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Why Young People Shouldn’t Go to College (At Least Right Away)

There are advantages to delaying a college education after high school.

Tiger moms, guidance counselors and university Presidents may want your kids to go right to university after high school, but research my colleague, Cathy Campbell, and I recently completed suggests there can be lots of negative consequences for young people who go to university too quickly (see Stories of Transition for full study details and a downloadable guide for parents).

We interviewed 100 young adults in their late 20s in five different communities where job prospects varied from excellent (a booming oil economy) to dismal (rural fishing towns threatened with being closed down). What we found was that during the decade after high school, young adults can expect lots of career changes. It is in fact a small minority who ten years later are doing what they set out to do when they first graduated high school or entered college. All this makes a gap year, taking a year between high school and university, an excellent choice for young people who aren't sure of what they want to study.

Already popular in other countries like Australia, we in North America have this archaic notion that our kids, once they enter the workforce, won't go back to college. That may have been true in the early 1970s before credential creep meant that even the school janitor needs a college education to ensure he can handle hazardous materials, but it isn't true any longer. In fact, in our study we found that many young people who rushed to university became locked into bad career choices. Here's why.

First, they likely chose a career based on very little information or practical life experience. They don't know that an engineer spends most of her time in front of a computer, not out on construction sites or in laboratories creating works that inspire wonder. And a history major is going to need to complete at least one, and possibly two, graduate degrees to be marketable. Most of our participants didn't know enough about the long-term consequences of the career and education decisions they'd made while they were still adolescents.

Second, and even worse, once committed to university, our youth run the risk of accumulating crippling debt. The average debt upon graduation is over $40,000. With that hanging over their heads, young people have no choice but to continue in a career they've already started, whether they are happy with it or not.

Third, a quick entry into university can actually close doors to future career opportunities. I think of this like climbing a ladder. When we're small, we tend to consider our career choices from the very limited number of people we've met. Teachers, doctors, maybe firefighters. But the more life experience we have, and the higher up the experience ladder we climb, the further we can see. Who would have imagined a few years ago a career as a social media consultant, designer of tooth implants, developer of parking meter software, or writing manuals to add end-user content to video games (I've met 20-somethings doing all these jobs and more). Not only do young people need time to discover what they like to do, they also need time to survey the growing field of options in an ever-changing career marketplace.

None of this is meant to dissuade a young person from going to college. A college education is a good thing to have, but its timing is important. Lifetime earnings will be increased for certain. But what's the rush? The expectation of retiring at 65 is already a thing of the past. How does a year or two delay at 19 disadvantage our children forty years later if that delay sets them on a better career path, avoids excessive debt, and allows the serendipity of life to open doors to new, as yet unimagined career choices?

A gap year, however, shouldn't be a year spent on a parent's couch, or a year flipping burgers. To be helpful it needs to offer an opportunity for personal growth and challenge. Our study participants who interrupted their education were full of stories of novel moments of adventure and life changing experiences. Of course, even a year of being a line cook at a local greasy spoon might convince the unmotivated student to apply himself a little more diligently.

I see too many college students who use their first years at university to assert their independence and "find themselves." For many young people, university or college is a lousy place to do this. Many students end up with marks so low that they close doors to graduate school. Others develop nothing but a bad drinking habit, or find themselves at the end of their year of self-discovery with the pinching debt of a wasted year. For my money, I'd rather give my child a return plane ticket to China than a year's tuition when it's not clear what he wants to study or why.