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Figuring out the next step

The Dreaded Question

"So, what are you doing next year?” It’s the question asked to most every high school senior at Thanksgiving, Christmas, in the grocery aisle, and almost everywhere they go. It is a terrifying question for many of them. They don’t know their next step so they often come up with an “acceptable” answer in hopes of avoiding more questions. (Usually the answer involves college and a vague reference to a college major they have heard of in a tv show.) After all, that is what people expect. But maybe it is time to stop assuming that the next step should always be the most obvious one.

A Different World

It used to be easy to figure out your next step in life. The typical path to adulthood followed a predictable sequence in our society: graduate from high school, finish four years of college, get a job after graduation, get married, start a family. Whether we consider this sequence right or wrong, it ceases to be the “norm” in the 21st century. Today, online learning, flexible work options, and rapidly changing technological advances open new paths toward the future.

This is both good and bad. The freedom to chart your own course can seem liberating, but a prescribed path can help teens make decisions and move toward adult responsibility. Choosing a path with limitless options might seem positive until you actually need to make decisions. I experienced this after living 12 years in a post-communist country with limited options. Returning to the United States, even a trip to the grocery store to buy cereal was overwhelming. How was I to choose from the hundreds of colorful boxes on the shelf? Each touted benefits: great taste, healthy grains, GMO free. What benefits did I value the most? Taste? Price? Health?

The same is true for many teens today. When faced with a myriad of options, deciding their next steps can be paralyzing. Most teens opt for the traditional path of applying to college right out of high school in hopes of finding their way there, yet with many colleges offering over 200 majors, this alone doesn’t provide a clear path to the future.

Evidence shows that this plethora of choices confuses our students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 80 percent of students in the United States change their major at least once during their college careers, and many change their major up to three times during that period. To add to the confusion, in 2010 only 62 percent of U.S. college graduates had a job that required a college degree and just 27 percent had a job closely related to their major. When an 18-year-old looks at all the options and tries to decide where each will lead, they are understandably stressed and confused.

In addition, the path to a college degree has become a very expensive journey. When I attended college in 1986, tuition and fees for one year were $1,323; my complete college education, minus room and board, cost around $5,500. It was possible to work during the semester and throughout the summer to cover my expenses. Today, the same university costs $13,006 a year — much more than a summer job and a few hours of part-time work can cover. Based on current prices, graduation rates today, and adding room and board, books, and other expenses, the full cost is closer to $180,000!

“Average” graduation rates have risen as well. Instead of the traditional four-year standard, the federal government now requires schools to report their “on time” graduation rates based on a six year time frame. Adding two years to an already expensive college degree raises the cost of “finding yourself” in college by more than 150%.

Consumer Reports’ August 2016 cover story, “I Kind of Ruined My Life by Going to College,” reveals a sad reality for many young adults in America. The accompanying article, “Lives on Hold,” shares the story of Jackie Krowen whose $152,000 in student debt has had life-altering effects on her decisions, relationships, and plans for the future. She is not alone. Seventy percent of students now graduate with college debt and enormous loan payments that can prevent them from moving into independent adulthood.

The bottom line

College is a very expensive and confusing place to gain life experience and direction for the future. Before assuming that college is the best next step for students, it is wise to consider other ways to prepare them for what lies ahead in their lives. Perhaps students need a break from the classroom before making decisions about how they will invest the tens of thousands of dollars a college education will cost.

My 5 Major Steps course is a great way to help students know themselves better and learn more about careers that may be a good fit BEFORE they spend the money it will cost to start a degree.


My new book The Gap Year Guide is now available on! Learn more about how a gap year can give a teen direction for their future.

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