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College Education

A College Education, the Key to a Happy Life or Not?

By Chris Jordan

My oldest son is going to be a junior in high school this year. Already people have started asking where he is going to college, what he wants to study, what he wants to do with his life. His answer is always the same, “I don’t know,” followed by a shrug. Then they look at me.  I shrug.

I recently looked up my old university online. Over $60,000 a year. A YEAR.

Here is the thing, I don’t think everyone needs to go to college. Many of us have been force fed the idea that college is the only means to move up and out of our socio-economic status. I don’t think any of my children have to go to college. It is their choice. I especially do not think that they need to go immediately after high school.

Moreover, the idea of them accruing huge amounts of debt to attend college makes me feel ill. I certainly do not have an extra $60,000 per year just lying around. Heck, I don’t even have a tenth of that. I have told my kids that if they work hard in high school and get the grades and SAT/ACT scores that they need to get scholarships at expensive private universities that I will help them in every way that I can, but I also feel VERY strongly about them not acquiring huge amounts of debt, especially at the undergraduate level when most kids don’t even really know what they want to pursue.  Having that kind of debt locks you into things and limits your choices.  But in the end at 18 years old, they are legally adults and can make their own decisions, the choice is not mine.  And as with most things in this parenting gig, I just hope they listen to what I have to say.

Some of my kids might not want to go to college, their interests and desires might take them on a different path. I am perfectly okay with that. I’d rather have a happy ditch digger for a son or daughter than a miserable lawyer. And honestly, the world needs plumbers and mechanics; why have we relegated those careers as inferior choices?

I think as a society we need to accept the fact that not everyone needs a college education. Having a college degree will not buy you a better life.  And also accept the fact that some college degrees have no real marketable value, they do not exchange for a job. I am looking at myself here and my B.S. in studio art, with a concentration in painting. Does that degree have any value in the real world? No. I can tell you it does not. Did I care when I was getting it? No, not really. I have two college degrees that are “worthless” when viewed in terms of job prospects.

Do I regret my degrees? Not at all. But I did not go into debt for them. I wasn’t forced to get a job to pay for my degrees.

People argue that college is not only about the education you are receiving, that there is value beyond the degree that is conferred. I agree. My issue comes in when people insist that it is the only way to have a happy and productive life.

However, the community in which I am raising my kids says YOU WILL GO TO A FOUR-YEAR COLLEGE WHETHER YOU WANT TO OR NOT THERE WILL BE NO DISCUSSION. THE END.

I was with my son recently at his annual physical. The doctor asked him about his grades, extra-curricular activities and college plans. When I revealed he was the classic underachiever sort of student, the doctor gasped and said, “You don’t want to end up at the community college, do you?”

When I asked her what was wrong with that she said, “Well, it’s fine for some people, but our kids can do better.”

Since when is there a better and who decides this? I must have missed that memo.

I would much rather my children spend time at the local community college. I’d love for them to take classes that interest them. Take classes that seem fun. Explore new ideas. Honestly I could pay for them each to get 4 associates degrees for less money than it would be for one semester at a private four-year college. Much much less money.

I would love for my oldest son to attend a local community college for a year or so, work a part-time job and save money. Then take time off to travel the world with a friend or two. Strap a backpack on and head off into the unknown. Those are the kind of life experiences I want for him, and for all of my children. Those are the sort of adventures that teach you about who you are. They broaden your world view. When else will you be able to do this in your life?

Or, I could leave him home and strap on my own backpack– that sounds better than pulling my wheeled luggage behind me– and spend a year searching for myself. Forty-three isn’t too old to do that, is it?

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Chris Jordan
About the Author

Chris Jordan

Chris Jordan began blogging at Notes From the Trenches in 2004 where she wrote about her life raising her children in Austin, Texas.

Oh, she has seven of them. Yes, children. Yes, they...

Chris Jordan began blogging at Notes From the Trenches in 2004 where she wrote about her life raising her children in Austin, Texas.

