I received an email from a parent I did not know expressing fear over their kids opting out of college to pursue trade careers. This parent has two master’s degrees and their partner graduated from one of the top three law schools in the country. They value higher education and they chose one of the “best” (most affluent) public schools in the state to put their kids on the right path. The final paragraph of their letter read:

I am reaching out to you because I struggle with my fears regarding their choices. I viewed a couple videos posted by you, and I hoped that you might have some other resources for me. I am really afraid that they are ruining their futures by choosing trade school over college.

Below I share my response, with minor modifications to remove select identifying information or extraneous text.

There are many articles and analyses that highlight the benefits of seeking to develop trade skills over a college degree, and on the other side there are many articles and analyses that argue that a college degree is good investment in terms of lifetime earnings. People could throw those at you all day long and I don’t think that either would be able to address your anxieties.

At the end of the day there are countless unemployed and underemployed college graduates who have nothing to show for their four (or more) years at college. It didn’t help them get a better job and many are working jobs they could have easily gotten without the degrees (e.g., B.A.rtenders and B.A.ristas). That doesn’t necessarily prove that the college degree is not worth it, it just highlights that it is not worth it for many.

One of the big problems with most of the articles and analyses is that they look at large datasets and report generalized numbers that do not translate well into individual outcomes.

Generally, the more selective the university the higher the lifetime earnings. Generally, the more technical the degree the more employable and the higher starting salary out of the gate. Generally if one graduates from college they make more in their lifetime than if one does not. Generally.

For certain career fields certain degrees and certain university names matter. As your husband probably knows well, if one wants to be a SCOTUS clerk it really really helps to go to Yale, Harvard, or Stanford Law School. And if you don’t go to one of the top 14 law schools it is much harder to get a clerkship. And if one wanted to get into a select one or two private equity funds out of college they should go to Harvard or Wharton for undergrad. But these are very select examples. For most people and most career pathways it really does not matter much.

Another complication with all of those articles is that they do not often focus on the resources of the family. Many of the jobs people receive have more to do with family connections than university or degree. And lifetime opportunities often have more to do with connections (family or community) than anything a college provides. It often ignores that lower middle class families and students have to take on large amounts of debt, but affluent families foot the bill for their kids and they get to leave college free of debt. But all of that is so rarely discussed in the analysis of college. What is shocking when first seen however is how rich white kids with no college degree often do better than students of color with college degrees in terms of lifetime earnings. It’s a really complicated issue that touches upon race and class and society.

Also, it really depends what the person wants to do and how hard they may be willing to work for others to get what they want. Being able to work within large or powerful systems for a career can provide tremendous financial benefits (think working up to Partner at a top tier corporate law firm or investment bank). But of course the sacrifices to do that are great and the competition is fierce. It really is up to each person to decide for themselves if the effort is worth it.

As you’ve probably heard me say in the past, what matters most is leading a meaningful life. For me a meaningful life trumps financial security. Of course a meaningful life plus financial security trumps a meaningful life and poverty, but a college degree does not really guarantee a meaningful life or a financial security. What I know for most everyone is that a meaningful life is most often found when one has the autonomy to pursue what interests them, when they have the support of those they care about, and when they can build community with others. And that there are countless miserable people with college degrees that squandered their college years checking a box because they were told they needed to get a degree to be successful.

I don’t know your children’s personal goals or what brings them joy and meaning in life, but I would recommend that you support their chosen path and let go of trying to convince them not to throw away their futures. Someone who works in a trade and has a strong understanding of personal finance and lives within their means can easily do better than most of their peers that went to college just because it was what they thought was a good financial investment. Your children will likely never be able to charge $1000 per hour but most of the trappings of upper middle class success don’t bring happiness, and often just lock people into a high cost of living that necessitates continued work for the sake of affording that lifestyle. The last thing I’d say is that if you want to be able to influence your children moving forward you may want to reserve that for the more significant challenges of life such as how to deal with loss, how to navigate relationships, and how to raise healthy children. If the feeling they get from you is disappointment in their life choices then they may choose to simply stop engaging with you about their inner lives. Even if you could convince them to go to college and perform and then go into certain career fields and perform would it be worth it if they don’t let you in as they deal with the most personal matters?

It’s natural to feel anxiety in our schooled society. But many of the arguments of society surrounding school are without context or simply wrong. The question, I think, is how can you best support your children as they lead their own lives moving forward? In order to answer that question honestly you may have to let go of your own view of what success for them looks like and allow them to answer that for themselves.

I hope that by sharing my response here, that someone may find the words that they need to support their children in living their most meaningful life.


Image: Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash