A 2012 commercial for the Gerber Life College Plan should alarm Millennials and the generations that succeed them. In this ad, new parents discuss saving money for their babies’ college funds. Although the dialogue includes a reasonable option for insuring a solid financial base for their children upon young adulthood, the insistent last line of the commercial reinforces a dissonance that has negatively impacted young professionals for at least the past decade:
“You’re going to college,” says a father to his toddler, who has no idea what he’s talking about.
Although the rest of the group shares a polite laugh in response to the man’s statement, Millennials already know how unfunny such a decree is, especially considering how fruitless college educations have proven with respect to gainful employment thereafter. Even if the child to whom the father was speaking were a teenager, that child could make a strong case that going to college is not the path to parental relief that their parents’ parents originally insisted.
Understandably, Baby Boomers’ believed that college was a no-brainer with respect to the American Dream. After all, many of their parents didn’t go to college and it sucked being poor. But since then, the shift in the socioeconomic landscape has rendered the ‘college=success’ paradigm dubious, especially because Baby Boomers raised their children with the belief that they could be anything they wanted to be when they grew up, a maxim ironically stripped of meaning by the path to higher education. Instead, many Millennials look back at such an assurance and recognize it as more of a parental victory lap by proxy than informed advice.
As grandchildren of the Great Depression, the logical conclusion—based on the prosperity that ensued—that Millennials had an unprecedented opportunity to do great things made enough sense to cultivate a movement endowing Baby Boomers with a sense of vicarious exceptionalism, deeming Generation Y the pat-on-the-back incarnate that represented the American Dream carried forward. Alas, the shift from an industrial economy to a service economy had no interest in the parental need to create its own rubric for accomplishment as it related to the next generation. Yet this amendment to the laws of socioeconomic survival have yet to catch up to the sensibilities of new parents concerned for the lives they bring into the world.
As the next 20 years will likely demonstrate yet another shift in best practices for success, aligning expectations with reality in a more sensible way has never been more important. Children of Millennials may find their reality more like that of their great grandparents, who worked tirelessly just to feed their families in hopes that their children could surpass them using a then new formula for achievement. As of now, Millennials are hardly neck and neck with Baby Boomers in terms of socioeconomic prosperity, much to the chagrin of both generations. But perhaps the technological advances that younger generations have already mastered will usher in a wave of prosperity independent of any parental misguidance. Either way, Millennials would be remiss to not consider ways to recalibrate the framework under which a stable future is defined.
And the perception of a college education may play a major role in that recalibration. Although there are many college-educated Gen Y-ers, whose career paths have mirrored that of earlier generations, Millennials’ negative experiences during and after college can also inform how to properly navigate the shift to gainfully employed adulthood, despite various pitfalls for which their parents may not have prepared them. So everyone out there worried about what the future may hold with respect to college as an assumed milestone, these guidelines are for you:
Develop a Liberal (Arts College) Bias
Liberal arts colleges, the safe haven for the undecided. These beacons of deferred hope have been the destination of millions of students, whose belief in becoming whatever they wanted to be often became a paralysis of overchoice. To ‘sky is the limit’ Millennials that did not grow up with a singularity of purpose, liberal arts colleges promise that, at the very least, a 4-year investment will return a credential making them more employable than if they had found a low-to-no-pay job in a field about which they might be passionate.
The growing sentiment is that these Bachelor’s degrees from liberal arts schools aren’t worth the price tag at which they often come. Not including the realization that most liberal arts educations essentially demand a graduate degree to mean anything, the cost-benefit analysis of striving to attend a U.S. News and World Report-ranked liberal arts college debunks the very status associated with the rankings. What has resulted is a legion of debt-bound disenchanted Gen Y-ers working jobs they lucked into (but hate), only so that they can pay for the education that was supposed to get them closer to the discovery of a desired career path.