Oh, she has seven of them. Yes, children.
Yes, they are all hers.
No she’s not Catholic or Mormon. Though she wouldn’t mind having a sister-wife because holy hell the laundry never stops.
Yes, she finally figured out what causes it. That’s why her youngest is a teen now.
Yes, she has a television.

She enjoys referring to herself in the third person.

 

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Kerry
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Kerry

Amen Sistah! I was one of those high schoolers who had no idea how to go forward after graduation. My parents drilled it into my head that I had to go to college, but they didn’t really explain the logistics (money for tuition, how to get/fill out applications, etc). I remember a few PTA moms who were in charge of putting together a “Where Everyone is Going to College” bulletin my senior year, and they just couldn’t seem to grasp that I didn’t have a plan… Of course THIER children had been accepted to ivy league schools months ago! Naturally!… Read more »

Mae
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Mae

I totally agree. The children nowadays are made to feel so useless and futureless if they are not good at their studies. I mean everyone is gifted differently. Not everyone can be a doctor or a lawyer. I mean what would the world become if everyone fights to be a certain profession.
I always believe that whatever profession or career path that my children chooses to take, they must excel in it. That will be their best gift to me and to the world.

PollyS
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PollyS

I totally agree. College is a slippery slope these days. And really, it’s not like it was even 10 years ago. Thankfully there are so many options…Community college, online, part time, etc. Debt is just not worth going the traditional route. Read this and found it interesting http://itsalmostnaptime.blogspot.com/2011/02/whats-college-degree-worth.html AND a few years ago my friend had a plumber at his house. The plumber’s DISCOUNT rate was $120 an hour. He gave my friend a discount because the job he was doing would take 15 hours! My friend did the math and told the plumber that he makes more money than… Read more »

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[…] I recently looked up my old university online. Over $60,000 a year. A YEAR.   Here is the thing, I don’t think everyone needs to go to college… (continue reading) […]

Ann
Guest

Two thumbs up!! You’ve echoed my feelings about college exactly. I’ve seen so many people in my family go into it not really knowing what they want to do, and then taking anyjob after graduation just to get by. I’d much rather see my kids work for a couple of years or go part-time local until they really know what they want to do. I came out of high school so completely unprepared for college – how can kids at 17 be expected to make such a huge decision?

Momma
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Momma

Agreed. A local online paper recently did an article on a great auto mechanic in her neighborhood and how happy he seemed with his life. The irony was that I finished the article believing that the author would never allow her own children to follow such a path. Life is what you make of it. When you spend all your time aspiring to have things when does it ever end. There’s always going to be someone else who has more. The only way to make someone happy is to make yourself happy.

jL
Guest

My parents drilled 4-year college (with a football team per my dad’s standards) into my head. I had no idea that there was another option. I loved every minute of my college experience and thankfully did not have to go into debt for it. BUT the marketable skills I gained from college were approximately 0. I made best friends and learned lots of things about life but I really didn’t learn much that I used in my first job out of school. I didn’t even find out what I was good at until I had been working for about 3… Read more »

baltimoregal
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baltimoregal

As a person who WORKS at a expensive and highly-ranked college, I say YES to you. Some kids are not ready. Some kids will never be the college type and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But please do not go into debt for a “because the others are doing it” mentality. College can be the growth experience many kids need but it isn’t for everyone.

Eileen
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Eileen

I need my husband to read this. When I joke about our daughter going to cosmotology school, he gets upset. But as a public librarian (which requires TWO degrees), I’m sure there are plenty of haridressers out there making more than me! 🙂

jcc
Guest
jcc

I think people have forgotten the real reason one should go to college: To gain the knowledge, skills and contacts for a career that can better sustain you and your future family. Pursuing a degree that does not lead lead towards that end is in reality a luxury. One that only the independently wealthy could afford.

Rebecca
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Rebecca

1) I have a very expensive college education that bought me a master’s degree, incurred me enough debt I could have bought a small house (alas, I still rent), and still left me wondering what I wan to do with my life. 2) Most (if not all) the college level classes I enjoyed taking were not ones that led to a career with any sort of stable income. 3) A good friend of mine earned her BA at a private university, graduated, and went on to earn $10/hour. She then went back to *gasp* community college, earned an associate’s in… Read more »

tasterspoon
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tasterspoon

I remember doing an Outward Bound course in high school and one of my coursemates was a thirty-something woman who regretted strongly not having gone to college. She didn’t believe she was at all deficient in skills or knowledge, but felt that not having the piece of paper held her back. I want my children to have as many options as possible. I would see further education not as a tool to narrow their options but to widen them, though I understand how debt would counteract that. God bless em if your child knows that s/he wants to be a… Read more »

Rebecca
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Rebecca

I agree with what you said, I have never read any where someone brave enough to say/write this. I do not have a college ed but I did go to cosmetology school (someone before me joked about it) and my husband is an electrician- again, no college. I think a degree in business or something broad is good to have because I couldn’t make the money I’m making anywhere else without a degree of some kind, and some days it would be nice to do 9-5 like ‘normal’ people. But…we are happy, financially secure, have private health and benefits which… Read more »

Ginger
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Ginger

Hm. “Our kids can do better than community college.”

That perplexes me. I know a silly amount of very intelligent people (both young AND old–old being a relative term) who go to community college. It’s cheaper, closer to home, and a nice way to transition for a lot of us.

I will say if I hadn’t gone to community college, I wouldn’t have gotten accepted into a special honors program that’s opened up ten thousand more doors for me. 

I also wouldn’t have discovered yoga, dance, sociology, or even anthropology. Interesting, huh?

Hillary
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Hillary

I really admire you for saying this! I’ve been telling my friends and family that I want my child to be 1) law-abiding, 2) self-sufficient, and 3) happy. And, really, college is not necessarily part of that equation. A lot of things become less of a priority if those are your goals. It is time to embrace a wider range of options for our children!

Melani
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Melani

I am 36 years old and taking my very first college classes ever. To be honest, I still don’t know what I want to “do” but I’m ready to figure it out. I was valedictorian of my high school class so could have easily gone to college but no one in my family had ever gone and I honestly didn’t know how to go about it.     Instead, 17 years ago I married my high school sweetheart, worked for a few years and then had 2 babies and stayed home with them.  I love my life but am aware… Read more »

Natalie
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Natalie

I was told to go to college and then told at the last minute, thanks to my parents splitting up, that I needed to pay for it myself. I have been out of my undergrad for 7 years and still owe 36,000 after having paid off 22,000 of it. I make less than 25,000 a year…before taxes. Meanwhile my husband didn’t graduate high school or get his GED and he is making more than 50,000 a year before taxes in a trade job. This has put a ton of strain on our marriage, has stopped me from doing what I… Read more »

s
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s

absolutely agree.  My kids aren’t high school age but I already feel this way – especially about one of my boys, who is truly super smart, but hates school and I can’t imagine him being happy behind a desk.  He needs to move, to build/tear things down, to figure things out.    The school I graduated from only pushed a 4 yr college degree- it was that path or…they really didn’t know how to “guide” you.  One of my friends, who was very smart, wanted to go to trade school and his teachers gave him a really difficult time.  So… Read more »

Fairly Odd Mother
Guest

Funny, there was a very heated discussion about this in our last homeschooler parents’ meeting. . .I have to say that I am on the side of “oh please go to college”—not the $60k/year kind of “notch in my belt” path, but I do want my kids to continue on with their education, whether it be liberal arts or to learn a trade. When I left high school, I had NO idea what I wanted to do, nor did I think I could accomplish very much—college helped me grow up and find myself, away from my family and the friends… Read more »

Kris
Guest

College Plus is an option. A friend’s son is doing college from home through this group. It is affordable, flexible and they are thrilled with it.

Kate
Guest

I completely agree with you! I think trade schools are amazing and I think community colleges are a wonderful, wonderful resource. I went to a community college and ended up with a paid fellowship at Harvard based on my work there. I really think it’s possible to do anything and go anywhere with a degree from a two-year college if you’re an engaged and dedicated student.

