I’m all for kids going to college who are studying something they love, preparing themselves for the next phase of their life. But increasingly kids are graduating without a clue what they want to do, because for the last 15 years, all they’ve done is what they’ve been asked. They took every course in high school and college that someone told them they needed, and now they’re being offered jobs as baristas.
Even worse, they’re loaded down with debt: 44 million now pay $351 on average every month on student loans.
A recent study showed over 40 percent of recent college graduates struggling to pay off their debt. Student loan debt can be so crushing, increasingly recent grads have to postpone traveling, volunteering, or even starting a business. Not to mention saving for a home, getting married, and thinking about kids.
And that doesn’t take into account that lots of college students are miserable. Many are thriving in college, and that’s fantastic. But what about those who aren’t? The Center for Collegiate Mental Health says 30 per cent of college kids have seriously considered suicide. Pause to think about that.
And if you think the pressure to succeed is tough today, wait 20 years when, scientists tell us, at least 30 percent of current jobs have been replaced by machines. But wait! There is another option, to be both successful and filled with joy. For the first time in history, people can turn a passion into a project, which could result in a career that makes them happy. They don’t need to be well rounded with an impressive resume. And they might not even need a college degree.
Maybe they’re smart, but not motivated by schoolwork. Maybe they do well in school, but none of the careers they’ve learned about excite them. Maybe even more than school, they love what they’ve been doing outside of school: acting, filming, writing music, painting, selling things, organizing protests, running for student government, volunteering. Maybe their true calling in life won’t come from school. Relax. It will be okay. There is another path than the traditional one. And it doesn’t result in student loans.
I learned this while writing a book, Raising an Entrepreneur: 10 Rules for Nurturing Risk Takers, Problem Solvers and Change Makers, when I interviewed 60 successful entrepreneurs and their parents. The entrepreneurs are diverse: half men, half women, from every race, religion, socioeconomic group and family type. And by entrepreneur, I mean anyone who starts something. So the 60 started for-profits, profits-for-purpose, non-profits, became activists and artists. Some didn’t go to college, some went and dropped out, some graduated and some got advanced degrees. It didn’t matter. What did matter was that they had been encouraged to pursue a passion.
Many believe that following a passion isn’t practical. Well-meaning parents often snuff out their child’s passion because they fear their kids won’t be able to earn a living unless they follow a conventional route. So parents say, “Of course you can take music lessons in high school, but when you get to college, you have to major in something useful.” Or they say, “Stop drawing and study your math!” But often a childhood passion can lead to a career. When kids love something, they work really hard at it. And often that leads them to find ways to improve or expand or reinvent or promote what they love. And that can lead to a company or an organization.
Not everyone who loves making movies as a child will become a world-class movie producer. But that’s the advantage of following a passion and seeing where it leads. Joel Holland loved making videos as a child. When he sought career advice from a high school guidance counselor, he realized there were no videos about career options. He got funding to shoot videos of top performers in different fields and realized his videos were visually boring because there were no compelling background pictures, which led to his discovery that stock film footage was prohibitively expensive. He started VideoBlocks, now the world’s largest provider of stock video clips.
Most parents believe that kids who get good grades in all their classes will do better than kids who focus on one thing. But lots of smart, talented kids struggle in school because they have a different learning style or temperament or interests than their teachers’ expectations. Benny Blanco is one of the country’s leading songwriters. When he was in kindergarten, his mother got a call from his teacher every week complaining, “Benny won’t sit in the circle.” In high school, he was entering rap contests; his teachers often found him annoying. He didn’t become a big rap star. But he’s probably the most successful kid in his class, having written and produced 21 number one songs, received a couple Grammys, and sold over a million albums.
Blake Mycoskie, like many of the entrepreneurs in the book, learned grit, focus, hard work and determination by playing competitive sports. He went to college on a partial tennis scholarship, but when an injury ended his career, he decided to drop out to launch a business to solve a problem he’d noticed: the lack of a student laundry service. Four companies later, he was taking a vacation in Argentina and saw a child without shoes. The rest is history. He launched TOMS in 2006 and has given away over 75 million pairs of shoes.
So here’s my advice. If you know what you want to study, and the education will further your career, go to college. Go even if you don’t know definitively what you want to study, but have some ideas about a few fields that fascinate you, and you want to learn as much about them as you can. But don’t go if you’re not interested in your classes, if you’re not planning to work hard and learn a lot about something that interests you, only to incur a lot of debt. There is another way. Learn more about something you love outside of college. Maybe you’ll start a business. Maybe you’ll learn what you want to study and go to college later. Maybe not. But it will be your choice. And you’ll have learned something in the process without incurring a lot of debt.
Margot Machol Bisnow is a writer, wife, and mom from Washington, DC. She spent 20 years in government, including as an Federal Trade Commissioner and in the White House as staff director of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. She is the author of “Raising an Entrepreneur: 10 Rules for Nurturing Risk Takers, Problem Solvers, and Change Makers“.