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Earning a Degree is Not a Race

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There is a resounding assumption that our nation’s high school graduates will enroll in some form of higher education in the fall of the same year they graduate. The assumption starts early on in American public education, with the onslaught of advanced placement/college prep academic tracks, college entrance exam test preparation, college visits, and the pressure to participate in extracurriculars for the purpose of crafting an impressive college application. To know what you want to be “when you grow up” and where you want to earn your degree from is “supposed” to be something students have squared away by the time they begin their senior year. What happens if you don’t fit into that box?

According to the 2016 American Community Survey published by the U.S. Census Bureau, 19.3% of people 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree and just 11.9% hold a graduate or professional degree of some kind. Based on this, it is evident that not everyone holds a four-year degree or beyond.

I think we are doing an injustice to our nation’s young people when we assume they are going to a college immediately upon graduating from high school and that if they choose to go right to college, that they need to know exactly what they want to study. How embarrassing, isolating, and frustrating that must feel if you a) don’t want to go to school right away (or ever) and/or b) have no idea what to study.

In my own work with students who struggle academically, they will tell me that they have been a student, continuously, since they were five and that they are tired. They don’t know what they want to study anymore. They aren’t getting the grades in the program they (or their parents) wanted. They feel aimless, ashamed, and sometimes, just depressed.

What if instead of dragging them to the finish line, we gave them permission to take a break? I often find myself saying to students that, “colleges will be there when you’re ready.” As a society, we need to normalize that earning a degree is not a race – it’s an opportunity and a commitment that an adult can take on at any age. Besides the financial investment, earning a degree takes an exorbitant amount of personal investment as well and students need to be ready for that commitment.

What if instead of asking our young adults what they want to be, what they want to study and where they want to go for school, instead ask, “What do you think you might like to do after high school?” and just let that be the open-ended question. What if instead of jumping in with our own opinions on what they should do, we just listen to them, patiently and with an open mind. What if we normalized the notion that it’s ok to take a break after high school, to work, to find yourself, to reflect, to travel, to tend to yourself and others in a loving and caring way?

We don’t slow down enough as a society. That we know and I am guilty of it as well. We are always thinking of the next thing to do, to buy, to be. What if, instead of rushing recently high-school graduates into dorm rooms and classrooms, we let them learn at their own pace, just by making their own choices in their lives? Moreover, what if everyone’s post-high school graduation plan was a great plan?

Michelle Gayne

Assistant Director of Advising & Academic Services

University of Maine