College is a life-changing experience for most people. You will be humbled by the intellectuals you meet: People who devote their entire lives to learning and studying, experts in things you have never imagined. You may make your first black, Jewish, and/or gay friend. You will be free to go to parties, have co-ed sleepovers, and make your own mistakes. This is the college life that most people imagine. Now I want you to imagine what college is not. It is not going through a metal detector on your way to class. It is not hearing sirens, or helicopters, or gunshots while you’re trying to do your homework. It is not a place where you see people struggle to survive.
I’ve written before about volunteering with kids trying to escape this negative lifestyle and get to college. Maybe I was a little too touchy-feely. Let’s talk numbers instead. A big fear of millennials is being unemployed. The unemployment rate for 25–34 year olds who completed college is 4.1 percent1. For people who only completed high school, 12.8 percent. A person who did not go to college is more than three times more likely to not have a job. Some college is not enough: the unemployment rate for those is 10.1 percent, closer to no college at all, and those unfortunate people probably have debt. It’s estimated that people with college degrees earn a million dollars more over their lifetimes than someone without a degree2. Put that in the perspective of a 45-year working career and it’s more than $20,000 more per year.
Now let’s talk college completion. There has been a big push from President Obama to get people into college, but we’re quickly seeing getting in isn’t enough. Nationally, the six-year college completion rate is 59 percent1, meaning, “59 percent of full-time, first-time students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution in fall 2005 completed the degree at that institution within six years.” Guess what the most recent percentage is for first-generation, low income students is. Go ahead, guess. I’ll wait.
It’s 11 percent2. That means 89 percent of low-income, first generation students drop out before getting that life- and income-changing degree. Why they drop out is another matter altogether, but an oversimplified summary is that it’s generally a combination of financial concerns, not fitting in, and family obligations.
College is essential because it puts you in an atmosphere of success (though this can be jarring for many first-year students). Even if you graduate unemployed, you are connected to a network of educated people, and there are resources to help you out. I am lucky in that even if I hadn’t gone to college, my parents are well-connected enough that I probably still could have found a decent job. But what if you live in the ‘hood, if your dad’s unemployed, your mom works nights cleaning hotels, and your friends sell drugs—what are your chances of changing your situation? Who do you ask for advice?
People from that kind of environment who graduate from college are not just increasing opportunity for themselves. Now their siblings, cousins, and sometimes even parents have a guide to help them try to navigate the waters of college. The student is more likely to climb up the income ladder, and their future children become more likely to finish college (see MSDF article). “If” becomes “when.” Imagine never having been on an airplane and hearing that the guy who grew up down the street was studying abroad in Paris, paid for by his scholarship. Wouldn’t you want to know how you could do that, too? Knowing that someone made it out of the neighborhood and did something different with their life—that’s a powerful gift of options and hope.
As a nation, college graduates are essential to our success. President Obama didn’t just put this push out on education because he believes we should all be scholars. There are not enough highly qualified workers to fill the demand, and it causes our economy to suffer. This may not be true in your field, but particularly in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) we have to import talent not to save money on salaries, but to find qualified workers. For example, in central Texas there are more than 2,800 STEM job openings per year, while regional high schools only produce 327 students who go on to earn a BA in STEM3. Speaking of our economy, dropping out of college creates a drain on it.
I will be the first person to say college is not for everyone. If you want to be a chef, a mechanic, a salesman, or a pop star, you will need training but not necessarily in the form of a four-year degree. It’s possible to be wildly successful and not have a degree. I will say this: Finishing college opens more doors for you. At my previous company, the salespeople could not be promoted past manager level without a degree. A lot of people didn’t understand why they needed a piece of paper that had very little to do with job skills. That piece of lambskin shows that even after a weekend of festivities, you dragged your tired ass to a lecture about things dead white guys wrote–perseverance you can imagine your future boss values. It shows that you can problem-solve, and that you have learned personal responsibility and have the grit to finish what you started (grit, by the way, is far more predictive of college success than academic excellence). And hey, that silly scroll could be worth a million dollars to you someday.[divider] [/divider]
First-gen, low-income: The difference a college degree makes for a mom (and her daughter) – Michael and Susan Dell Foundation Blog
For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in Hard Fall—The New York Times
(2) http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED504448.pdf [Note: This measures a different cohort of students than (1), but based on this and data from E3 Alliance, I know that numbers are currently similar.]
Photo by Tatum[divider] [/divider]
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