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Last week, I commented that I could barely remember what I was doing my senior year of high school at this time 25 years ago. After I submitted my column, it came to me: planning for college!

In October and November of 1991, I was narrowing down my college choices. The process had begun when I completed my PSAT test in, I think, 10th grade. Colleges get those results and start sending mailers, similar to the stack you get at election time. After I finished my ACT test in 11th grade and knew I had a good score, I started to really look at those colleges.

By the end of my junior year, I had narrowed everything down to five schools, all of which were in Minnesota. Over the course of the next few months, I explored deeper into what each school could offer me as an aspiring English teacher. Come fall, I knew it would be either Winona State or St. Cloud State, so we scheduled visits to both.

And that’s what I was doing 25 years ago, visiting colleges. St. Cloud was fine, but Winona blew me away. Part of it was the personal attention I received, even getting to visit with the professor who would eventually become my advisor, Dr. David Robinson. I loved every part of the campus and what it had to offer me, and I’ve never regretted my decision to spend four years there.

But more and more, I wonder if that traditional path to furthering one’s education needs to be looked at closer. All we hear sometimes is about preparing for college. But what about those kids who aren’t going to college? Or shouldn’t go to college? Don’t they also need to be prepared, maybe even more so?

More and more in education we hear about college or career readiness, and that’s refreshing. We see a larger number of students who will excel in careers that don’t demand a four-year degree. Why spend money on college if you would enjoy doing something that doesn’t cost as much to get a degree?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 69.2% of high school grads were attending colleges or universities in October 2015. These numbers are dropping from past history. This fall, there are an estimated 13.3 million students in four-year programs and 7.2 million in two-year programs. Sometimes those latter numbers could be a very good thing.

Everywhere you look, you can find stories about the need for skilled laborers. Our country needs more electricians, plumbers, auto mechanics, etc. These can be jobs that provide a good living without having to pay off college loans for a decade after you’re done. And yet we too often still hear, “You need a four-year college education if you want to succeed.” Not true at all.

I tell the story often of a former student who came to me during high school and said that he was being pushed to go to college. What he really enjoyed, though, was working on cars. As I would tell any high schooler, if you know what you want to do, then do it. Going to school to be an auto mechanic would cost him a fraction of what a four-year school would. He would make a good living and would be doing a job he enjoyed. How many people wish they could say that today?

More and more, I’ve seen students who seem destined for a four-year college degree choose to go somewhere like Riverland Community College first. These students aren’t sure what they want to study in college, so they figure they’ll stay close to home, save some money, and get some general education credits out of the way. These are smart kids!

Some bemoan that those kids miss out on the “college experience.” What exactly is that? A real positive was that I learned how to live on my own and manage a budget. My folks didn’t have a ton of money to send my way, so I had to work part-time. That was good. But I could’ve done that at home too. What else was part of the experience? Partying? Wow, that sure helped me in life.

I knew exactly what I wanted to do for a living the instant I stepped foot on the campus at Winona. That certainly made it worthwhile for me to spend all four years there. However, I think of my own kids in the years to come. If they’re not sure what they want to do and figure to get a year or so under their belt at Riverland, even if it means staying at home, then go for it! College is such an exorbitant cost now that any money you can save is valuable.

Lastly, how about kids who won’t attend any more schooling after high school? There’s no shame in that either. If you can walk out of high school with some reading, writing, and math skills and find good work somewhere doing something you like, go for it! Studies will always show that you will make more money if you have at least some schooling following graduation, but you have to enjoy what you do.

At the end of the day, we need to let kids make up their minds on what is best for them. We can guide them and offer help, but we should avoid pushing them the way we want them to go. As long as they are college or career ready and confident in their decision, they will find success!

Word of the Week: This week’s word is objurgate, which means to scold severely, as in, “The senior was sick of being objurgated about her choice to go to a community college since she wasn’t sure what she wanted to study.” Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!

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