For most of the 20th century, higher education was only an option for those who could afford it, regardless of aptitude. The children of lower-income people did what is often termed "blue-collar" work, whether or not that's where their interests lay. Access to education wasn't about who was most academically gifted, it was about maintaining class divisions.
That unfairness led to much-needed and important discussions about how to level the playing field for all. One solution to achieve equality was to make it feasible for more people to go to college. That kind of thinking, though, devalued those who went into the trades, work that was seen as "lesser." But I think we can all agree that all types of jobs are important for a healthy society to function, so suggesting some people weren't as good as others was both untrue and unkind.
So we ended up here: With not enough people to do important jobs like construction, running public transportation, and fixing cars — most of which pay better than many "white collar" jobs. But college for all young people is still a commonly held belief, and so we see a high college drop-out rate and plenty of young people with a pile of debt, no degree and no real skills.
Even for those with degrees, the road is tougher than it used to be. Tuition and fees at four-year schools have increased more than 3 percent over inflation every year of the past 10 and the average college grad has $40,000 in debt. (And here's another metric: College costs have increased 150 percent since 1978, but incomes have only gone up 20 percent.) That can be worth it if you want that degree — but what if you don't, or aren't sure?
Everyone who wants to go to college should be able to. But pushing young people into one life path via higher education negates what might truly be the best fit for someone. Obviously, college isn't for everyone, and that's OK. The upcoming cohort known as Generation Z (born 1995-2010) is putting that lesson into action.
Working right away means money — and independence — sooner
Apprenticing, on-the-job training, and much-shorter education tracks for specific jobs (with little or no debt attached) are appealing options in comparison to four expensive years of school that result in uncertain job prospects. So is getting to work right away — earning money instead of spending it. While the trope of the millennial living at home is the butt of many a joke, it's rooted in reality. And while some kids might enjoy living with their parents, most want to start life on their own once they are adults. It's a longer, trickier road to freedom when you go to college than if you start working full-time when you're 19 or 20. Gen Z has seen how tough that can be as they've grown up watching the generation ahead of them struggle.
Companies are increasingly footing the bill
Why should the individual pay to learn almost everything they need to know on a potential job? Companies are now stepping into the role of educator to train people for the specific jobs they'll be doing — and keeping their skills relevant as jobs change, too. This includes construction and engineering companies, specialist manufacturers, and even extends to typically white-collar jobs: "Something unusual is happening: [Generation Z] students are asking corporate recruiters whether companies will help them get new skills as jobs shift," James Manyika, chairman and director of the McKinsey Global Institute, told Inc. "With Generation Z in mind, companies like AT&T and Walmart are making job retraining a high priority."
Long-term job security
Over the next few decades, plenty of jobs will be outsourced, some to humans who will work more cheaply in other places, but many more to robots and other technologies. But many trade-industry jobs are immune to that; a person in another country can't work in construction in your city, and a robot isn't going to be diagnosing and fixing the issue with your washing machine, septic tank or fuse box. Will some of these jobs get outsourced eventually? Maybe. But it's knowledge workers whose employment is likely to be more affected by this problem in the future.
Even parents are changing
Baby boomers believed in the promise and saw going to college as a necessity. But the world had changed, and by the time their millennial children went to college, it was far more expensive and competitive. Many went years without a job despite working hard for a degree. The parents of Gen Z are those millennials and also Gen-Xers, a smaller generation that was also subject to a crummy economy and difficult job prospects post-college. Due to their own experiences, these parents are less likely to push their kids down the college path unless it's something they really want to do — or if the job they want requires it. Only 39 percent of millennials think college leads to "a good job and higher lifetime earnings," according to the Wall Street Journal.
You can still go to college
Working right away is hardly and all-or-nothing choice. If working for a few years after high school isn't right for a young person, going to college is still an option. Sure, it's harder in some ways to go back to school when you're a little older, but it's also easier than ever, and there are plenty of programs at a variety of institutions, from community college to Ivy League universities that offer financial and other support for "mature students." That maturity can help an older student get more out of college, too. It's been widely acknowledged that older students often take the work more seriously and use available resources more. And anyone who has gone to graduate school after working for a few years or more has the same pressures and considerations when returning to school — it's just normalized there.
The flip side of the above scenario is young people who are pressured into college, which hurts the students who really want to be there. I was serious about going to college — and I proved it. I did all my college research on my own, scheduled and attended campus tours, and filled out the applications by myself; the only assistance I got from an adult was a grammar edit for my essay.
So when I arrived as a freshman at Syracuse University, I was shocked to see how many of my classmates didn't want to be there. Their parents had written their essays or bullied teachers into changing grades, had researched the schools (sometimes dragging kids on college tours) and even packed for them. As someone who had been dreaming of college since I was a pre-teen, this was upsetting and insulting. Most of those students only ended up attending for a semester or two before dropping out, so by sophomore year, they were gone anyway. But before they left or were kicked out, they wasted professors' time, and that of their classmates, too. This isn't to say that if a student wants to be in school and is struggling they shouldn't get help — of course they should. But if they don't want to go to school, they shouldn't be there.
To get to a place where all jobs are recognized as valuable, we need to start at the beginning. That means congratulating young people on their choice to work, train for a specific trade, go to college, or choose entrepreneurship — and leaving the idea that "college is best" in the ash heap of history.