Apodaca: Is college really for everyone?

Most parents in our community take it as a given that their kids must attend college, and statistics certainly bear out the view that a college degree pays off.

A Brookings Institution study released last year, for example, concluded that college is not only worth the cost and effort, "it's probably going to be the best investment a person makes in a lifetime."

The study found that college graduates greatly outperform others in terms of earnings, employment rates and job satisfaction.

Such findings underscore many parents' intuitive belief that college should be the ultimate destination for their kids. As a consequence, all efforts are unquestionably marshaled into the long, difficult march toward the finest institution of higher learning attainable.

That is why I took particular notice of a comment made to me recently by Jan Slater, a young-adult career coach and founder of the website CareerConnection.me.

"College is not for everyone," she said.

Slater's statement is not so contrarian as it might seem. Indeed, her experience affords her a nuanced view not captured in data or college marketing materials. And her point is not to argue against the value of college.

Rather, Slater's intention is to foster a calm, common-sense approach for parents and children. Hers is a strategy aimed at circumventing the kind of frazzled, frenzied and often-misguided path to college so common these days.

"Parents sometimes think they get to define success," she said. "They have this preconceived notion of what success is," and cling too tightly to their own dreams of sending children to a college with a prestigious reputation or to the college that they attended.

While setting high standards for our children is important, Slater said it's equally vital to take into account each person's particular interests, aptitude, personality and maturity. Some kids just aren't ready for the prime time of a four-year college experience and might thrive by starting out on a different path, such as community college or job-specific training programs.

Slater is also intrigued by the European tradition of a "gap year" between high school and college, during which young people gain maturity through work, travel or volunteer opportunities.

Her comments are relevant because they come at a time of increasing worries over lagging college-completion rates, budgetary woes and concerns whether institutions of higher learning are adequately addressing 21st-century needs. Meanwhile, student loan debt in the United States now totals more than $1 trillion, a good portion of which is owed by former students who never got their diplomas.

Indeed, the U.S. has the highest college dropout rate among 18 industrialized nations examined in a 2011 Harvard study. Just 56% of U.S. college students complete four-year degrees within six years, while only 29% who start two-year degrees finish within three years. Other research shows that fewer than half of Americans who start college ever finish.

While U.S. Census Bureau data show that our college dropout rate has improved modestly — it's not much to brag about, considering the Harvard folks found that we're still behind Slovakia.

Experts have begun to examine the reasons why. When surveyed, many dropouts blame economic pressures and burdensome costs. The problem is worsening as public university funding is slashed and sky-high private school tuitions send students so deeply into debt that they question the cost-effectiveness of pricey degrees.

Other factors come into play, from reduced course offerings that make it more difficult to complete a degree on time, to what many see as pointless remedial and basic requirements that forestall students from focusing on career-specific academics.

But attention is also being turned to another possible cause, one that's hard to define or measure.

Many college students are ill prepared, unfocused and don't have a clear idea of what they're even doing there, the thinking goes. Lacking direction and unable to identify an academic path that speaks to them, some young people drift away from college or take breaks from which they never return.

That plays into the notion that some well-meaning but shortsighted parents are pushing their kids into college choices that don't fit the student's talents, personalities and interests.

Some observers believe one logical response to the problem is an increased focus on work-based vocational training as a viable option. One tech mogul is taking a novel approach by paying some students to ditch college.

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and a Stanford University graduate, offered 24 college-age kids with entrepreneurial aspirations $100,000 each to forgo college for two years. Instead, the young people will work on developing business ideas and participating in a mentorship program in Silicon Valley.

A business venture backed by a tycoon is hardly a path open to most kids. And, as a parent, I'd still be hard-pressed to buy into the case against college. (Note that this writer's son attended her alma mater. His choice. Really.)

But Slater's view that young people should be encouraged to take the educational journey that suits them most rings true. For kids looking toward college, decisions shouldn't be based on perceptions of which are the "best" schools, but on what is best for them. That might not solve the dropout problem, but it could help a few more kids find their path to a happy and successful future.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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