The Taboo of Not Going to College

It’s that season again when high school seniors (at least in the US) look to graduate and move on to the next phase of their life. As an African immigrant, I am taken aback by all the hullabaloo about high school graduation. You see, where I come from, graduating from high school is not such a big deal. It is kind of a basic expectation and in fact, we do not call it graduating, it is called “finishing high school”

Not a Biggy

Besides being a basic expectation, there are other reasons why finishing high school is not a biggy. For starters, it is simply not part of the culture in the local context. When one finishes high school, what matters is how you performed and if you scored a good enough grade to earn admission to university. Even though you turn 18 years old and thus legally become an adult just around the same time as you finish high school, this does not come with the same level of independence in the African context compared to the West.

Most high school graduates still depend on their parents for basic needs, they do not have a job and they don’t drive. Even if they start college, chances are they will still be dependent on their parents because they don’t have the means to earn a living and they don’t have a car. For these reasons, it would be odd for anyone to be celebrating high school graduation unless they performed particularly well in their university entrance exams.

More Pomp

As my son often reminds me, this is America and things are different. Here, high school graduation is one of the most celebrated milestones as you grow up. From school to home, teachers to parents, everyone comes together to congratulate the seniors and wish them well on their next step regardless of whether they are going to college or not. But there is an undertone in the celebration with more pomp if someone is bound for college.

The most common question a high school graduate will have to answer is “so, what are you going to do next?”. For kids of African immigrants, the default is going to college. Our African culture values education above all else and the natural thing to do when you finish high school is to go to college. African immigrants in the US are among the most educated and they expect their kids to excel in school and take advantage of the great quality of college education in this country which is a big part of the reason they immigrated to the US.  

Cast a Shadow

Until recently, going to college was seen as the only sure bet avenue to a well-paying career. But this narrative is beginning to change as the cost of college education has skyrocketed, bringing into question the worth of investing in a college degree. Student debt is a massive crisis in the US with about one in five Americans having outstanding balances from college loans which amount to a staggering $1.76 trillion as of 2021.

In addition to the rising cost, shifts in the kinds of skills and experience, pay, and location has meant that close to half of those who graduated college in 2020 struggled to find a job matching their expectations. There is also a positive trend in the number of jobs and pay available to graduates of vocational schools and apprenticeship programs. All this has cast a shadow on the prospects of a college education in America.  

Explore Options

For African immigrants, this poses a dilemma. While parents may have an expectation that their kids will go to college, it is forcing us to confront the reality that college might not be the appropriate route for everyone. The problem is that African immigrants have little faith and knowledge of the alternatives to college and as a result, they are ill-equipped to help their children explore options outside of the traditional route of going to college.

Exploring alternatives to the college route requires embracing a different mindset. It starts with reconsidering the language we use. We should stop asking high school graduates “what college will you be going to?” as if going to college is the only option. If a graduate does not seem keen on college, we should not pressure them into thinking they are making a mistake. As a community, we are so used to celebrating high school graduates who are headed to college and we often ignore or shun those who are not bound for college. We need to make space for celebrating alternative pathways to professional fulfillment. 

A Lifeline

Like most parents, African immigrants love to link their kids to successful older youth who they approve of for inspiration. When pointing our kids to mentors, we should not only look for those who have taken the traditional route to college but instead, we should facilitate appreciation of people who are doing well even though they did not finish high school and go to college immediately. Their experience can be a valuable resource for a graduate who is already skeptical about going to college.  

Another trend I see within our community is status signaling based on where my child has been accepted to college. You will often hear a parent bragging that their kid was admitted to such-and-such Ivy League school even if they won’t go there just to show how impressive they are. The downside of this is that such bragging discourages kids who may be considering community college or vocational school. Community colleges are becoming a lifeline for affordable college education. Going to community college should not be seen as a failure or less of an achievement.

Character & Outlook

And for heaven’s sake, we need to stop pushing our kids to go to college as soon as they finish high school. It is okay to take a year to experience life and then go to college when you are a bit more mature. What’s important is your character and outlook in life and these are values that will not necessarily be shaped by going to college. Even for those going to college, we should be concerned about the likelihood of them graduating. Often, kids get admitted, and somewhere along the way, they drop off because they were not ready for the college experience.

I am not anti-college and in fact, a college degree is still a pretty solid investment towards a bright future but with some caveats. My hope is that African immigrants and their kids will be more at ease exploring options for college and career success including philosophies such as unschooling.

As usual, we would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Do you agree that African immigrants are overinvested in seeing college as the only key to success? What have you seen happening in your community? What alternatives, if any, are being promoted for high school graduates in your community?

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