Right about now, thousands of kids around our nation are taking SAT exams and applying to college. Thousands more are doing neither, their eyes set on vocational schools or local community colleges. In both cases, I think students need to take a good look at themselves, what they want to do, and decide which path will best take them towards their goals.
When I look back at the last ten years, I’m amazed at the path my career has taken. I went to college because “that’s what you did after high school.” I graduated into a horrible tech job market, went into graduate school and I was able to secure a job in the defense industry working software projects a year later. Two companies and five years later, I find myself doing what I do now – personal finance blogging. Crazy huh? Very little that I did academically or professionally, in the last eight years, prepared me for what might eventually be the career that takes me into retirement.
If you want to do one thing to ensure your future success and happiness, it’s finding a career that’s right for you. Once you’ve decided on the career, knowing full well it could change a half dozen times before you get it right, the next step is to find the right school. After seeing this CNN Money piece on the most expensive colleges  (Sarah Lawrence College is over $55,000 a year!), it should be clear that not everyone should be going to college… and that’s OK.
College Isn’t For Everyone
I’ve always believed that education is extremely valuable when it is a proxy for experience, either your own or of others. If you want to work in in the sciences, such as chemistry or physics, you need a classroom education to learn the basics of the field. You could experiment on your own and slowly learn the concepts, but that would take a long time. It’s better and faster to learn it in a classroom.
However, if your passion is something you can’t learn in a classroom, college is not for you. If your passion is repairing and tuning car engines, you shouldn’t go to college. Unless you go to study something like mechanical engineering, so you can design engines, you are wasting both time and money. If you love to cook and think you could do it for the rest of your life, culinary school makes more sense than a four year college. College is an expensive place to spend four years for something you won’t use.
Vocational Schools, Certifications
Vocational schools, sometimes called technical schools, may be a better choice. Remember, education should be used as a proxy for experience and this is exactly what a good vocational school will do. They will give you hands on training in the field you want to enter
When it comes to the IT field, where you went to college matters less than what technical certifications you have. When companies look to fill a requisition, they’re looking for someone who has the proper certifications in the technologies the requisition needs. If you’re curious how valuable they are, take a look at this Metafilter discussion of the most valuable IT certifications . (one important point is that you need both the certification and the experience)
Finding The Right School
Once you find the field that you want to pursue, it’s time to search for a school that will give you the skills you need. If you are still in high school, I recommend talking to your school counselor for some ideas of what schools might be right for you. They should have enough experience with students to help you pick a few places you might want to find out more about. If you don’t have one or you don’t think they are helpful, considering using a search tool to find schools in your area that specialize in your field.
Once you get all the brochures, read all the websites, and done your background research as to whether the school is a good visit, take the time to visit them. Finding the right school is about more than the required courses and the professional photos, you need to go see if it’s a place you can succeed at. If it’s a vocational school, do they teach the skills you’ll need to thrive? Do they have career resources to help you find a job after you graduate?
Finally, despite everything I’ve said, the most important thing you must be is adaptable and receptive to the opportunities that present themselves. For seven years, everything I did academically or professionally was in the field of software. Today, while I do write a little bit of software for my own projects, the vast majority of my work involves research and writing. When I was approached by various newspapers, I was scared but I still said yes to being interviewed and photographed, but I said yes. You must recognize when those opportunities are, even if they scare you or take you in a different direction, and take advantage if you think it’s the right thing to do.
In the end, it will be you, not the school you attend, that decides whether you are successful. Hopefully you don’t decide to put yourself $55,000 a year in debt by attending a school. 🙂
If you went to school past high school, how did you decide where to go and why? Do you feel it was valuable or did you feel you wasted a few years?