Mir
Guest

Here in Georgia we have the Hope Scholarship, which mostly pays for a GA state college for kids who maintain a B average or better. I consider it one of the few perks of having moved to this area. 😉 Now it’s my kids’ dad who’s always talking about how they can do “better” than “one of those crummy Georgia schools,” to which I respond that if a free college education is problematic for him, he is welcome to pay for them to go to the school of his choosing, assuming they’ll go along with it. Honestly, having been raised… Read more »

goliadyaya
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goliadyaya

I forced my oldest to attend college and we were all miserable. Emotional immaturity on his part and me wondering what everyone would think on my part. However, raising children means learning from our mistakes. I learned! My younger son, excelled in academics, athletics and social situations…decided he wanted to be a firefighter…off he went to EMT school and a 4 month intensive firefighting school. He LOVES it and is happy with his chosen career path. Granted he will have to work & plan for financial success, but he and we are much happier. Also with his 24 on and… Read more »

Cate
Guest
Cate

Mir, your children’s dad obviously doesn’t know anything about a little institution knows as the Georgia Institute of Technology! Chris, well said!

Emily in IL
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Emily in IL

1) college is important 2) traditional 4 yr schools aren’t for everyone I have 4 yrs in a traditional college under my belt. If I had to do it again, I would have done 2 yrs in community college FIRST and then decided if I wanted to go on. This is coming from someone with zero college debt (thanks mom & dad). I was EXPECTED to go to school to get a ‘career’. As it turns out, my job now doesn’t even come close to what I studied other than I studied business and now work for a business.

Amy
Guest
Amy

My husband didn’t go to college, owns two businesses (plumbing and electrical related) and is probably the savviest business man I know. I have a graduate degree that he paid for that I don’t do much with. I was lucky enough to have an undergrad scholarship so I’m not saddled with debt, but my best friend wasn’t and I see how she’s struggled financially and doesn’t even work in her field. My husband pulls in 4/5ths of our income. There needs to be a shift in our country’s definition of education. I personally got more from a summer apprenticeship than… Read more »

amy flood
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amy flood

i’m with youy Chris. I have 3 soon to be 4 children and there will be no way that any of them will be able to have a free ride unless they get scholarships. I’m also not sure i will encourage them to go to a traditional 4 yr college. I went to a 4 yr college, spent 15 years paying off my student loans and the job i currenlty have (and Like and pays well) i could have done with a 2-yr associates degree!

Groovecatmom
Guest
Groovecatmom

Wow, Chris, you pretty much jumped inside my head and pulled out my exact thoughts on college. It’s a myth that every single person needs to go to college to be a success, or even be educated. Especially if you aren’t sure what you want to do/be, it’s unwise to go into that much debt. Plus, mechanic and plumber jobs can’t be outsourced overseas! Maybe your son could consider a gap year after high school. It’s done in so many ways–young people volunteer, travel, or just work at an odd job, until they decide if college is right for them,… Read more »

Mama Bear
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Mama Bear

I am not going to read the other comments, as I’m sure I would be offended, nodding my head in agreement, and astonished at what everyone has said. Here’s my scoop: I have 3 children, 2 of them are out of high school. My son went to 2 years at a Technical College (GASP!!) Then worked to finish his associates degree for a year. Ta-Da, one degree under his belt! Yes, it is a blue collar job, an auto mechanic. We will always need someone to fix cars in this world. He has now gone back to the same (GASP!!)… Read more »

Bridget
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Bridget

I agree 100%. I don’t think my parents would have accepted my not going to college after high school, but that didn’t bother me since I wanted to go anyway. However, they never ONCE discussed the financial side of it with me. I chose a private school that I loved and graduated with $35K in debt. I had a great time in college, but oh how I wish they had told my 17-year-old self how much debt sucks. I probably would have given the public universities in my state a much closer look.

