When I graduated from high school in the late 1970s, going off to college wasn’t necessarily the default next step for all of my classmates. Several of my friends from the class of ’78 went straight to work, landing decent blue-collar manufacturing jobs or going to work for our town’s biggest industry, the railroad.
Many of us, of course, took the route to college. For me, the next step wasn’t far from home. I went to the local two-year community college, living at home the first year and with some friends the second and final year. We were urged on by parents who wanted us to have a better life than they had, and they saw higher education as the ticket to that better life.
But entering the work force right out of high school was still acceptable, and not that unusual.
It turns out that the high school grads of my era were among the last to take that route. As Jeffrey J. Selingo points out in his new book There Is Life After College, the 1970s “marked the last full decade when a large slice of the population didn’t need a college degree.” In the United States, factory work would decline from 25 percent of all jobs in the nation to just 10 percent today, he notes.
Since then, a college degree has become part and parcel of the American Dream. But as many commentators on higher education have noted in recent years, that dream is slipping from the grasp of many current and would-be college students. Crushing debt and an uncertain job market have left many to wonder whether college is worth it.
Selingo’s response is a hopeful view of the future for students. It’s a future much different from the one envisioned by members of my generation.
The notion of entering college straight out of high school is one that should be questioned, says Selingo, a former Chronicle of Higher Education editor who now regularly contributes to The Washington Post. (I wrote about his 2013 book, College (Un)Bound, previously on this blog.) High school grads today are late bloomers, coming of age in a post-adolescent “emerging adulthood” that Selingo calls “the new normal for most kids, transcending generations and occurring regardless of the economy’s health.” Young adults continue to delay “growing up” in the traditional sense, and this can affect their college plans.
Selingo categorizes today’s emerging adults into three types:
- Sprinters, who move right into their first jobs straight out of college. While this may sound like the classic college graduate, sprinters are quick out of the gate but also quick to switch jobs or even careers.
- Wanderers, who often struggle to find the right job after graduation, settle for whatever helps pay the bills, and often move back home or go to grad school.
- Stragglers, who struggle to find their way after high school. If they do end up in college, many of them don’t finish.
Regardless of type, students today often struggle with life after college. That’s where Selingo’s book comes in. In There Is Life After College, he explores the changing dynamics of higher education while offering practical tips and guidance for parents, high school guidance counselors and emerging adults.
He also hints that college may not be the only ticket to a good life. So for some high school students today, like those of my generation nearly 40 years ago, there may be life outside of college as well as after it.
Follow Jeff Selingo on Twitter at @jselingo.