Finding Purpose in College Prep

English: A Harkness table being used at the Co...

Ok, here’s today’s question:  Could we be doing more to help young people answer the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I can tell a “college prep” high school education means helping teens get into college and giving them the academic skills necessary to survive college-level classes.  And I’m not disputing the importance of those things.  College prep programs do a lot of good and I don’t want to take away from that.

I do, however, want to ask “why?”

People tend to raise eyebrows at me when I ask that, because they assume I’m asking as a challenge, but it really is just a serious inquiry.  Why is there such a strong push to get teens into college?  The standard answers I usually hear are “people need college to get a good job.” “College provides life experience.”  “Students need to be educated to get ahead.”  Or the all-too-generic “Because college is important.”

But why?  Why is it so important?  How well are we really articulating the point of college to teenagers?  My high school did a great job preparing me for university-level academics, but they tended to focus more on the prestige of college and didn’t do much in helping me understand the purpose.  Thankfully, my parents filled in the gaps.  I can still remember my mother telling me that I could study what I wanted, as long as I could support myself with my undergrad degree.  Because we can toss around terms like “life experience,” “gaining knowledge,” and what-not, but when it all boils down, college is about preparing for the career that will ultimately pay the bills.  And as a book-nerd, I needed that pointed out!  We’ve all heard the stories of the liberal arts majors who went on to wait tables and work in coffee shops, so as a teen I really needed to look into professional options that would go with an English major.  I stumbled on the right choice and I have been blessed in how things worked out, but I say “stumbled,” because the reasons I love teaching have very little to do with why I initially chose it (expect a post about that story soon). However, I wish there had been more resources and guidance available to me to help me in my initial search.  I probably would have made some slightly different decisions if I’d understood myself and my options better.

Then I hear teens in my classroom talking about college.  Too many of them pick schools based on their favorite sports teams and professions based on what they see on TV.  I hear phrases like “doctors make bank” and “forensic scientists are cool,” but they don’t think about whether they would enjoy the day-in-day-out activities of those professions.  (Often the students who want to be forensic scientists seriously struggle in their science classes.  Anyone else see a problem here?)  Then there are always the students that are just looking forward to the party life – though usually when I respond “that’s one expensive party!”, they tend to mumble “well… yeah…” (which is about as much of an acknowledgement of “you’re right” as you’ll sometimes get from a 17 year old boy).  But it makes me wonder if in our push to get teens into college, we aren’t really giving them good reasons as to why.  I wonder if giving them the tools to survive college-level classes is enough if we aren’t also providing them with tools to find their individual purpose and drive.  Granted, some teens do find their purpose on their own and inherently know what they’re supposed to be doing, but it’s not all of them and it certainly isn’t a given.  For the rest, it seems to me like we’re sending teens off on a four-year, one-way road trip without telling them much (if anything) about their destination.

If we agree that the point of college is to prepare for a career, my next “why?” does come as a bit more of a challenge.  Why are private schools pushing all kids to go to college?  Is it really the right match for everyone?  What about the kid who isn’t really meant for the world of academia?  What about the kid who is better and happier working with his hands than he is with his head in a book?  Why aren’t we encouraging that whole world of quality professions that don’t require a bachelor’s degree?  When did trade schools and apprenticeships become socially inferior to academic studies?  Why is four years’ worth of book-knowledge somehow better than the shorter programs that provide a specific skill set?  Why aren’t we helping teens explore those options at the same as their college visits?

Being honest, though, I have to wonder if the gap I see in the education system is too strictly based on my own experience.  I like to think I know the private school world pretty well.  I attended two different private high schools, taught in three, and subbed in many more.  Regardless, I’m still just a young, nomadic English teacher who has not seen it all, so I’m curious as to other people’s experiences.  What did your high school do for you?  Did you have programs, teachers, or a guidance counselor that helped you research colleges, majors, and careers, or were you left to do that on your own?  What was helpful, and what just seemed like a waste of time?  Did you feel prepared for “the real world” after graduation?

And if you are a high school student that stumbled on here and read this far, what would you like to see happen to help prepare you for life after graduation?


One thought on “Finding Purpose in College Prep

  1. I felt like my high school pretty much left me on my own to figure out college stuff. The guidance counselor was there, but she focused a lot on the kids who weren’t very “good students” and seemed to figure that those of us who were could handle it on our own. Most of my classes didn’t prepare me for college classes either. Teachers kept saying, “This is what college classes will be like” and “College professors are a lot more strict” and stuff like that, and while that may be true in some cases, I have found that it usually is not, at least at my school.

    I definitely didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew that I loved art, but I didn’t want to depend on selling art to make a living. Heard the term “starving artist”? I did not want that to be me. And at the time, the only job I could think of for an artist was teaching (I know there are more, but that’s what I had in my head, and my guidance counselor didn’t tell me otherwise). So for my first year of college, I was an art ed major. By the end of the second semester, when I had done 35 or so hours of volunteer time in a nearby art classroom with 7th and 8th graders, I knew I did NOT want to be a teacher. I’m sure I could do it if I had to, but I would not be happy. Over that summer I dropped the “ed” part of my major, kept the art part, and added English. Since then I’ve taken four lit classes and been on the editorial staff of the university literary magazine. I’m also doing intern work over the summer and probably into the fall for the magazine, and I love it. At this point, I want to be an editor.


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