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How to Be of the 30% Who Don't Waste Oodles of Time and Money on College

Updated on December 1, 2013

I'll tell you right off the bat, there's a LOT that needs to be covered here, so I won't be doing this all in one fell swoop? the original content is a rather lengthy article, so I'll be breaking this up into several. If you find this useful, there will be more. If you find it useless, please comment accordingly, click your browser closed, and head to the beach. On with the show.

I always say it's best to get the lay of the land, so to speak, before you run off and do anything rash that entails a lot of time and money, like buying a house, raising a family, or getting an education. So many just hear that getting a 'college education' is the thing to do, off they go and do it, with little formal thought about the whole process. Or they give it some thought and do what most do: do what parents or friends suggest, go to where the jobs are, feed their egos or pride, and so many more wrong reasons (A good book to read on this subject is Academically Adrift).

Over the years I have discovered that way too many people put as much thought into choosing a major as they do an ice cream flavor at the mall. There's just not enough proper thought put into a very important decision and just too few proper advisers for students to go to. For example, when asked what they want, many college-bound students will say, "A college education." Well, no, not really. For instance, when you say you need a drill, that's really not what you mean. What you want is a hole in the wall. How that hole is made is irrelevant. As long as it's a good hole, who cares what particular thing made it? Right? So, in reality, you don't want an education. As a college-bound student, what you want (and mark me if I'm wrong) is an enjoyable, satisfying, rewarding, decent paying career, right? Sometimes an education can give you what you need, sometimes it falls far short. And there's so much that can trip you up: you don't contemplate who you are well enough, consider the things that excite you that you do better than most, where you would like to do those things, how much you will make to pay back loans and to pay current and future expenses, and so forth. If not done right, you will end up like the majority who waste years--if not a decade or more--leaving thousands, if not tens of thousands on the table in lost income. I think you see the point.

OK, so let's move on. I'll give you some general background info. on the state of the education nation and then we'll get into the definition of what education is or what YOU want. Because, after all, YOU'RE the one spending those tens of thousands of dollars, and YOU'RE the one who's going to have to pay back the loans and invest a LOT ot time in getting 'educated,' so you better know what YOU want and what YOUR definition of education is, right? Of course, I'm talking about after high school. At the high school level, education is often more about what the government or some other group or organization wants and ends up having little to do with what you want and need. You're very seldom asked, considered, or involved. Ideally can this happen? Probably not. But motivation occurs best when the individual's involvement is maximized.

Just a quick related aside: remember, once you're working for yourself and you're no longer in the throws of the government, school boards, and college administrators, you have to really make a concerted effort to develop good critical thinking, evaluation skills to make major decisions in your life, career, personal, and otherwise, You can't let others make group decision for you, an individual. So, beginning to develop critical thinking and being (attitude) skills early and often for career and life is important.

Really, just what do you get with an "education" anyway? Or not?

So let's go back in time to your early education. Let's say, oh, maybe seventh, eight grade when you're just beginning to think rationally. At this age, you're beginning to question things, and not merely just do everything adults tell you to do. Yes, let's talk public education, for most, or junior high and high school. This is when things 'educational' are beginning to pick up.

There's been a LOT of talk about school reform and getting it right, as if there's some kind of permanent fix out there for everyone. And THAT's just the issue. How can the government, teachers, or board members (you know those guys, the ones that determine what books you'll use, the distribution of funds, and all that) determine what EVERYONE needs? Well, they can't. By and large, schools are government mandated (as I have mentioned), the government attempting to prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution. And how's that working out?

Today, 33% of all public high school students are dropping out. Of those who go on to graduate, nearly 70% desire to obtain a college degree. The majority do not. And of those who get a college degree—of deflated value—within five to ten years 70% are no longer working in a field related to their major. Some of this is acceptable, but there should be a lot more home runs hit out of the park and much more fulfillment overall. So what is going on and what can YOU do to empower your education, career, life?

Over the years, I've personally run into dozens of family, friends, acquaintances, clients, and former students who dropped out of college, completed a degree but moved onto an unrelated field, went back to school for another degree, or have just given up all together. Again, a great deal of this missing can be avoided by doing the right things so you don't become like the majority, academically adrift.

To achieve any goal, you REALLY have to know what's going on, to differentiate myth from fact, get your head out of the clouds and feet firmly planted on the ground. Don't just go off and get a degree because everyone else is doing it. Actually, that philosophy is bound for failure in many ventures. If there are A LOT of people out there with college degrees who pick them up without a thorough understanding of what they are and what they can and cannot do, well, that's like going to Vegas and rolling the dice to determine your future. Right? Also, considering basic economics, if there is a great supply of something, usually that means quality suffers. Consider that if people are demanding, demanding, demanding, why worry about quality? People want it, just slap it together and get it out there. It's too easy to do and that's why it's often done that way.

In most fields today, there are more people with college degrees than there are jobs that require them (the lone exception being STEM fields; more on that later). And employers know what's going on too. They know what colleges are producing. Most in businesses know that the quality of graduates is suffering and that's why there's a current push for overseas students or a desire to attract foreign students. Today there is great concern among leading experts that colleges are failing and have failed.

But seriously, what are you getting from an 'education'?

Let's take a step back and go deeper into our analysis of what's going on in 'education.' Just what is it? Is it what you need? AND (and that's a big 'and') what is missing? I bet you had little idea that according to most employers, most college grads are lacking a GREAT deal of skills, knowledge, and attitudes needed to function in today's complex, quickly changing work environment.

