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Commencement Season: On Not Going to College

And to think blacks spend all this money on big colleges, still most of y’all come out confused. – Arrested Development

A few weeks ago, N’s daughter, E came into the living room, and asked us if she’d be “ruining [her] life” by traveling for a few years after high school before she went to college.  Now E is all of ten; the other month she wanted to become a therapist, now she’s on this fashion designer tip.  So these kinds of questions can be expected, and I imagine that as of this writing she’s completely forgotten that she even asked the question.  Right now, the only thing she consistently loves is basketball, text messaging, and playing the saxophone.  (She’s really good at the latter; been invited to play at 8th grade graduation and everything.)  We advised her that she would not be ruining her life by deferring enrollment into college, and in fact encouraged her to see the world, whenever and however she chooses.  Consequently, she seemed less anxious about the whole thing (she’s very sensitive).

E’s angst isn’t unique, nor is it endemic to pre-t(w)eens.  I have felt, and in many ways still feel a similar trepidation about charting a particular course for my life.  And I don’t think I’m alone.  For those students–especially black students who are inculcated with the philosophy that education is the key to any and all success–who are placed on the college track instead of the penitentiary one, the pressure to choose the right college, the right major, the right career, the right life most likely becomes especially palpable around high school graduation.  The idea that an 18-year-old has a decent idea about what she wants to do in life is absurd.  Yet that’s what we demand of these new adults who can officially join the Army, but not legally drink alcohol.  So, at the risk of being ex-communicated from the Black Youth Project blog, I suggest that we should explore the possibilities of not going to college right out of high school.

My mom, Black Betty Crocker (she bakes a lot), has a lot of weird theories (the apple does not fall far…), one of which is that we should do things in reverse.  In other words, she thinks older people should work and younger people should do things we associate with retirement, like waking up early for no reason, taking up hobbies, and water aerobics.  I think she has a point.  If one believes that one can live a purposeful life, then one might want to live a bit of life in order to determine one’s purpose.  When we compel kids to go to college and major in something they think they might be interested in, we don’t necessarily allow them to figure out what they might be actually interested in.  And with the price of higher education, one can’t spend too much time exploring.  Now, I know a lot of kids go to school so that they can, indeed, get a good job and make (more) money.  Their parents want them to do better than they did.  They can barely afford to go; they can’t afford not to go.  When I finally changed my major from whatever it was before I switched to English–after assuring my folks that I’d still finish in four years–my stepdad was on his, “Well you know you can’t really make any money with that,” game.  My stepdad’s fears were somewhat warranted.  X years later and I’ve yet to work a real job.  Besides, you can’t be overly concerned with the luxury of finding yourself when more immediate needs are pressing.  Still, I can’t help but imagine that the twilight of our teen years and our 20s would be less miserable if we weren’t sitting in our dorm rooms angst ridden by the reality that we would have never majored in accounting had it not been for that one test the guidance counselor gave circa junior year.

What if the average college freshman were 25?  What if instead of channeling students into institutions of higher education, we encouraged them to learn about their environment by actually engaging with the world instead of a textbook?  What if we abandoned our obsession with youth, with being the first to do something and instead pursued an objective conducive to something more than young age?  Perhaps my suggestion merely prolongs the inevitable or cuts down on the number of participants in drinking games.  I don’t know what kind of infrastructure we’d have to create for such a thing to actually happen.  Still, I just think if you’re going to pay back all those student loans and you majored in pre-law, you should actually really, really want to become a lawyer.

Either way, congratulations to any and all high school graduates.  Don’t let those cranky adults force you into immediately determining and declaring what you want to do.  If you don’t know, you don’t know.  You’ll figure it out soon enough.

It’s a different world out there.  Discover it.