Why We Need To Tell Our Kids The Truth About College

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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Every so often, one of my boys will blow me away with how adorably smart they are, and I’ll think to myself, “Oh wow! Maybe this kid will get into Harvard.” And then I stop myself, because my kids are only 5 and 11, and there’s no way I can really predict something like that. What’s more, I know that even if my kids remain as cute and brilliant as they seem right now, going to an Ivy League college won’t necessarily mean much down the line.

I’m 40, and by now I’ve seen enough life to know that where you went to college—or even whether you went to college at all—doesn’t really determine the success or happiness you will find later in life. It really doesn’t, and we need to stop fooling ourselves or our kids into thinking that they need to pour every last bit of their passion or energy into perfect grades and entry into an elite college.

Case in point: My husband and I are the same age and went to high school together. My husband went on to an Ivy League university, and I went to a publicly funded city college. We both did well in college, and got master’s degrees—him from another top-notch private college, and me from that same city college.

Although I currently work part-time from home and he works full-time, we both earn roughly the same income, and have had similar levels of success in our fields. I work in the field in which I got my degree, but my husband only works in a tangentially related field (he had to get yet another certification to work in his field).

Mainly, the difference between our two financial situations is that my husband is in twice the amount of college debt that I am. Yep, it’s been almost 20 years since he graduated from that illustrious Ivy League college and he is still paying off that damn debt. If you asked my husband whether his Ivy League degree was “worth it,” I’m not sure he’d answer in the affirmative.

Of course, everyone is different. I’m sure there are people who feel strongly that having a degree from a prestigious university meant everything in terms of their life-path, career, and financial success. But there is simply no guarantee that this will be the case for everyone, and there are plenty of people out there for whom college degrees actually weren’t even of import in terms of their path toward success. Additionally, we all know amazing people who have zero college education and went on to be smashing successes.

As a recent article from Time Magazine points out, studies about the relationship between college and career success come to similar conclusions. First of all, as was the case with me and my husband, the type of college you attend has little bearing on your future success. A Pew Research Center study from 2013 found that graduates from private colleges and state colleges faired equally well in terms of income, job satisfaction, and overall happiness.

Furthermore, even though a college education is often touted as the “be-all-end-all” of success in life, just over a third of all Americans have a degree from a four-year college. And if you’re remembering that age-old advice about 4-year degrees being the ticket to employment, that’s basically a myth at this point. 2016 stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, show that only 21% of jobs these days require Bachelor degrees, and just 37% require a post-secondary education at all.

Of course, none of this is to say that we can’t encourage our children to pursue college degrees, if they feel pulled toward it. For me, there was more to college than just what it offered me career-wise. College was a time for me to expand my mind and learn about the world in a way that high school was unable to show me. I am eternally grateful for my amazing professors, and the wisdom they offered me.

I want those same opportunities for my kids, if they show interest. But I certainly won’t push them to apply to college just because they “should”—and I won’t be pushing them toward the most elite colleges out there, even if they can get in. Success in life is about following your passions, having a bit of fire and tenacity in you, and knowing how to harness all that into something productive and good.

In some cases, college is part of the equation, but in other cases it just isn’t, and we need to stop lying to our kids (and ourselves) that college is the only path toward happiness and success. It isn’t.

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