I’m still not sure if I want to pursue a career in business or media after I graduate, but I’ve always known that a traditional, four-year university was the best way to pursue either of these fields. For others, though, attending college isn’t necessary — or even the best option — for them to reach their career goals.
There needs to be more conversation among parents, educators and young people about avenues for success that don’t require a four-year college degree. Trade or vocational schools are other options after high school, and so is jumping right into the workforce.
“There is this ethos that everyone should get a college degree,” said Douglas Webber, an economics professor. “While it’s unquestionable that, on average, that’s good advice, everyone isn’t the average person.”
“It’s not the right advice for absolutely everybody,” Webber added.
Kyle Blessing, a former music composition major, recently decided to take a leave of absence and pursue music on his own. After he attended Temple for five semesters, he decided college wasn’t the best choice for him.
“I was already doing a lot of music stuff outside of school which I was doing well,” Blessing said. “I just felt that more and more, I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing.”
“Every time I’d be in school I’d feel stressed, and I would feel like I wasn’t producing as good music,” he added. “Basically, I felt like I could do better work on my own.”
Blessing teaches music lessons, interns with Bowerbird, an arts management company in Philadelphia, and has a job booking shows and running studios at the venue The Fire.
Clearly, a degree isn’t always necessary to pursue work in one’s desired field.
William Stull, the economics department chair, agrees there are other paths to success that don’t require a college degree.
“If [people] have the wherewithal to start a small business, you can make good money and live a respectable life without having to go to college,” Stull said. “There are electricians and plumbers that make good money, and we need those people.”
Acquiring knowledge is necessary for all career paths, but a college degree is not the only way to gain expertise in a subject.
“What we’re really talking about here is skills,” Stull said. “One way to acquire a certain set of skills is to go to college. Working in trades is another way to do it.”
“But you can’t just loaf around,” Stull added. “You have to acquire skills that somebody is going to pay for.”
Many students are pressured by their parents to attend a traditional, four-year university. Oftentimes, these pressures don’t allow room for negotiation. This harvests the idea in adolescents that everyone must go to college.
“I really understand parents’ concern about their children and wanting them to go to college, because they’re very worried,” Stull said. “They look at the outside world and see this big split between the income distribution. Most of the people above the line are college graduates.”
Alex Carpenter, a freshman psychology major, said her parents allowed her to choose if she wanted to go to college. But as far as her future career was concerned, no one ever asked her what she really wanted.
“I changed my mind a lot growing up about what I wanted to do,” Carpenter said. “But it just so happened that every single one of those things called for a college degree.”
“There is this stigma that college is a status symbol and that it’s the best thing you could shoot for as a high school graduate,” Carpenter added. “And then you’re seen as a lower ability if you choose a technical school. I don’t think that’s true. Frankly, we need intelligent people in every type of career.”
Carpenter is right. Young people need to find a field they love — whatever it is — and dedicate themselves to doing that job to the best of their ability.
Thus, parents and educators should emphasize acquiring skills, not simply earning a college diploma. When college is continuously presented as the only choice, students feel limited or guilty if it isn’t the right fit for them.
Instead, when students are presented with reliable information about all the options for pursuing a career, they can make better decisions for themselves in the long run.
Brandon Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.