I raised my teens in Berkeley, CA where the locals say our single public high school is a gateway to Yale or Jail.
But shouldn’t there be other choices?
Berkeley High is disproportionately populated by the kids of college professors and I admit to getting caught up in the competition. I was an unrelenting promoter of the College Agenda, pushing both of mine across all the prescribed stepping stones: sports, clubs, service-learning summers overseas, AP classes, the requisite hours with the SAT coach.
Because that’s my job as a parent, right? Like feeding them? We all know there is no other path to a fulfilled, successful life than a 4-year degree at a Good School. Yale or Jail.
I’m sure that’s how Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin persuaded themselves that cheating counts as love. Fear of failing this obligation is the force that keeps helicopter parents airborne.
What’s really shocking about the college-entrance-cheating scandal is not what those parents did; it’s that my generation of Gen X parents knows we are all guilty in our hearts of taking advantage of the system for our kids. No one who can afford it hesitates to sign the checks to the PTA or hire the SAT tutor; no one advises their kids to skip AP classes so they can help level the playing field.
Moreover, we’ve made a collective decision to ignore well-known statistics of sky-rocketing college debt, declining home ownership, and the constantly lengthening odds against ever restarting the middle-class social escalator in an upwards direction. We just don’t know any other formula for getting our kids ready for adulthood.
By these rules, I failed.
My son is now apprenticing as a metalworker and my daughter just turned down four freshman acceptances at four-year schools to opt for community college.
Yet I’m proud of their choices. How did I get here?
Around the same time my son started high school, I started work for the company that publishes Make: magazine and produces Maker Faires. I immersed myself in the maker community, a worldwide social movement that celebrates the unique human capacity for making things with our hands. Makers are creators, tinkerers, inventors and artists for whom Do It Yourself is not a shortcut, it’s the goal; they are also people with measurable, hands-on, valuable skills.
I started attending Maker Faires with my kids in tow; eventually they volunteered, teaching people to solder at the events. In contrast, my job at Make: involved strategic planning, including researching workforce development trends.
Thanks to the inspiration of the makers around us plus my collected facts and figures about what skills will really be demanded in 25 years, my family and I started thinking differently.
We started thinking that maybe knowing how to use tools is as important as a score on a standardized test taken once in a lifetime. Maybe knowing how to experiment and accept failure should be learned in high school. Maybe becoming a “maker” can be a career goal.
So I was supportive when, at 19, my son joined a two-year apprenticeship program in metalworking. “Hey, I decided not to go to college after all,” he called to tell us. He is now working 14-hour days in a workshop in Southern France and has discovered a passion for his trade. He could have gone to vocational school here but, by moving to France, he discovered a network of mentors, subsidized housing and social approval earned by pursuing a tradition of craftsmanship.
My daughter, on the other hand, is considering a career in public health or social work and is committed to at least a bachelor’s degree. After reviewing her financial aid offers, however, she used her math “aptitude” to calculate her debt load after 4 years and opted for a guaranteed transfer program at a community college.
So my son is pursuing a recession-proof trade and my daughter understands what it means to start life carrying $200,000 of debt. And yet when I explain why they’re not at 4-year-schools right now, some people still want to comfort me for what they’re sure must be a disappointment.
If I feel disappointed, however, it’s in my peers; I feel disappointed in parents who decide that SAT study prep is more important than learning life skills like how to drive, parents who encourage their college-age kids to accumulate so much debt they can never buy a home, parents who think that community college isn’t “real college”, parents who teach their children that a 4-year school admission is worth cheating and lying, even if only to ourselves.
We know this system is broken, but can’t imagine any other. That’s disappointing.
As parents, we need to start giving advice like this:
“Practice failing. Make sure to take some classes guaranteed to lower your GPA.”
“Measure your aptitude for a technical career: Fix the vacuum cleaner. Document your work.”
We need high schools to offer apprenticeships alongside AP classes.
We need guidance counselors to tell kids that community college is real college and parents to support this choice (especially if your kid is rejecting the student loan trap).
We need states to require hands-on skills for graduation e.g. 4 years of English and at least one year of Bicycle or Automotive Repair.
We need college admissions officers to review project portfolios in place of SAT scores so that there are other measures of aptitude besides standardized tests.
We need more makerspaces and vocational training centers that can prepare kids who opt out of college for well-paid and robot-proof jobs.
We need employers to stop demanding a bachelor’s degree for “no-collar jobs” where a high-school or technical certificate would suffice.
We need all of us to commit to raising Generation DIY: self-sufficient young people with life skills and the courage to demand more choices for themselves than Yale or Jail.