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Do Your Kids Really Need College?

If you think your kid absolutely needs a college degree, you're living in the 1990s.
Do Your Kids Really Need College?
Image credit: Shutterstock

High school kids ended the school year thinking about college, and perhaps some college kids are wondering whether to return. Here’s a revolutionary idea: maybe not.

I’m not against college. My husband and I both have advanced degrees, one of our kids graduated and one of our kids spent two-and-a-half years in college before moving on. Many kids are thriving in college, and that’s fantastic. But, what about the kids who aren’t? A lot of kids are miserable. The Center for Collegiate Mental Health says 30 percent of college kids have seriously considered suicide. Stop a minute and think about that.

Related: 5 Reasons Why Entrepreneurs Don't Thrive in School

Why college?

I’m all for kids who are studying something they love, preparing themselves for the next phase of their life. But, increasingly kids are graduating from college without a clue what they want to do, because for the last 10 years all they’ve done is what they’ve been asked. They took every course in high school and college that someone told them they needed, and now they’re being offered jobs as baristas.

Even worse, they’re loaded down with debt: 44 million now pay $351 on average every month on student loans.

Maybe you have a kid who’s thriving. I’m happy for you; nothing is better than raising a happy child. But, maybe you have one of those other kids. Maybe your kids are smart, but not motivated by schoolwork. Maybe they do well in school, but none of the careers they’ve learned about excite them. Maybe even more than school, they love what they’re doing outside of school: acting, filming, writing music, painting, selling things, organizing protests, running for student government, volunteering. Maybe their true calling in life won’t come from school. Relax. It will be okay. There is another path than the traditional one.

Related: Is College Education Dead?

I know this from interviewing 60 successful entrepreneurs and their parents for my book, Raising an Entrepreneur: 10 Rules for Nurturing Risk Takers, Problem Solvers and Change Makers. The entrepreneurs are diverse: half men, half women, from every race, religion, socioeconomic group and family type. And by entrepreneur, I mean anyone who starts something. So, the 60 are not only diverse in terms of inputs, but also in terms of outcomes: They started for-profits, profits-for-purpose, nonprofits, became activists and artists. Some didn’t go to college, some went and dropped out, some graduated and some got advanced degrees. It didn’t matter.

What’s really important?

What did matter is that, despite coming from extremely different backgrounds and having very diverse interests, they were all raised in families that supported them as they pursued their passions. What does my book recommend that parents should do? Start by listening to your kids. Figure out what they love. If you encourage them to pursue it with all they’ve got, they will. They’ll work hard at it because they love it. They’ll become good at it because they’re working hard at it. And they’ll develop confidence because they’re becoming good at something they love, that they chose. Not something that somebody else thinks they ought to do to get into the “right” school or the “right” career. And because they’ve learned to work hard, they’ll develop grit. Nobody becomes an entrepreneur without grit.

Related: What to Do Instead of Going to College (or After You've Already Gone)

Sometimes a childhood passion leads to a career.

Some entrepreneurs translated what they learned by following their childhood passion into a future endeavor. Paige Mycoskie liked to draw. She started lifestyle brand Aviator Nation, with fun designs on shirts, which now has five stores. Matt Mullenweg’s mother supported his passion for the saxophone and then for computers. He started WordPress, the world’s largest website platform. Alexis Jones loved storytelling. She started I Am That Girl, a massive online community for the women’s movement. Kevin Plank started a T-shirt company in high school. He founded multibillion-dollar athletic apparel maker Under Armour. Hooman Radfar’s mom supported his passion for computers. He’s a co-founder of startup studio Expa. Nyla Rodgers did a lot of service projects when she was young. She started Mama Hope, which has established health, education and agriculture projects around Africa. Robert Stephens liked to fix things. He started Geek Squad. Jon Chu only wanted to make movies from the time he was in fourth grade. Lin Manuel Miranda just tapped him to film In the Heights.

Related: This Is Why You Should Consider Getting a Degree in Marketing

Sometimes a childhood passion doesn’t lead to a career.

Others took the grit and competitive drive they learned when they were young and started a company in a different area when they found the right idea. Blake Mycoskie learned grit from playing competitive tennis. He started TOMS shoes. Reggie Aggarwal learned to compete through debate and running for student office. He started event software firm Cvent. Simon Isaacs was on the Olympic development team for skiing. He said the grit and determination he learned competing helped him start Fatherly, the top website for dads. Twins Miki and Radha Agrawal played soccer through college. These serial entrepreneurs started Daybreaker, Thinx and Wild restaurants. Eric Ryan learned grit from competitive sailing. He cofounded Method products.

Related: Here's How to Determine If College Is Worth the Cost

So, what should you do?

Parents, if you have one of those other kids, who loves something outside of school more than school itself, don’t make them spend four long years bored by their classes and racking up debt. Let go of your anxieties about their future. Encourage them to pursue their passion with all they have. Let them know how proud you are of them for working so hard in their chosen field. And don’t let them think you’re disappointed in them if it doesn’t work out. That’s life. Lots of things don’t work out. With luck, they’ll figure it out and the next one will work out. Or the one after that. Eventually, perhaps something great will happen. And at least they’ll be happier, which is what really matters.