Whether you work in the education field or not, you have undoubtedly heard the constant buzz about higher education reform. People are asking questions like “is a college degree worth it in 2016?” and “is the amount of debt I’ll graduate with manageable?” Free tuition to public universities is one of the cornerstones of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Experts are diving into how exactly colleges set their prices and debating what “affordable” really means. New research indicates that our collective student loan debt has reached $1.2 trillion dollars, yet it’s becoming increasingly harder for recent college grads to find employment. The “underemployment rate” for the highly educated millennial generation is believed to be around 44 percent – which means they are either unemployed or working in jobs that do not require the degree they have received.
So what are we to make of this crisis? How do we advise young people on the decision of whether or not the typical trajectory from high school to college is right for them? Having recently graduated with my Master’s in International Education from SIT Graduate Institute and a healthy amount of debt, I find myself feeling torn.
I believe the most important thing we can do is encourage students to make their decisions about higher education intentionally. A college education is not right for everyone, and even those who decide to pursue an advanced degree do not have to do it in the standard timeframe. Here is some food for thought if you or someone you know is considering a path to higher education.
- Consider taking a gap year between high school and college. Of the many benefits to taking a gap year, studies show that universities are “reporting an increase in GPA, greater engagement in campus life, and of course greater clarity with career ambitions” (American Gap Association).
- Ask yourself these 10 questions to start a college search. My favorite: “How have you done your best learning?” For me, an experiential approach to education was non-negotiable. I landed at Warren Wilson College for my undergraduate studies because of their unique Triad approach to education: a balance of academics, work, and service-learning. What type of environment will best support your learning style?
- Look into opportunities to really explore your passions before you decide. Sure, college is a time for exploration – but how are you supposed to decide on an area of study without taking your passions for a test drive? I love this video of Allan Watts’ “What if Money was no Object?” Ask yourself what you really love to do and seek out opportunities to explore those passions.
- Research alternative models. If you think a traditional college might not be right for you, you’re not the only one. New and innovative alternatives are popping up all the time. My friends and colleagues in Portland, Oregon, for example, are starting a new type of affordable college called the Wayfinding Academy. Students will be on an individualized quest to complete a comprehensive portfolio of experiences, not a set degree program. Similar innovations exist at the graduate level as well. Open Master’s is a community of self-directed learners who want to pursue higher-level studies without paying for graduate school. I highly recommend listening to Blake Boles’ Real Education Podcast in which he covers many ways in which we all can be self-directed learners.
The bottom line: do your research, then choose your own educational adventure. Despite the current system, there is no “one size fits all.”
What advice would you give young people considering higher education? Tell us in the comments below!