I was walking across town through Lancaster in the winter of 1987, armed with a Holton student model trumpet in a black case. I passed the Elks Lodge on Duke Street where a man was standing by the front steps smoking a cigarette. “Hey buddy,” he said. “What do you play?” I told him I played trumpet and was heading to an evening wind ensemble rehearsal at McCaskey, the local high school. “You a senior?” he asked. I was. “What are you doing after high school?” he continued. I told him I wasn’t sure but my three thoughts were teaching music, teaching English, and sponging off my girlfriend who was sure to get a decent job right out of high school. “If you’re going to do music,” he said as his cigarette smoke hit my face, “you ought to check out Millersville University.” I thanked him, wondered silently whether this conversation had been helpful or creepy, and continued on my way to rehearsal.
That story may sound corny or made-up, but it’s true. I never found out who that advice-giving smoker was. I did, however, take his suggestion and go to Millersville University, which was about 15 minutes from my house at the time. That story describes my college search in complete detail. That’s it. No research, no campus visits. I figured if going there turned out to be a mistake, I would either transfer somewhere else or just quit altogether and get a job.
I graduated from high school in a class of about 500 kids. Some went to college. Some did not. Some went to trade or technical school. Some got a meaningful job right after graduation. Some just went to work until they figured out what they really wanted to do. Most of the people I knew went to college because they had a specific goal in mind, not because they felt obligated by society or entitled as a right of passage. They had a career goal. Something beyond the ever popular college goal of finding a spouse.
Several months ago, my youngest daughter cleaned out her college search notebook after completing her freshman year at Towson University. The notebook included many pages of handwritten notes detailing the pros and cons of schools she had researched. It had flyers, pamphlets and letters, all aimed at enticing prospective freshman. Had I kept a parent version of this notebook, it would have included hotel and dinner receipts, mileage logs, and family pictures at those perfect photo spots every school seems to have. My two daughters combined for about a dozen college visits in 5 states. I thought the whole thing was fun and interesting, especially since my college search consisted of one conversation with a stranger.
Both of my kids had their hearts and minds dead set on attending a traditional 4 year college and getting a degree. Our culture teaches that the way to success is through education and the way to get educated is to go to college. No college, no education, no success. Generally, I agree. But I wonder if we sometimes preach too narrow a message to our kids, leaving out the downsides and alternate routes.
Traditional 4 year colleges aren’t the best fit for everybody. I wasn’t sure it was the best fit for me way back in the ’80’s, but I took a gamble and went. Today, that’s a much more expensive risk than it was decades ago. But there are other good options. Trade and technical schools continue to produce highly skilled, professional wage earners, just like they did when a bunch of my classmates chose that route decades ago. Community colleges are an effective, affordable way for people get the education they need to do what they want in life. Old school apprenticeships seem to be on the rise for artists, creatives and many other skill positions.
None of these paths are inherently better or worse than the rest. The important thing is for kids, along with parents and school counselors, to have honest conversations about which path is best for them. Choices should not be stigmatized or glorified, but judged instead according to how well they enable students to get the career they want.
Post-high school education is even more important now than it was that day I walked across Lancaster to band practice. I hope we’re encouraging today’s kids to explore all their options and find the path that works for them.