Earlier this week I heard a discussion on our local public radio station about getting the most “bang for your buck” with a college degree. With two kids in undergrad and one in grad school, I know it’s an important topic of conversation for families. The cost of higher education is all but unattainable for way too many people. It makes sense to consider what you’re going to get in return for the ridiculous amount of money you have to put into it, and to consider how you’re going to manage the debt you’ll almost inevitably accrue by the time you graduate.
I knew whereof I speak. Our oldest chose an elite school and came out with $20,000 in debt (but is in a field in which this debt will be made manageable by her eventual salary). Our middle graduates this year with $10,000 in debt, having chosen to live at home for her four years to keep expenses down. Our youngest, as always, came out smelling like a rose and got a full ride to a state college. All three of our kids were National Merit Finalists, top 5% of their high school classes, and were awarded various academic/talent-based scholarships. And still two out of three of them had to incur serious debt in order to graduate.
So, back to that public radio discussion. As I say, the topic was reasonable. Where I ran into angst was with the advice I heard being given by some local “experts.” Which all boiled down to “If you want to get anywhere in life, go into a STEM field.” They said, in so many words, that “Computers are a good field to go into. Analytics is a good field to go into. Math and engineering are good fields to go into.”
Granted, this was a show with the stated topic of “making money with your college degree.” But the very clear message was that the only reason to go to college was to make as much money as possible. It’s a theme that drums in our ears constantly – STEM currently rules the educational world. I even saw an ad on Facebook today for STEM play kits that can be mailed directly to your home, to feed into “Oh, dear God my child’s gonna be left behind!” hysteria.
I take exception to the idea that STEM is the be-all and end-all of education.
Not because I think poverty is a good life goal.
Rather, because fulfillment and joy are excellent life goals.
For those people who love numbers or research or engineering or writing code, pursuing a STEM degree is absolutely a good choice. But I think pushing a kid into a field of study solely because it will make them a pile of cash is a seriously rotten thing to do. I’ve seen it plenty of times. In our super-affluent suburb, money is the god most commonly worshiped. Working with families my entire adult life, I’ve witnessed repeatedly parents whose narrative to their kids is that making money is the number one priority.
What about instead encouraging kids to follow their passion? Or – radical thought – what if our society adequately rewarded the life-giving careers that involve the humanities?
Again, I know whereof I speak. Our oldest was fascinated by genetics and research from the time she was in middle school. She excelled at and was fascinated by the humanities, as well, but chose molecular biology as her life’s work. Our Middle was great at math and science. But her first love is languages and writing and teaching. She chose to become a high school teacher, and we cheered her on every step of the way. This world will be a better place because of her choice.
And our youngest? For the first half of his 21 years, he was certain he would become an aerospace engineer. He had the skills and the ability to do it. But then he fell in love with vocal music, and the rest was history. It was a shock to us as his parents to see him make that radical change, but we couldn’t be prouder of his achievements in music and can’t wait to see him take on his own choirs after he graduates next year – a vocal music education major with a minor in physics (in a nod to his first love).
Will our younger two make a mint in their careers? Obviously not, especially in this crappy state we call Kansas, where our legislature is doing its level best to destroy public education.
But all three of our kids are thrilled with what they’re doing with their lives.
And THAT is what’s really important.