I was always an over-achiever during elementary and middle school, but I drifted through high school even while taking several challenging courses. School had begun to bore me; I felt as if there were no intellectual challenges. I did not know if I would enroll at a traditional four-year university or seek vocational training after high school. Then, in my senior year, I joined Bard Early College in New Orleans, a college preparation program for high school students, where a young, charismatic college mentor told me that she had recruited me for a full scholarship at Bard University. I am excited to go to college, but I do not think it is necessary to live a valuable life.
Booker T. Washington wrote more than a century ago that higher education is less important than “skills in business, farming, or the trades.” Much has changed since Washington’s era, but it is still a disservice to young adults to tell them that college is the only path. Many employers value learned skills more than an intellectual background. And they often do not have the time or money to invest in teaching young employees new skills.
After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, New Orleans had lots of jobs for people who already had trades and skills. The city needed plumbers, electricians, welders, construction workers, and myriad other workers. In most cities, there are excellent jobs available that require some training but not a four-year degree, including electricians, chefs, and medical technicians. So why insist that our youth follow a four-year degree path —one they might not even complete — which keeps them out of the job market for years and could drown them in debt?
I know that people with a college degree on average will earn significantly more over a lifetime than people without a college degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers with a bachelor’s degree earn on average $400 more per week than those with only a high school diploma. However, only one person in my immediate family has gone to a four-year college, yet all of my adult relatives live relatively well. So is a college degree actually necessary to have a sustainable life?
My grandfather went to Booker T. Washington High School in New Orleans. He told me that “students could attend the vocational school in the last year or two of high school and graduate with a diploma and vocational certificate certifying their capabilities.”Students were able to leave high school and jump right into well-paid jobs in construction, food service, and auto repair. A number of local businesses recruited students from the vocational program.
My stepmother and my grandmother attended trade schools for nursing. My mother completed online courses in biology. The three of them were able to obtain valuable training and become successful even though they never earned traditional four-year degrees.
My father learned important musical and business skills while attending St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, skills that allowed him to start the Mahogany Brass Band. He had a trade (playing trumpet) that had allowed him to travel the world and make a good income without having a degree. He had no intention of attending college and only went because he received a scholarship to Xavier University and decided he did not want to be a musician his entire life.
New Orleans perspectives
This essay is part of a collaboration between The Hechinger Report and high school students at Bard’s Early College in New Orleans. The teenagers wrote opinion pieces on whether all students should be encouraged to attend college, the value of alternative teacher preparation programs such as Teach For America, the importance of desegregation, or the best approach to school discipline.
Personally, I have had positive experiences with career education. Before moving back to New Orleans, I attended North Springs Charter High School in Sandy Springs, Georgia. At North Springs, I participated in the Health Occupational Students of America (HOSA) program. HOSA provided students the opportunity of graduating with a medical assistant certificate. North Springs and similar high schools allow students to graduate prepared to work in a specific area, much like Booker T. Washington did for my grandfather’s generation.
College will always have a place, but before students invest what can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars they need to consider whether it is really necessary. There are more options today in education than ever before. College should not be seen as the ultimate prize. The ultimate prize is to develop a skill set that employers want to have in their organization. That doesn’t automatically require a four-year degree. It could be possible with a two-year degree, an online degree, work experience, self teaching, or all of the above. And these options will likely end up costing you a lot less.
Milan Miller, 18, attends the International High School in New Orleans.