More to a good life than college

04/11/2014 2:38 PM

04/12/2014 5:47 PM

Two weeks ago my husband lost his job. Not suddenly — finally.

A smooth hand-off of his department to new owners in St. Louis took eight months. So it was a long goodbye to work he enjoyed and 17 years of friendships.

The transition was doubly difficult because of how he views work. Commit long-term to your employer, he says. Give your absolute best. This is how you live out your calling and live into what comes next.

But where’s next? And what next?

These are my husband’s questions. They are also our son’s questions.

Silas graduates high school next spring and is knee-deep in campus visits and SAT test prep. As he talks aloud about his future, we hear his inner conflict: Do I pursue what I love? I’m not even sure what that is yet. Maybe I should just pick a career that will make me a lot of money.

“When you could pay your way through college by waiting tables, the idea that you should ‘study what interests you’ was more viable than it is today when the cost of a four-year degree often runs to six figures,” wrote Glenn Harlan Reynolds, in an essay for The Wall Street Journal.

Our son worries about choosing the wrong path. No more are the 20s the years of do-overs.

“We aren’t allowed to make mistakes,” Silas says of his generation.

In so many ways, he is absolutely right. The student loan debt that will chase Silas and his peers will affect the contours of their adult lives.

They may feel pressure to delay marriage or a home purchase. Having children could get pushed to the next decade. Those 401(k) contributions may be meager until the budget is roomier.

But what if the “good life” is one of financial freedom, where choices aren’t narrowed dramatically by debt? And the highest quality education is one that has room for adventures and informative failures?

Our family’s current circumstances are a powerful parable. Buyouts happen; so do recessions. Kansas City’s sons and daughters need to be guided toward work with enough intrinsic value to carry them through financial setbacks and career shifts later in life.

Jeffrey Selingo, author of the must-read book “College (Un)bound,” advocates broader thinking about what comes after high school. In November 2012, he wrote as editor-at-large for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The idea of graduating from a four-year college is so ingrained in our culture that many of us have trouble envisioning anything else.”

Selingo’s book suggests a better strategy. Parents, put everything on the table — university, community college, trade school, apprenticeship, an entrepreneurial project or even (gasp) a gap year for service, travel or work.

Then help your son or daughter choose options and a timeline that best fit the child’s abilities. This openhandedness is scary. It’s going off the grid. What will our friends think?

That we don’t believe our kids can succeed in college? The opposite can be true. We can believe they are resilient enough to take risks, even fail and recover with agility and grace.

What’s next? Where’s next? Graduates and families have to find their own answers.

For our son, our desire is just this: Use the skills, talents and temperament the creator breathed into you. Live into your community; live out your calling.

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