Do you need to go to college? People from different generations discuss their options after high school.

Is college the only option after high school? We asked three generations

The value of a college degree has risen dramatically since the end of the Great Recession.

During the recovery, people with a bachelor’s degree or higher saw far bigger gains in employment than any other group, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW). By 2020, the CEW projects that 35% of U.S. jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree. That figure is up from 16% back in 1973. So you would expect that younger generations—especially millennials and Gen Zers who saw their parents’ fortunes unravel in the recession—would feel more pressure to attend. Indeed, as of 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, the usual mean weekly earnings for someone with a bachelor’s is about $1,200; their high school diploma’d peers make just around $700.

Yet personal experiences don’t always match the statistics. When I asked three people from three different generations if college was the only option on their post-high school menu, I got three unexpected replies.

Millennial

“Almost everyone in my class was planning on going to college. Also, everyone in my immediate family had gone to college. So the general assumption was always that I would go, too. Driven by a fear of student loans and the cost of education, though, I went to a military recruitment center instead. But they didn’t want me because of my asthma. In the end, I wound up going to a liberal arts college.”

—Clarence Lui, 25, Shaker Heights, Ohio

Takeaway: Increasingly, college seems like the natural next step after high school graduation. But for many, enlisting in the armed forces and serving the country has a special appeal. And putting on a uniform hardly means college is off the table. In fact, most branches of the U.S. military offer benefits for people pursuing a degree and paying off student loans. A career in the military often goes hand-in-hand with higher ed. More than 80% of active-duty officers hold a bachelor’s degree.

Gen X

“Although I am no longer in the church, I was raised in a Jehovah’s Witness home, wherein we were discouraged from going to college. This message came directly from sermons at religious service. College was ‘bad for you,’ and ‘dangerous.’ College was ‘Satanic.’ And so I never considered college as an option. I went from high school, to meat butchering, to phone sales, back to butchering, and eventually landed in the restaurant business, where I waited on tables and tended bar. All the while I was doing the one thing I really cared about, writing fiction. I was lucky enough to marry my love. One day she asked me if I’d ever considered going to college. I said I never had. I was 33. She insisted I try. And so I took a tour at Queens College (I’m from Queens) and immediately signed up. I declared—without hesitation—my major: English. Before long I found college to be truly dangerous, in the best way. It completely changed my perspective, my outlook on life, my direction. Since then I have gone on to get my master’s in fiction writing, and published a novel. I now teach English and writing at the very undergraduate college that changed my life, Queens College, CUNY.”

—Scott Cheshire, New York, N.Y.

Takeaway: Even in an economy that benefits college grads, more persuasive forces can push people away from campus. While there’s a widespread notion that higher education is anathema to religious faith—surprise—the opposite seems to be the case. A 2017 analysis by Pew Research Center found that college-educated Christians in particular are actually more likely to attend religious services regularly than their peers without degrees. 

Silent generation

“All of my friends from high school were going on to college. We saw ourselves as intelligent and ambitious. ‘Ambitious’ for a woman in the late 1950s meant that you would be able to support yourself and make a difference in the world. Big ambitions when you consider that most of our female role models were ‘homemakers.’ Their role was to support their husbands’ ambitions. Education was highly valued in my family. My dad had a master’s degree plus additional study. My mother wanted to go to college, but her father said it was not important for a woman. A man needed a college education, so they sent her brother to college and she went to work as a secretary. Yet when I was growing up, I don’t remember my parents asking if I wanted to go to college—only which colleges was I applying to.”

—Leslie Faraday, 74, Mount Pleasant, S.C.

Takeaway: The share of women enrolling in college in 1960 trailed far behind men (38%/54%). Today, women have lapped men on college campuses. That change was driven by women like Leslie,  who weren’t simply looking for a bigger paycheck: They wanted to expand their options in a male-dominated world. As Betty Friedan wrote in 1963’s The Feminine Mystique, the old sexist views of women “made higher education for women seem suspect, unnecessary and even dangerous.” Unfortunately, the pay gap—the difference between what a man and a woman earn for doing the same job—hasn’t gone the way of the corset. In the United States, women overall still earn about 80 cents for every dollar that men do. The good news: The gap is narrower for millennial workers. Keep fighting!

(Quotes have been edited for style and length.)

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