Few students, or anyone in the general public for that matter, rarely step back far enough to see what they're getting from their 'education' and whether or not its value is worth the price tag and time commitment. Most have little understanding as to where they stand if they have a bachelor's degree. When I ask my students what percentage of the U.S. population has a college degree, few would say roughly 28%. The illusion passed on by those in education and elsewhere is that the majority have a college education. It may not even be verbally stated but is implied with all the focus on education. For example, statistics tell us that the more you watch television, the more you think people are being attack violently. Those who watch a lot of TV will say that 30% or more of Americans are being violently attacked annually, when in realty it's less than 1%. Those immersed in school, especially with an emphasis on college, feel that the majority of Americans have a college education.

I bring this up because if you're looking to obtain something, it is always best to first and foremost get it clear as to what it is you are attempting to accomplish. This begins with an understanding of what currently exists and exactly what it is or definition. Once you know what it is you're dealing with and the adjustments YOU need to make, then this cuts back on a lot of aimless drifting, which happens too often for many seeking an education as well as in obtaining goals in general. One of the reasons there is are a lot of high school drop outs is the disconnect between what is being received and how it directly applies to the student's after-education life. The student may ask, why do I need biology? What will I do with algebra? or history? literature? How will this 'education' help me earn a living, at best, and / or help me to be happy and fulfilled. Few students are getting satisfactory answers to these questions because many teachers really don't know or can't explain eloquently enough to motivate students.

So what is “education” at the school level?

First, let’s see what the government defines as education because it mandates primary and secondary education. Post-secondary, college / university, is a separate issue. Today, more than ever before, the emphasis is on science and math to supply workers for STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). What the government is concerned about, of course, is feeding the economy and little else. Not an all together bad thing, but many students don't get the education they need, as they are left out as the government seeks its science and math enthusiasts.

In 2006 George Bush presented the American Competitiveness Initiative because the need for engineers, mathematicians and scientists is great. Education from the start has been about feeding the economies, of course. America needs to make money and compete with other countries for that money to maintain and improve the living standard. We certainly need those who are good in science and math, for according to the National Science Foundation (2004), half of U.S. economic growth in the last 50 years is a result of scientific innovation.

However, what needs to be pointed out is that only 5 percent of the workforce is employed in STEM fields. We've been hearing for some time that there is a great need to fill STEM jobs, but few are talking about what that means in real numbers. Because of the great need for graduates in science and math, opinion leaders and the general public alike see these disciplines as important, of course. If you looked at what is being taught in high school, you'd think that everyone needs and will use math, even if they are indifferent about either discipline, or, worse case scenario, hate math and science. Here's generally what is being offered in every high school in America: three science classes (chemistry, biology, physics; alternatives are physical and life sciences), five math classes (pre-algebra, algebra I, geometry, algebra II, and trigonometry), four English classes, a few from the social sciences (world history, U.S. history, government, economics, and accounting), two years of physical education, and maybe some health and wellness classes.

Our country's economic needs should not be taken lightly, of course. There is a great push to fill STEM jobs for a reason. According to the Business Roundtable (2005), if current trends continue, 90% of all scientists and engineers will live outside the U.S., so you see the reason for the push. Here are ten of the fastest growing STEM fields: Advanced Manufacturing • Aerospace • Automotive • Biotechnology • Construction • Energy • Financial Services • Geospatial Technology • Health care • Information Technology (U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, 2007). But keep in mind that one of the biggest career mistakes you can make is to just go where the jobs are, the money, prestige, and so on. This is a proven failed career methodology.

So you're going into a "hot field" for job security? Think again.

Now let's get back to the point about not just going to where the jobs are or where the money is. Today it's in the STEM fields, as stated above. But let's take a look at the realities. In an AP-AOL News poll 4 in 10 stated they hate math. And I think we can safely say that of the remaining 60% there’s not a lot of love loss over not being able to do complex equations after school or college. I have been teaching for nearly twelve years at the college level, and I have taken numerous informal surveys asking students if they have a passion for math and / or science. Notice I said "passion." If you don't love something, there is very little chance that you'll be able to sustain a desire and ability to work in a field that you have little passion for, never mind hate. You will not be able to keep up with the work as your energy is drained by that lack and others, who do have a passion for the work, will pass you by. My STRONG advice is find what you love, what you do best, what you have a passion for. From expert to expert, guru to guru this is the advice you will be given. And you MUST follow it to obtain not only obtain career fulfillment but to maintain and even increase your income.

Back to my students and the informal survey. After asking if any of them have a passion for science and / or math, the usual response is around 3 to 5% in the affirmative which makes sense, for science and math is only a small portion of what the world has to offer. If everyone or even the majority loved science and math, who would fill the millions of non-technical jobs?

Another point to consider is that you can't learn never mind retain or advance upon that which you dislike. The belief that students are getting an 'education,' as in the stickiness of education, is greatly a myth. I know. I've overheard students and read their comments about forgetting content after the test like they're trying to purge a bad stomach virus. If there is no motivation, need, or understanding as to why something is being learned, there is little to no education or stickiness occurring.

For the serious college student, it is time for her to sit down and really understand who she is, what she needs and wants, where she's going, what she specifically needs in her education, who she's going to be working for--culture and environment--moving toward greater happiness and a more fulfilling education and life.



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