have not gone through this process with my children yet. But I can already tell that we are likely going to follow a non-traditional route, and I know it is not easy to veer off course. As a therapist, parent, and friend, I have spoken with so many parents and children who are frustrated with the conventional, but fear the unconventional. I encourage them to step off the treadmill and pave their own path, and the rest of us to applaud them for it.
Rebecca Martorella, LMFT welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at