I guess if I’m honest this branch of my professional journey starts at home, with my family- as most things do. Today I am an educator for my students, but this journey and these questions started at home with my brothers. In my family there is a real frustration around the purpose of a college education and I can’t say I blame them. As members of the millennial generation, my brothers are suffering from a common problems: both hold degrees and pay the hundreds of dollars a month of student loan debt towards those degrees, but whose employment is unrelated to those degrees. Interestingly they represent two common problems with our current student loan policies and the degrees they requisition.
My first brother, has much to offer the world, but never found success in the classroom. Yet he got the message: College leads to success. So, he took out loans and attended the University of Louisville for 80 credits hours. College campus was an uncomfortable and negative experience. He transferred to an online university, and earned an Associates Degree from that does not give his resume leverage. The whole experience left him strapped with loans that he can’t pay. Someone who did not find success in the classroom was allowed, enticed, encouraged, by the messages of society to take out almost $50,000 in student loans over 8 years to pay for more classroom education.
Brother number 2, represents the second type of student loan debt sufferer. Graduated Class of 2012 with a degree in Geography. Worked 40 hours a week while taking classes full time so he was never able to do internships, etc required to foster relationships in the GIS field in which he concentrated. He “only” earned the degree. He took over $35,000 in loans and is now working full time at Charter Communications, in a totally unrelated field holding a degree that is useless. He did job research, he applied countless times online, for jobs in the GIS field, but the degree only did not earn him an interview. One Newsweek article reports, “ Once they hit the job market, young people say they are often frustrated by technology walls. Just applying for a job often requires graduates to fly blind: They apply online and never hear back”.
My brothers, along with millions of others, are being held back by student loan debt, but not lifted up by the promises inate in the education. They were told college leads to success. And now it just seems a promise society made to them that has been broken.
As an NBCT, I am a practiced reflective educator. I see the struggle of my brothers in my student’s lives every day. Students who are working full time now, as seniors in high school, and cannot fathom how they will take on loans for college. They are frustrated as well. US News and World Report states, “over the 10-year period from 2004 to 2014, students’ average debt at graduation rose 56 percent, from $18,550 to $28,950. That’s despite only a small difference in the percentage of students who graduated with debt in 2004 (65 percent) and 2014 (69 percent).” Looking at the numbers makes it easy to see how the goal of a college education is an expensive and concerning decision for students. There are many successful students who thrive in an academic environment and will find real purpose in a college degree. There are just as many students do not thrive in an academic environment. Yet, both groups of students receive the same message in school and at home: college is the way to a successful career.
I know my students and my brothers received that message, because they have received it from me. A child of the 80’s I had an easy time taking on school loans with a 2% rate. I found a college degree that is directly related to my career. I have been a high school English teacher for 13 full years now in one of the larger public school systems in the country, Jefferson County Public Schools. Nine of those years have been as an National Board Certified Teacher. I am an accomplished practitioner and active professional that cares deeply about my career. I am a college success story.
And in my 13 year career, I’ve spent hours that turn into days, planning captivating lessons that would steal my student’s hearts away from their love of gossip and their social media addictions, to love reading and to cherish words and language the way I do. I encouraged college as the best option because I thought it was. Time and experience have taught me differently. Student loan debt has skyrocketed and the value of a college degree has been overstressed. I hope to continuing inspiring students to read and write for the rest of my career, but I can say now, with the weight of experience and the confidence of someone who cares, that college is not the path to success for everyone, and we as a society are harming our children by continuing to communicate that message.
I have seen too many students gain diplomas and degrees that hold false promises. I have seen too many false promises be made to students who don’t belong in college.
Let me tell you another story:
In my first year teaching I met a boy who was on the football team, even played some when his grades were decent; was an active member of his church member who played drums in the services and was an important and productive member of a family. He was thoughtful and kind, and I enjoyed having him in class.
Nate read at a sixth grade reading level (I taught him in 10 and 12th grades) and he struggled with writing skills as well. He struggled to keep his grades at passing in all subjects, not just English. At our first parent teacher conference, Nate’s parents expressed their expectation that he attend college, and I could do nothing but smile and nod and go back to discussing his struggle with focus.
I was not given the training or support to try and have this conversation with parents. How do you tell someone that their child simply isn’t cut out for college? So when we worked together again his senior year, and it was clear by the end of the year that both his parents and Nate felt he was headed to college, I broke down. I just couldn’t bear this student heading into this future without being honest and realistic about his chances. At a parent conference meeting during second semester, I expressed my concern with Nate attending college, as he struggled so much with high school. I brought up how many other careers could be pursued without a college degree. I tried to explain that it was not a personal judgement, but a professional one. The parents told me all about how the college had designed remedial classes to help Nate catch up. “We just know he can be successful.” Was the only reply to my concern.
Nate’s parents were not being realistic, yet their hopes were supported by the University system. Currently a college will accept a student who is not qualified to attend college level classes. They accept them, take their money, and those students attend remedial classes until they can improve their skills to move on to college level challenges. This keeps hope alive that a college education is the right place for students who aren’t ready. There was an unwritten assumption that if you are accepted, you belong there. But, Nate and his parents were willing to put the time and money into this plan for Nate’s future because they believed the message: College equals success.
Three years later I received an email. It was Nate’s father, thanking me for my honesty on that day. They had supported Nate through two years of college failures before deciding against more loans. When it came time for him to face that his son was not a good student, he remembered our conversation and he wrote me. He thanked me for being honest and said they were now encouraging Nate toward a Heavy Equipment Operators CDL license so he could join the long line of critical logistics that create the American economy. And my heart sang for the new direction for Nate, and ached for the over $20,000.00 his family was now indebted to pay.
My entire career has been full of stories such as these. I have witnessed countless students and families take on thousands in debt for a goal of a university education when they should have spent their time and efforts joining the workforce, getting experience and training, and saving money. But, the world communicated that anything that is not college is a lesser alternative.
An advocate for skilled trade careers, Mike Rowe, says, “We are still lending money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back to educate them for jobs that don’t really exist anymore……The problem is we look at all those other form of education, we actually give them a name, we call them alternative. So we have higher education…and if you are not cut out for that we have some lovely alternatives.” And who wants to be an alternative?
As a teacher, I have struggled to find resources to help my students find and explore viable careers options that do not require a traditional four year degree and have found very few. So, as part of a professional development in Kentucky called Classroom Teachers Enacting Positive Solutions, I set out on a journey to create some resources. I call them Career Spotlight Reference Sheets.
I hope they are used to inspire questions in students. A traditional four year degree is not the only avenue to satisfying, successful careers. As educators, as parents, as citizens we need to educate our students on the prices of college education, on the process of student loans and the consequences of these decisions on their future. We also in turn need to make sure that they are exposed to many types of work, the plethora of industries out there, and the hundreds of ways they can contribute to society and our global future.