Is College the Right Path for Your Child? How to Help Them Decide

The American workforce is in dire straits. We’re facing a shortage of skilled labors in a variety of industries, and unemployment is at an astoundingly low 3.8%. What does this mean for you and your family? If you have a child who is going to be graduating from high school in the next few years, the current labor shortage could have a significant impact on his or her future.

Not that long ago, the average American could make a decent living with nothing more than a high school diploma, or possibly a short stint in trade school or as an apprentice. Nowadays, though, your teenager probably thinks he or she absolutely has to go to college and get at least a Bachelor’s degree. More often than not, that will mean incurring tremendous student loan debt; a Bachelor’s from the average four-year college costs $127,000 in tuition alone.

At the same time, the income disparity between having a high-school education, and one from a four-year college or university is only about $17,000 each year. You don’t have to be taking Advanced Placement calculus to do the math here: a Bachelor’s degree won’t make a huge difference to your child’s earning potential.

Is College Right for Everyone?

Attending college has become not just standard, but almost imperative. This is a result of the emphasis we’ve placed on equal opportunity over the past five decades or so. The idea that higher education should be available to all people regardless of race, gender, and socioeconomic class is as American as the seventh-inning stretch or the proverbial piece of apple pie.

College isn’t the right choice for all students, however, and some economic experts warn that insisting otherwise will have serious ramifications. Whether or not your child wants to continue his or her education, how can you be sure that they will make an informed decision?

Beware Biting Off More College Than You Can Chew

There’s really no good reason to head directly into a four-year program after high school. Taking a gap year, enrolling in a two-year community college, or even attending a trade school are all perfectly valid, and even smart, choices. According to the Institute of Education Statistics, fully 40% of students who enroll in a four-year college end up dropping out — without completing their degree.

In many cases, dipping a toe into the waters by earning an Associate’s degree first, or even taking a few classes but not matriculating, can help a young adult decide whether they want more or would do better to enter the workforce.

Find the Intersection Between a Child’s Interests and Skills

Naturally, you want your child to bring home good grades. But don’t you also want them to play to their strengths and choose a career path that inspires them? There is more to life than academics. Other traits — people skills, compassion and a desire to help others, artistic talent, a green thumb, a sixth sense when it comes to investments, a flair for cooking or baking — are equally valuable, even if they aren’t necessarily equally valued by society.

If your son or daughter has a particular leaning, encourage them to explore the industry that interests them by taking educational tours, shadowing a professional, or interning. This kind of real-world exposure to the day-by-day challenges and rewards of a profession can be more useful than years’ worth of liberal arts classes.

Consider All Possible Paths

Just because your teenager is fascinated by the inner workings of the human body doesn’t mean he or she must go on to be a doctor. Not every guitar player can, or should, tour the world as a rock star.

There are plenty of peripheral careers that might be a better fit, skill-wise, than the obvious ones, while still capitalizing on your child’s interests. The same is true for someone whose passion is music, law, STEM, horses, the performing arts — you name it.

Consider all possible career paths, even the less-traveled ones.

Don’t Live by Others’ Definitions

According to The Good Jobs Project, there are some 30 million so-called “good jobs” in the U.S. today. What do they define as a “good job”? One that pays a minimum of $35,000 annually for people under age 45, and $55,000 for those who are older.

It’s worthwhile to sit down with your child and discuss what the notion of a good job means to them. They may prioritize creative fulfillment, the opportunity to meet lots of new people, the chance to travel for their job, remote work options, great benefits, or the ability to work out of doors.

Getting a college degree — or making lots of money — might not be high on their list.

In the end, your child’s happiness is what’s important. Some people get these perks from their career and make a good living at the same time; others work a job just to pay the bills, and find fulfillment elsewhere. And that’s OK!