Stacey
Guest

Thanks so much for writing this, Chris. I was recently having similar thoughts about my own children and my own path in life. Where I grew up, it was also just assumed that you would go to college. Somewhere during the application process, I realized that I didn’t know *why* I was going to college or what I wanted to do with my life. But I was on a path and I followed it, got a couple of degrees, worked, had kids. And here I am. I’d also like to strap on a backpack and go find myself. Gosh, to… Read more »

annmarie
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annmarie

Oh, that almost makes me cry to think of people dissing community college. My ninth grader intends on going that route, as she isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life and also, she is a major worrier and obsesses over things like money and debt. I would much rather raise a child who is aware that debt is not a terrific way to start out your adult life than one who thinks they’ll go to college, accrue massive debt and be able to pay it off because college with guarantee them a terrific job. That just isn’t… Read more »

Carla Hinkle
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Carla Hinkle

I’m all for not forcing kids to go to get their bachelor’s right away … taking on a lot of debt is certainly not a great idea, and I hate to think of my kids wasting time and money when they don’t know what they want to do. But I would be hesitant to encourage kids NOT to go to college. Just take a look at the lifetime employment/income averages for college graduates vs high school graduates. That’s not a curve I really want my kids to be on, honestly … it brings with it a lot of financial insecurity.… Read more »

Tricia
Guest
Tricia

My husband and I have one son who graduated from high school with 32 college credit hours by taking duel credit classes while in high school. We simply cannot afford to pay for a 4 year, go find yourself college. HOWEVER, we both strongly believe in having a 4 year degree is very important. I just don’t believe it needs to be attained in the traditional way. He has gone to Fire Academy and EMT school. When he finishes that he can get a well paying job and have the time to continue his college at the Community College and then a… Read more »

Sarah
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Sarah

I agree with much of what you said here, in fact most.  However, I will say that for many jobs you need a 4 year degree to even be considered, even if it isn’t in a specific area.  It comes down to what you want to do for the rest of your life.  There are many jobs that people are happy with that don’t require education past a high school diploma or an associates degree.  However, these days, it seems more and more jobs that in days past would fall into those categories now require a 4 year degree to… Read more »

S in LA
Guest
S in LA

I totally agree. I went to a community college for the first two years of college. This allowed me to backpack through Europe for almost three months – twice! This was the best time of my life for sure. When I was job hunting nobody cared that two of my four years of college were at a community college. Employers just wanted a confimation of graduation, that’s it.

Molly
Guest
Molly

I refuse to believe that a young person who does not excel in school does not have the intelligence or ability to be highly successful and to flourish. Schools reward one very narrow form of intelligence: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U I also wish more students went to college because they *wanted* to be there, not because they have never once been asked in life what they want to do.  Yes, I know that with the job market as it is, statistically your son’s lifetime financial security is likely to be much less secure if he doesn’t earn a college degree. But he can go… Read more »

Jackie
Guest

I tell my children that they must do something after high school. I don’t care if that something is a technical school, 2 year college, 4 year college or an apprenticeship like my husband went through.

RebeccaD.
Guest
RebeccaD.

I really want my 9 year old daughter to go to college right out of high school.  I did some part time community college when I graduated but then got married and had my kids. After a few years I went back to school and am finishing up my BA this year. My husband just finished up his degree as well. While it has been a great opportunity for us since we have been able to grants for much of it and my major is in a field that wasn’t really around 10 years ago, I am really happy that… Read more »

Lise
Guest
Lise

I think your hope for your oldest son is a good one. My (homeschooled) kids went to community college while in high school.It was a great way to transition to doing college level work while still living at home. When they went away to university, they only needed to adjust to living in a dorm, not to doing higher level work. And by the way, they found many university classes to be less work than community college classes. Professors with 600 students in a class don’t assign many essays. Instructors with 30 students in a class do.

