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Changing the Cultural Stigma Around the Need for a College Education

The one-size-future-fits-all mentality is not sustainable and is hurting our kids. Here’s how we can change it.

What was the message about your post-high school options growing up? If you went to high school and graduated in the late eighties, like I did, most likely college wasn't part of your dynamic. If, however, you graduated any time from the late 90’s on, college was most likely the best, if not only, option presented to you in order to build a successful future for yourself. The problem with this is that now we have a culture that insists the only way to be successful is by getting a college degree, which is not true.

Think about it, millions of people are definitely successful without college degrees. How did that happen? Hard work. Grit. Resilience. Learning. These things are what it takes to be successful. Getting into college is no guarantee of success, and not getting into college is not a guarantee that you won't find success.

The cultural stigma around needing a college education in order to be successful needs to change and here’s why.

Too many of one thing is never a good idea. If all we have in our society are college graduates, who will be left to take care of the other things that are just as equally important in our society? We have made it so incredibly unfavorable to be in any trade or service industry that we are now faced with a huge gaping hole on one side and a gluttony on the other. This kind of imbalance is not good for any culture. It reinforces the idea of the Have’s and Have Not’s which further divides any society.

A narrow definition of success limits a society. Too many people have been told for too long they need a college degree to be successful so that now no one believes they can be successful in anything else. What are we left with? Generations of people who believe they cannot be successful if they don't fit the mold. This has had devastating effects on the teenage population: why put yourself out there to do anything different when the only thing being shown to be successful is one particular path?

We are becoming too alike. Our education system breeds conformity, even at the high school level. While there are different choices in terms of electives, the common goal is always college. As a result teens are not even given the opportunity to fully explore other pathways. There are as many different opportunities for success as there are teenagers; why are we not helping them understand that they can build success on their own terms even if it doesn't fit the college mold?

We are breeding a fear of failure. When students don't fit the traditional mold they tend to get labeled as failures either by themselves or by those around them. This is damaging. It's not that we're supposed to celebrate everybody for everything, but we should be able to help teens figure out who they are and what they want without feeling like they failed because it doesn't fit the current mold.

We are at a pivotal point in education thanks to the pandemic. We have a great opportunity to help shift the dynamic of success. It's time to open the door to multiple pathways, including college, and helping students discover for themselves which option,or combination of options, fits them best and helps them build a successful future for themselves on their own terms.

For more about the different options available to high school students and how to help them know which option or combination of options is best for them, check out College Is Not Mandatory: A Parent's Guide to Navigating All the Options Available to Our Kids After High School.


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