As my two oldest children have started to enter their teen years, we’ve begun giving them more and more responsibilities and more and more freedoms. We’ve also been having lots of conversations about what the future might hold for them. Will they go to college? What might they study? What are they interested in? What do they think they’re good at?
One big issue that’s come up is what exactly the purpose of education after high school is. I don’t want college to be merely something they “do” after high school, but instead it should be something attacked with purpose, and if they don’t have a clear purpose for it, why go?
This led into a conversation of what the purpose of going to college is. My answer? It’s either to get an education or to get job training, depending on what you study. To me, those are distinct things that are both fulfilled by colleges today.
So, what’s the difference between education and job training? I see them in two distinct lights, with neither one being bad.
With education, the goal is to enrich yourself as a person, improve your thinking skills and communication skills, and acquiring a body of knowledge on a subject. This does not inherently give you a strong likelihood of a high paying job and it is not directly training you for any specific job. You may end up in academia or education or another field entirely or find yourself working at entry level positions not utilizing your education at all. While education is fulfilling, it doesn’t lead directly to a great job.
With job training, the goal is to train yourself in the skills necessary to perform a particular job well, ideally one that will earn a good income. This does inherently give you a strong likelihood of a high paying job, as you are being specifically trained for such a job. This won’t necessarily build you into a well-rounded person with problem solving skills like a proper liberal arts education will, but it will prepare you for a job that can earn a solid income.
I tend to think of these two things as overlapping circles, where the overlap includes very basic skills such as basic reading and writing ability and mastery of arithmetic. Those are things that apply well to both a broad education as well as to highly specific job skills.
In general, trade schools as well as university majors that are highly tied to a specific career, like electrical engineering, would qualify as job training. At a trade school and within many university majors that are oriented toward producing people for a specific job type, the focus is on acquiring the skills needed to fulfill the requirements of a particular in-demand job that will likely pay well. While the college/university majors tied to a specific career might sometimes include some general education credits, the focus is pretty clearly oriented toward training for a specific job and career type.
On the other hand, most other university majors would qualify as education. They tend to focus on thinking skills, analysis, and communication skills that can be applied not just to a specific area, but to a broad swath of topics. While education often does provide quite a bit of information in a specific field, it usually provides a lot of tools for being able to absorb and evaluate information and perform solid analysis in many fields. However, that does not come with the specific training that comes with a particular field.
There are some high skill and strongly intellectually demanding jobs that require both extensive job training and a well rounded education. Typically, jobs that involve leadership or demonstrating extensive skills across multiple disciplines or solving multifaceted problems tend to value education quite highly, sometimes even higher than job training. This is why you’ll sometimes see mathematicians and philosophy majors pop up in unexpected fields; they tend to be well educated and able to solve complex problems quite well and thus can sometimes fit quite well into certain jobs, particularly if they have obtained some degree of expertise in a secondary field or some type of job training.
How do you decide which path is right for you or for your child, then? Should your child receive a well rounded education, or should they strive for job training that will put them on a solid career path? It depends on one’s goals in life, really.
So, how is that translating into college planning for my children? Here’s what our planning is coming down to.
During their high school years, we’re going to investigate a lot of careers. I want them to spend their high school years figuring out what things they’re good at (revealed by their schoolwork) and what things they’re excited about doing (revealed by their free time) and then figure out what career options combine the two. This is a process we’re actually starting already, with conversations about what different careers are like.
If they have a career path that they’re drawn to, we’ll follow the educational path to that career, regardless of whether it’s trade school or community college or a four year university. Sarah and I are already saving in a college 529 plan for our children’s education. While we don’t intend to pay for everything, we do intend to help.
It’s worth noting that this doesn’t directly mean that they will go to college. If one of our children decides to become an electrician or a carpenter or something similar, then we will help them on that career path as well. College is not the only answer to the question of what to do after high school.
What about other options, like the military? I include the military in the other options listed above – it’s one of many coming out of high school, and the one chosen should be connected to what he or she wishes to do with their career and life after high school. I would not choose the military as a “default” option, but if that’s a career that my children are interested in, then it’s definitely an option. The military isn’t for everyone and I would not foist it upon anyone without that person having a significant interest.
What if they don’t have a career path in mind when they’re at the time to be applying to colleges? If that’s the case, I will probably encourage them to take a “gap year” and do two things. One, take care of a couple of general education classes at a local community college. Two, spend some time working at a real job. Three, spend some time really evaluating what they want to do with their time.
I will still encourage them to apply to colleges during their final year or two of high school, but simply request that their admission be deferred for a year. They can always choose after that year whether or not they wish to go to college once they’ve had some time to taste the real world and give things some real consideration.
What’s the take home message here? Don’t send your child to college without a plan in mind, and there are other plans besides college when your child graduates from high school. For many plans for the future, college does in fact make a lot of sense, but for many other plans, it doesn’t quite fit. Don’t invest the enormous amount of money required to go to college unless there’s a strong plan associated with that investment.
If you or your child does not have a clear plan near the end of high school, don’t open up your wallet and spend five figures to give them a year or two to figure it out. They can figure it out for free by working in the real world and getting some inexpensive credits out of the way at a community college, then when they figure things out, they can go on to college or trade school or the military or entrepreneurship or something else entirely.
Remember, education is an important and valuable thing, but it doesn’t lead directly to a career. Don’t expect that by going to college and earning a four year degree in whatever interests you that you’ll magically be able to translate your degree into a great job. If you want a more certain path to a great job, then look at college as one of several options for job training and choose the one that matches your skill set and, hopefully, your interest.
This is the advice I’m giving my children about their careers and educational opportunities going forward. Regardless of what they choose, the skills they learn over the next several years – arithmetic, writing, how to solve simple problems, and how to learn things on their own – are valuable lessons that will always serve them well, because such things are the overlap between a liberal arts education and job training. Eventually, those paths start to diverge a little, and the right choice isn’t the same for everyone. Just be sure you’re not spending tens of thousands of dollars on a path that isn’t the right one for you, and if you’re not sure, take it slow.