In American society, college is widely seen as the only way to attain a happy life. All across the country, high school students are taught that college is necessary for a successful future and that they will never reach their full potential if they do not attend a four-year university. As a result, society places excessive pressure upon getting into and attending university, a path which is not beneficial for everyone. To exacerbate this problem even further, high schools continuously emphasize college preparatory programs and frequently advertise how many of their students have gone on to popular four-year universities. The perception of university as the cornerstone of success has become deeply ingrained in society and now plays a major role in American Dream aspirations. As a result, a life without the college experience often becomes a target of ridicule and condescending pity, viewed only as second-rate.
The disproportionate emphasis placed on the college experience consequently extends to the college admissions process and to university rankings. This mindset pits students against one another to compete for a limited number of spots in a small jumble of schools seen as prestigious. An unhealthy pressure to attend college, particularly a “good” college, plagues high school students across the country and results in extreme anxiety, low self-esteem and false views of oneself. For example, a study of girls attending a wealthy and prestigious northeastern preparatory high school found that these students were two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with clinical depression than were teenagers in the general population (Association for Supervision and Curriculum, “The Overpressured Student,” 05.2011). Although a variety of behavioral, emotional and personal factors could contribute to this finding, researchers stress the correlation between depression and achievement pressures.
Even worse, students who are not accepted to their college of choice may experience intense feelings of self-loathing, shame and inadequacy, as if their lives are prematurely over. These students often grow to avoid risk-taking for fear of failure. High school educator William Johnson states, “These students are expressing a hopelessness that’s been drilled into them for years. Day after day, year after year our students hear the same message that they are failures” (Chalkbeat, “Fear and Self-Loathing in the Classroom,” 03.19.2012). Throughout our lives, most notably during the university application process, students are explicitly and implicitly told that we are failures, that what we’re doing is not good enough. However, contrary to common belief, college is not necessary to have a happy and prosperous future and certainly does not guarantee a successful future.
Thankfully, there are alternatives to the standard four-year university that many people undervalue and forget: community colleges and trade schools. Known for their small class sizes and encouraging atmosphere, community colleges are affordable post-secondary institutions with open enrollment (Department of Homeland Security, “What is Community College,” 03.13.2012). Students are typically enrolled for two years, after which they earn an Associate’s degree. Following their matriculation, students may move into the workforce or go on to attain a Bachelor’s degree. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, there are 1,167 nationally accredited community colleges in the United States, educating about 12.4 million students.
Trade schools, also known as vocational or technical institutions, are post-secondary schools that train students in skills for a specific occupation, such as welding, cosmetology, nursing and health care or automotive services (PrepScholar, “What is a Trade School,” 07.08.2016). Students are typically enrolled in trade schools for a shorter amount of time than community college, ranging from eight months to two years, but regardless of field, students graduate with diplomas and trade certificates. Unfortunately, the pressure to go to a four-year university has led to negative stigma surrounding trade schools and community colleges, which are commonly viewed as inferior.
“[Vocational programs are] considered a second choice, second-class. We really need to change how people see vocational and technical education,” reflected President of San Diego Miramar College Patricia Hsieh (Inside Higher Ed, “Spotlight on Vocational Training,” 04.25.2017).
Students enrolled in a two-year or trade college are stereotyped as not smart enough or too lazy to get into a “real” college. Likewise, society often undervalues and belittles blue-collar workers. An employee at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center argues, “Everyday blue-collar workers are not compensated properly nor treated with respect” (HuffPost, “Today’s Most Sought-After Workers are Blue Collar,” 06.12.2017). Blue-collar workers are often looked down upon by a society that values knowledge above all else, and therefore may be seen as disposable.
Due to the increasing emphasis on a college education, however, technical workers are rare and in high demand. This year alone, there are 30 million jobs with an annual income of $55,000 that do not require Bachelor’s degrees, yet these jobs are being filled slowly (NPR, “High-Paying Trade Jobs Sit Empty, While High School Grads Line Up for University,” 04.25.2018). Seventy-five percent of construction companies in the nation endure a shortage of workers or difficulties finding workers. Students who enroll in technical school are sought after by employers, and surveys show that those with career and technical educations are more likely to be employed than those with academic credentials (NPR).
Moreover, despite the promises of guaranteed financial success associated with four-year colleges, the average unemployment rate of those with Bachelor’s degrees has decreased from 2010 to 2015 along with the median income (National Center for Education Statistics, “Employment Outcomes of Bachelor’s Recipients,” 2017). These income levels, of course, depend on field. Workers in STEM fields, notably engineering and computer information systems, earn much more than workers in criminal justice, education or arts and humanities. College graduates’ incomes are greater and increase slightly more throughout their lifetimes than technical workers. Yet, their latency in joining the workforce, combined with entry-level salaries and crippling student debt, levels the median lifetime wages between college graduates and technical workers (National Center for Education Statistics).
By being open about all the possible choices for students after high school without clinging onto negative stereotypes, schools may see student performance greatly improve. For example, Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, which teach students both high school academics and trades, have a 93 percent graduation rate, compared to the national average high school graduation rate of 82 percent. These programs ultimately allow students to learn about fields that interest them without making them believe that they need to attend an expensive private institute for four years to pursue their ambitions. Within these types of programs, college and career are not seen as separate.
Community colleges present themselves as ideal places for students who have not figured out what they want to do quite yet. These colleges provide a place for students who do not want to spend the next four years of their life living and breathing academics. Community colleges are adaptable to students’ needs, and students are able to craft their schedules around family and work commitments. Furthermore, community colleges are much cheaper than four-year institutions. The average tuition for a year at community college is around $3,000, and the average total cost of trade schools is around $30,000, as opposed to typically much higher university tuitions. The perception of these schools as subordinate and less rigorous than four-year institutions is completely unwarranted. The rigor of Associate’s programs comes from what each student makes of them. The people who attend technical schools are no different—nor are they less capable—than those who attend a private college. Just as with four-year institutions, if students want to work hard, they will and they do. If students do not want to, then they will not.
It is necessary to break the stigma and change the perception of non-university programs. Instead of pushing children to go to college, parents and educators should encourage children to find fields and careers which they feel passionate about. CTE programs should be advertised, and career guidance in high school must include non–four year university options.
Universities, community colleges, technical schools and employment are not mutually exclusive paths. Sixty-six percent of university transfer students come from community colleges (Huffpost, “Reframing how we talk about career and technical education,” 07.10.2017). Many people who go to college end up in a technical job such as construction work, engineering or visual arts. Likewise, many people who attend technical school and have technical jobs go back to college later in life. It is not necessary to go to college directly after high school, or at all.
Exposing students to career options, including non-university options, in an unbiased way to give students increased choice. Although college graduates tend to earn more in the long term, this phenomenon is becoming less common as median incomes decrease and more technical work to improve infrastructure is needed throughout the world. The pressure to attend university may be overwhelming; therefore, it is important for students to be aware of all their post-high school options and to know that there is not one path which leads to happiness.