Jo Anne
Guest
Jo Anne

Here Here!!!! I must say my son had no desire to finish school (and to my dismay he dropped out in his senior year). I was beside myself. Well, fast forward 20 years and he is a successful business owner who can afford to send both his children to that fancy school of yours. And, he does not even have a GED. I am not saying this is right for everyone. I am saying that different strokes for different folks and good for the individual who recogonizes what is right for them. My son always knew that he hated school… Read more »

Jamie/Parallelfirst
Guest

I attended a 4-year university b/c that was what the general expectation was in my circle of friends- my family would have been supportive either way. My first 2 years were *wasted* from an education standpoint, as I floated from major to major, really only applying myself to dance team, beer drinking, and greek life. I buckled down for the second 2 years in order to get out in 4 – but wasted my parents’ incredibly generous money, and haven’t done a damn thing with my degree since. I didn’t have the focus going in, and didn’t get the focus… Read more »

kolimom98
Guest
kolimom98

Excellent article!!! I so agree with you! I do not have a college education and neither does my husband. What we do have is ambition!!!! We are totally debt free and live well. We didn’t care if our daughter went to college or not and actually tried more to convince her NOT to go and get a big debt. We paid the first two years and she paid the last two years and had a a degree and loves what she does. So, everyone is different but I HATE when people do ask kids constantly where they are going to… Read more »

Kathy from NJ
Guest
Kathy from NJ

One word – ROTC – One of my nieces who wanted to be a nurse since age 12 went to a private university on full ROTC scholarship for tuition, books & fees – school scholarship for room & board. She also received a monthly tax-free stipend from the army. She’s now a 1LT at Landstuhl hospital in Germany and having the time of her life; in 15 months has vacationed in almost every country in Europe. My nephew (her brother) is now in his 3rd year at a private university with a full ROTC scholarship that the army says is… Read more »

Amanda
Guest

You’re right. College isn’t for everyone. I know I wish I wouldn’t have wasted all that money to figure out after 2 years that it wasn’t for me. Those gen. ed. classes annoyed me to no end. I wanted to take classes in what I was there for, and that’s it. None of that “well rounded” BS.  And for the person who said ROTC, I can tell you that unless your kid is top quality, it’s not really an option for a scholarship anymore. We’ve been assigned to ROTC for 9 school years now. My husband has been the ROO… Read more »

jaye
Guest
jaye

I believe that education is important.  And the vast majority of jobs require (or strongly encourage) someone to have more education than a HS degree.  That doesn’t mean it has to be a 4-year university degree.  I am a professor at a community college here in Texas.  We have programs for firefighters, a police academy, training for mechanics, nursing programs, dental hygiene, food service and hospitality (just to name a few), along with the more traditional business, accounting, management, english, math, history, etc.  Community college is a great place to start!  A technical program certificate can be earned for less… Read more »

Maddy
Guest
Maddy

Hi Chris, I too have a 16 year old selecting subjects now for his last two years in high school in the hopes he makes the right choices for whatever it is he decides to do when he leaves school. He has not made up his mind either. Here in Australia you need to chose in Year 10 at 16 the subjects you want to do in years 11 and 12 which combine to give them their equivalent of your SAT score. It’s daunting, if he chooses the wrong subjects now and decides he does want to go to uni… Read more »

Christine
Guest
Christine

I agree with you… to a point. I have 4 kids that are 21 and under. My oldest daughter chose not to go to college after graduation she put it off to work. Now 3 years later she is still working in a retail job, she did buy a house and now is in too much debt to go back to school even for the 9 month certificate course she always wanted to take. My son 20 who has learning disabilites tried the local community college for a year said it was not for him and luckily he landed a… Read more »

Jennifer Graham
Guest

I completely agree with you. I push my kids to be the best they can. They are in schools which their dad and I feel will challenge them. We expect good grades or at least the best grades they are capable of in a given subject. We continually tell them that our goal in life is that when they are 18 they will have choices. They will have the choice to go to an ivy league college or the military or trade school or be the garbage collector. I don’t expect them to get in the best school in the… Read more »

Shelly
Guest
Shelly

A higher education is not what it use to be or mean.  Too expensive and very selective.  My college age son cannot get into 90% of his classes due to cutbacks and the fees have increased to $1,000 for one class!   My husband has a MA and cannot use it, so we have massive debt.  He has gained more from his employment…which was to put him through school, than school itself.  Yet not enough to live. My degree is nothing.  I cannot even use it where I live and would need to go back for more training to become… Read more »