No need to be at the top to get to the middle. The myth of a four-year college education

So today my wife and I visited our youngest son’s CAP (College Assistance Program) advisor to discuss a few items. As always it is great on so many levels when we meet with her. She is equally hilarious as she is brilliant. She is intensely focused on the conversation at hand. But me, nope because I was looking at the cut-out ballons taped to her door that had me hypnotized.

You see, the balloons had the colleges listed that her students are attending. You know the usual suspects. Obviously every school in Florida but a slew of the “top schools” such has U Chicago, U Wash, and U Penn were included as were schools without the “U” Georgetown, Brown, Stanford and so on. So I started thinking as I do every year at this time – what happens to the kids who are not cut out for a traditional four-year college? Or for that matter no college at all.

This time of the year is pure panic and anxiety run rampant.

Students are so worried they can’t sleep. The mailbox – whether on email and on the front lawn– becomes ground zero as they waiting for the much-anticipated acceptance letter.

And of course parents are also uptight and socially disabled. I’ve heard of some who have stopped socializing with other parents of children competing for admission to the same university. Competition for spots in top-brand colleges is absurdly intense.

The same intensifying competition is affecting mid-range colleges and universities that are doing everything they can to burnish their own brands — competing with other mid-range institutions to enlarge their applicant pools, attract good students, and inch upward on the U.S. News college rankings.

Every college president wants to increase the ratio of applications to admissions, thereby becoming more elite. This is so fake.

The biggest absurdity is that a four-year college degree has become the only gateway into the American middle class. But not every student is suited to four years of college. They may be bright and ambitious but they won’t get much out of it. They’d rather be doing something else, like making money or building some tech device.

They feel compelled to go to college because they’ve been told over and over that a college degree is necessary. Yet if they start college and then drop out, they feel like total failures.

But even if they get the degree, they’re stuck with a huge bill — and may be paying down their student debt for years. And all too often the jobs they land after graduating don’t pay enough to make the degree worthwhile. A few years back the Fed of NY posted that 46 percent of recent college graduates were in jobs that don’t even require a college degree.

America clings to the belief that four years of college are necessary for everyone, and frown on those who don’t have college degrees.

This has to stop. Young people need an alternative. That alternative should be a world-class system of vocational-technical education.

A four-year college degree isn’t necessary for many of tomorrow’s good jobs.
For example, the emerging economy will need squadrons of technicians able to install, service, and repair all the high-tech machinery filling up hospitals, offices, and factories. And people who can upgrade the software embedded in almost every tech toy you buy.

Today it’s even hard to find a skilled plumber or electrician. Yet the vocational and technical education now available is typically underfunded and inadequate. And too often denigrated as being for “losers.” These programs should and do create winners.

Instead, we continue to push most of our kids through a single funnel called a four-year college education — a funnel so narrow it’s causing applicants and their parents excessive stress and worry about “getting in;” that’s too often ill suited and unnecessary, and far too expensive; and that can cause college dropouts to feel like failures for the rest of their lives.

It’s time to give up the idea that everyone has to go to college, and start offering high-school seniors an alternative route into the middle class.

This column is by Ritchie Lucas, Founder of The Student Success Project and Think Factory Marketing. He can be reached at 305-788-4105 or via email at and on Facebook and You Tube as The Student Success Project.

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