A Radical Idea: Go Get A Job Right After High School

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The rest of us are a little foggier.

In light of that, I think we need to recognize that college is a big deal. It’s expensive, it’s all-absorbing, and in my opinion, it shouldn’t be something you do right after high school just because it’s what’s supposed to come next. I’m going to make the radical suggestion that a huge number of high school graduates would benefit tremendously from not going right into college, and taking some time to take a quick peek at real life first.

I don’t mean they should travel. Traveling’s wonderful, whether you have the luxury of doing it on your parents’ dime or you’re backpacking your way from one hostel to another (or something in between). For some people, it actually does help them find their dream; I know a chef who was picking grapes in France, got sick, and since she had to stay close to the farmhouse, ended up helping in the garden and the kitchen, and that evolved into a career in food. Travel can help you find direction, for sure. But it’s sort of surreal, too, and isn’t really what I’m talking about.

I think most high school students would benefit from at least a year out there in the real world working a job and living on their own. There’s something about getting a job that isn’t a career, and having to pay the rent, that teaches you a lot, including the value of a college education. When you understand just exactly what a dollar buys you, you’re going to think twice about a lot of things, from which courses you want to take to how cutting class means you’re ripping yourself off, because somebody—you or your parents or a scholarship or a loan—paid for that class.

I dropped out of college after one semester the first time I went. I didn’t want any more school, I didn’t like the college I was going to, and not having a major yet, for me, meant that I felt a little aimless. Handing in my student ID card and getting that refund to my Dad for the rest of the year was liberating.

The next three years were a mish-mosh. I worked at a framing shop and a muffin stand. I waitressed. I was an office manager. I paid rent for the first time. I went broke for the first time. I got evicted and lost my job in the same week. I worked as a waitress, where the tips were great, but the work was hard. I worked three jobs at a time to make ends meet. I knew what it cost to live, to shop, to eat and to pay utility bills.

And when it was time to go back to college, it was because I had something I wanted to study. I’d already done the drinking-til-you-throw-up thing, so my college life wasn’t about that, it was about getting the most out of the classes (although I still skipped a few), getting great internships, and soaking up all the knowledge I could. I was there because I wanted to be there, not by default, and I knew what was waiting for me on the other side. The multiple careers I’ve had since then all sprouted from my time in college, and I wouldn’t change a thing, not even the crash and burn I had in the middle of that three years, when I vowed never to let something like that happen to me again.

Consider it, if you will: We rush our kids from high school into college, and to many of them, it’s just four more years of school, but with drinking and without a curfew. Surely, the college experience has the potential to be so much more than that, and surely it should be.

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