In defense of liberal arts colleges, however, they do teach students about themselves via teaching how to think critically, which in turn helps graduates realize that the life they were offered before college is not achieved by the same recipe as previously laid out. Four years spent anywhere is enough to learn more about where one’s passions lie. But liberal arts education creates a 2-pronged crossroads that most Millennials did not expect:
Prong 1) defer the 4 years of debt staying in school and amassing more debt in hopes of increasing my chances to earn a lot of money in a practical field to which I can surrender
Prong 2) take my chances with the degree that I have, try to find anything that will pay enough to live AND repay loan debt, and hopefully have time and energy to chase a dream that mattered more all along but was scared away from by practical advice
But there is a third option available before becoming a slave to the banks or academia. It is an unpopular societal choice, primarily because it takes more work and accepts hardship as an immediate reality, but the rewards may prove greater than any cum laude a student might earn.
Cultivate the Dream
In pursuits that veer from the path of practicality, support can be the difference maker in fulfilling those ‘out there’ dreams. And college may not always be the place to build the foundation necessary to achieve them. Whether an aspiring artist, craftsperson, entrepreneur, or podcaster (or all at the same time), knowing more about your children’s interests and taking an active role in the pursuit may be more work than shipping them off to college might be, but it seems worth it for your child, aka “the most important thing [you’ve] done in [your] life,” right?
Too seldom does this dialogue take place between parents and their adolescent children:
Parent: What is it you’d be happy doing for the rest of your life that you think would make the world a better place?
Child: [honest but ultimately less-than-practical response]
Parent: Okay, well, let’s see what we can do together to put you in a position to do that or something close.
Why depend on a guidance counselor with a caseload of hundreds to have that conversation, a stranger who wouldn’t know your child from the 5th place finisher of The Bachelor? Although it is challenging to break through to your own offspring at that age, teenagers essentially want to feel validated just like the next human, and the last place they need to feel like their ideas are stupid or unreasonable is at home. They get plenty of that in school from people their own age.
The abrupt disconnect in telling children they are special until they turn 18, at which point they go off to college and shoulder the burden of familial disappointment, is clear. And if an entire family stands to feel that disappointment, then why in the hell shouldn’t they celebrate success down a road less taken, a road traveled together?
Leave Your Ego Outside
Yes, the Millennial period will go down in history as the Age of Entitlement. And yes, children of Baby Boomers grew up feeling special simply for existing. And yes, those same children have been put on their asses learning how flimsy that endowment was.
But parents are just as confounded as their children are in this brutal realization. And in most cases, there is nothing parents can do to honor their implicit promises of whatever their children so desired.
This collective ‘WTF’ moment demonstrates that relying on college as a marker for success could be a huge mistake. The relentless worry that parents carry, with respect to their children, is at the root of their pressure to send their children to college. And while this act of concern is understandable, it often undermines the true potential of their children in return for social capital among peers. Via Facebook, everyone has joined the social trend that says, ‘Look what’s going on in my life; VALIDATE IT!’ But parents invented the pastime long ago, using their children’s achievements to indicate their own self-worth.
If children grew up thinking it was all about them, why on Earth don’t parents expect a conflict of interest once they make it about themselves? For parents who never cared what their children’s dreams were, this advice does not apply. But for those who at least paid lip service to their children changing the world, remember that your insecurity will prompt you to change the rules on your children and to expect them to live up to standards that seem to come out of nowhere. So when you’re wondering why your grown-up children don’t visit as much as they used to, it might be because you stopped making sense…and/or they’re just too poor to afford the ticket home. COLLEGE!!!
Before the bell rings…
It is important that readers understand that this article is not anti-college. Rather, it is anti-college-for-everyone. Admittedly, there are professions that require college degrees, and no one will deny that the world is a better place for the existence of institutions that provide these educations. But the parental belief that college is the only way for their children to be happy and successful is debilitating in its inaccuracy.
Before parents begin taking their children on those college tours, know what’s at stake:
- Will your child be squandering potential by changing gears and spending 4 years at a degree mill, where the diploma returns cents on the dollar?
- Who at this college will help your child reach his or her potential and why?
- What connections could I be paying for by sending my child here, because after all, everyone still needs to ‘know a guy?’
For those interested in college as a means to make money, it should be treated as a business investment and used as a resource rather than a means to an undefined yet somehow better end. But if your children actually exhibit hints of greatness that you just assumed they might be capable of, think twice before you offer them to the banking gods as tribute or remortgage the house. Have the honest conversations about your children’s futures no matter how much they betray your generational conditioning. And know that the x amount of years of post-secondary education will still be but a fraction of the life you share with them and the lives they will create for their children.