We often refer to the American Dream. What does this mean? At its core is that a person can become a success based on their own initiative and effort, and the measure of that success is generally income and the things that income buys.
Finding the American Dream required going to college. Lately, people question if college is worth the cost. Stories of unemployed or underemployed people with college degrees and large college debt fill the media, while stories about the “wealthy welder” — as author Paul Tough writes — earning six-figure incomes counterbalance the message.
Is college worth it? We can certainly use the money metric which shows that college educated workers will earn between $1 million and $3 million more over a lifetime than high school graduates. The average income for a welder is around $36,000 per year, not $150,000.
The trades are themselves changing. Workers are less likely to use a wrench than to guide a robot. The college educated people who design and program the robots make more than the workers who use them.
Most trades require some sort of certificate as entry into the field. Community colleges prepare for needed trades and professions, and all require courses in mathematics, sciences and communication — the same basic courses we call “general education” taken by bachelor’s degree candidates. So, college is clearly a requirement to move toward the dream, and it might even be stated that college is the new high school.
After World War II, only about half of U.S. students graduated from high school. The post-war economy demanded a high school diploma and, by the 1990s, over 85 percent of Americans earned a high school diploma.
There are other reasons to earn a college degree. Our world is rapidly changing. By 2030, it is estimated that 85 percent of the jobs in which people will be employed do not now exist. So, how does one prepare for the unknown? The best way to prepare is to learn the skills that create thoughtful, innovative and creative thinkers. These soft skills are exactly the ones that four-year colleges develop. Being able to read reflectively, write persuasively and think critically are the stuff of liberal arts subject areas.
What does a bachelor’s degree prepare you to do? Anything. Everything.
College costs have begun to spiral out of sight in the past 40 years. The stories of college graduates with tens of thousands of dollars in debt are frightening. With planning, however, these costs can be minimized or eliminated. Many students can earn scholarships to reduce college costs. For students in the middle or below, like I was, there are a number of grants and loans available from federal and state sources.
Selective colleges are very expensive, but there are many fine schools that have lower costs. Community colleges serve as gateway institutions to college and they have very reasonable tuition and fees. Courses taken at community colleges have the same rigor and content as those taken by their four-year counterparts, and they transfer easily. Earning an associate degree could easily reduce overall college costs by 25 percent to 50 percent.
Is college for everyone? Absolutely. I was the first in my family to earn a degree, and I knew nothing about the process. Becoming informed about college processes is critical. Mistakes can be expensive and frustrating. Over 50 percent of today’s college freshman change their majors from their original target. This can be costly, if courses taken do not apply to new majors.
The solution is to take only a few of those targeted classes the first semester or two, along with general education classes that count in all majors. In that way, you will find out if you selected wisely and not waste time and money in classes you will need to replace.
Can everyone succeed in college? I believe they can — if they plan appropriately.
There is no question that taking college courses is more rigorous than high school courses. Success in those rigorous classes is more about what Angela Duckworth refers to as “grit.” Grit is persistence and passion, and it trumps IQ. But college success is much more easily reached as a team sport, when students work with the vast resources available. These include committed faculty and student academic, social and emotional support programs, along with peers and using effective technology to increase learning and retention.
The solution is to do your college homework. All college campuses have resources to help you in your search for the American Dream. There are career centers and counselors who can inform you and answer your questions. They will spend as much time with you as you need.
Once you have the information, all you need is the determination and persistence to move forward. Good luck.