A generation ago, earning a four-year college degree was rightly seen as a way for individuals to move up in the world. Today, for many young Americans, a B.A. is simply an insurance policy against moving down. That dark fact has changed the way many of us think about college. It means that when young people make their decisions today about college, they often are motivated less by hope and more by fear.
I keep thinking about what it means to be motivated by hope rather than motivated by fear. To me, it means deciding to take AP Spanish because you’re excited to get closer to fluency and you want to take a crack at Don Quixote in its original language, not taking it because you’re afraid colleges won’t admit you without that extra point on your GPA. It means taking physics at a community college over the summer because you are obsessed with Cosmos (the Carl Sagan version, of course), not because you heard the physics teacher at your school is really hard and you don’t want to get a bad grade. It means taking risks because the experience is the whole point, not playing it safe because you’re afraid you might fail.
This is easier said than done – I’m twice as old as my students and I still haven’t nailed this yet. But part of the reason high school and college feel so cruel is because we keep hearing the same scary stories of hardworking students who still don’t get admitted to the most selective colleges, or students who do get admitted to those highly selective schools, but can’t afford to go. Your four years of college are important, but they do not matter the most. A college education can set you up for greater financial and professional success, but it does not make or break you. The reason I feel so confident about that is because of this series.
When I Was 17 is studded with example after example of people who found success in lots of different ways, with and without college, right away or down the line. There are people who followed a traditional education path, people who started at community college, people who failed and then started over somewhere new. And every single interview ends with a feeling of arrival, not at the end of the story but at a place the subject feels proud of. By keeping those stories in mind, it’s a lot easier to feel hope instead of fear.