Should You Go to College?

The Obama administration is putting more pressure on high school graduates to go to four-year colleges to earn a B.A. or B.S. degree. For high-performing college students who breeze through their SATs, enjoy digging into math problems, or include classics like “Hamlet” among their favorite works, a four-year college is the logical next step.

But that profile may not fit you. College may not be right for you. If you have doubts, think carefully before sending in applications. Don’t apply to college simply because “everyone else is doing it.” Attending college is costly, and for some people the rewards simply may not be there.

Ask yourself some questions before you make a decision. What kind of career do I want? If high school was boring, will I really enjoy a desk job (the likely result of a four-year education)? What am I good at? What do I enjoy doing? Am I willing to commit to four—or even two—more years of classroom learning?

If you answer most of those questions with an “I don’t know,” you may wish to postpone your decision about college for a year—even if you have applied and been accepted. Many schools allow students who have been accepted to defer enrollment for a year. During that time away from academics, you can work, volunteer, or travel while you try to determine what kind of career would suit you best. “Gap year” advocates say high school grads who take a break come into that first year of college as more mature, prepared, and focused students, making them more likely to succeed in school.

Another option is to start your college education at a community college. Community colleges offer both vocational and transfer degrees. If you are leaning towards getting a bachelor’s degree, but either can’t get into a four-year school or would like to “test-drive” higher education before spending a fortune, start taking courses at a community college toward a transfer associate degree.

Transfer degrees include Associate of Arts, Associate of Science, Associate of Fine Arts, and Associate of Arts in Teaching. These degree programs are designed to form the foundation of a bachelor’s degree. They allow students to complete many general education requirements prior to transferring to a four-year university.

If you decide that college isn’t the best alternative for you, there are many other opportunities.

  • Pursue a trade: From the traditional contractor’s license to high-tech certificate programs sponsored by Microsoft and Cisco, there are ways to pursue a profession that do not require college. You can get a contractor’s license in plumbing, HVAC, electrical, or general contracting by passing the state test. You could become a Licensed Practical Nurse with just one year of study. Other fields where licensure is an alternative to many years of formal education are massage therapy, cosmetology, personal training, automobile repair, and dental hygiene. Licensure and education requirements vary from state to state, but in most cases fewer than two years of education are required before you can get a license or certificate in these fields.

    A new study of low-income students and how they fare shows that they are better off financially when they get certificates in practical skills instead of academic degrees. That is because many who go to college drop out of school without getting any degree or professional training at all. Regardless of your income level, the lesson is the same: if you’re likely to lose interest in a four-year school, then entering a trade is an attractive alternative.

  • Learn as an apprentice: Apprenticeships used to be much more common than they are today, but in many fields the practice continues informally. For example, many professional chefs started out as line-cooks with no formal training, then worked their way up to executive chef. Some even own their own restaurants or catering businesses.
  • Join the military: The United States military consists of five active duty branches and seven reserve components. The minimum age for enlistment is 17, but a high school diploma is required. The vast majority of enlistees, over 90 percent, are recent high school graduates. Joining the military will provide you with specialized training in any number of fields, depending upon the branch you are considering. However, it’s not for everyone; once you have enlisted, you are under contract with the U.S. government, and getting out is extremely difficult.
  • Get a vocational associate degree: Community colleges have options other than preparation for a four-year school. An Associate Degree in Occupational Studies, for example, qualifies students for entering the workforce immediately upon graduation. Degrees are available in many fields, such as computer programming, medical specialties, hospitality and restaurant management, wireless technology, or secure networking, just to name a few. There are generally very few or no liberal arts requirements for this degree.

Going to college is a big commitment, in terms of both time and money. Think about what’s right for you before you make a decision; a bachelor’s degree is not the only path to a successful career.