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How The “College For All” Mentality Is Ruining Our Kids

Author: Stephanie Haynes, Life and Leadership Coach

Getting a college degree has been hailed as the ONLY way to be successful in life. That's just not true and that lie is hurting our kids.

When I graduated high school in 1987 the majority of my classmates did not plan on attending a 4-year college. Some enrolled in the local community college, some joined the military, some went off to a 4-year college, but the majority went to work.

When I started teaching high school 5 years later a subtle shift had happened. Students had heard that getting a college degree could help them become more financially stable than their parents more quickly than going to work right after high school. By the time I moved from that school 10 year later, over 75% of students believed that a college education was essential to their success.

When I returned to the classroom in 2017, 100% of students believed they needed to get into college in order to be successful. Worse, it had become more than just getting in, words like "bridged" or "wait-listed" somehow made a student less than successful and big name colleges had more "street cred" weight than others.

Even parents had gotten into the craziness, pushing their students to exceed in school at every grade level, instilling the fear that if they didn't do well in school now they wouldn't be able to get into college. Teachers used the same fear as "incentive" to get students to do their work.

Over the past few decades the mentality of success has been funnelled into one success path: 4 year college.

Why does this hurt our kids? Here's what I have seen.

On average there is more anxiety among teenagers due to performance in school than ever before. The National Education Association published an article calling anxiety an "epidemic," stating that over 70% of teens say anxiety and depression is a "major problem." Why? In my experience it comes mostly from the pressure to succeed in ONE socially acceptable way. Parents are pressuring them, teachers are pressuring them, the "keeping up with the Jones'" mentality is pressuring them all to conform to ONE way of becoming successful. What ever happened to championing the individual student and their unique pathway to success for them?

Local school districts shifted from a partial hands-on learning approach (offering car repair courses for example) into more "collegiate worthy" liberal arts education courses.While some high schools still offer these programs, a student not living near that school may not be able to enroll, leaving them to either leave their own neighborhoods to attend school (if they are lucky) or miss out. However, not every student is adept at school, nor do they have an interest or even passion for a liberal arts education. There is a whole population of students being told they aren't good enough simply because they don't fit into the new schooling mold. What ever happened to "education for all" meaning students could pursue their own pathway rather than one planned out for them without their input?

From a very young age, students are taught that college is their future with little discussion about how to achieve what they might want to do in different ways. There are literally hundreds of pathways to success. Certificate programs at the local community college or technical school, transfer programs to reduce student debt, military options, and purpose-filled gap years can all lead to huge opportunities for students without the hefty price tag or even years involved in something that doesn't suit them. What ever happened to helping students research all the available options and encouraging them to make the decision that's best for them?

The majority of parents have become consumed with the college acceptance letter as a marker of their success. I have spoken with countless parents who fear their child will not be successful if they don't have straight A's and don't get into "the" college for their area. The term "helicopter parent" directly relates to this mentality: parents hover over their child to make sure they don't fail so that they can get into the right school and be successful. Parents can't seem to allow their students to fail because it means they are a failure in their parenting. Nothing could be further from the truth however! Whatever happened to parenting meaning providing for our kids and letting them figure out things on their own?

The problem with this mentality overall is that college does not guarantee a successful life. Period. What does guarantee success? An individual's passion to pursue greatness on their own terms. Unfortunately we are systematically drumming the opportunity for this out of our kids.

It is up to all of us as parents (I have 2), extended family, teachers and even education policy makers to end the college for all mentality and instead help our students learn about all of their options and equip them to choose the one that's best for them.

Join the Conversation: What do you think of the mentality of "College for All"?

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