When Barack Obama stated in 2012 that everyone should go to college, there was significant backlash with people accusing him of discounting the value of jobs that don’t require a four-year degree. Obama later clarified, “When I speak about higher education, we are not just talking about a four-year degree. [It] can be community college or a four-year school, vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.”
I’m inclined to agree with Obama; a four-year college is not the right path for everyone, but higher education is essential. And many students would be better served by knowing that there are more than two paths after high school. It’s not just four-year colleges or nothing. In fact, several of the people I’ve interviewed for “When I Was 17” took alternate paths to their careers, paths that didn’t include four-year colleges but led to successful and satisfying careers.
Like Nicholas Edwards who found his way to quality assurance engineering after starting and leaving a four-year college. Or Melissa Smith who attended vocational school for two years to learn the skills she would need to be an assistant, ultimately starting her own thriving business. Or Josh Fisher who started with a post-high school internship in 3D drafting which eventually led to a career as a software developer.
As with my interviewees who have gone the traditional four-year college route, a job or an internship or a vocational program is just a first step professionally. Every single person I’ve talked to has had to adapt and adjust and occasionally make a hard left turn, and a bachelor’s degree is not an assurance against that.
So instead of pushing everyone to go to a four-year college, I think we need to remember that whatever you do after high school is only the beginning. As Kathy Rentsch, an assistant vice president of Quinsigamond Community College, told me, “What people don't realize is that community college is not the end. It's a step in a journey, and people will continue to go back to school and go back to school. People need to understand that that four years is not the beginning and the end, or that that two years is not the beginning and the end; rather, it's the beginning of a process of figuring out how you're going to manage a career and your skills and your knowledge for a lifetime.”