1. AH! I love this! And it is so true. It makes more sense as to why we connect so well too! I am the first to finish a Bachelor’s degree in my family. My father came to the US from Germany in his late 20’s and never went to college. Worked as a tinsmith and bought houses to fix up and rent out. My mom was the valedictorian of a class of about 25 and she definitely “did” school well. Earned an associates degree after having kids in her early 20’s. Her part-time work was related to that degree but didn’t give her any retirement savings. She did run the books for all of our houses and she and my dad made really smart money decisions in life. And that’s what let them retire comfortably too. I agree with you about college unlocking many doors – but smart financial decisions about your college choice matters more than ever. And there are many lessons to be learned from those who don’t go to college too – and still find a happy life with much success. We all need to listen better…

    • Yes. I think you and I could talk about making smart educational choices forever. Helping students (and their families!) understand that the name on a degree matters a lot less than the degree itself in many instances would be a great starting point. I can’t tell you how many parent teachers conferences I attend where parents tell me what kind of camps and extracurriculars they are pushing for to build up a resume for the Ivies…and their kid wants to go into education or journalism. Um. Maybe don’t take out six-figures of loans to land a job that pays $20-30k?

  2. Education past high school (including vocational and 2 year degrees) is becoming even more important because the economy is leaning towards skill biased technical change. There just aren’t good manufacturing jobs that require a high school degree or less anymore. Companies don’t do as much on the job training possibly partly because the pension structure changing means that employees can more easily take their skills to another company. Income inequality is increasing.

    • I think there’s some truth to this. But you could also pretty easily argue that while college degrees are a necessary stepping stone, they aren’t preparing students adequately for jobs. Ditto for high school. Partly because a lot of the jobs that my students will have don’t exist yet, at least not in the form that they will take in 4-8 years. My guess is that we will see a shakeup in higher ed in the next 5-10 years.

  3. I was struck by this recently when one of my ELL students started talking to me about his options for employment after high school. His family can’t afford college, so he’s looking at paying for tech school and becoming an electrician. He’s so shrewd about the money he can make following blue-collar career paths that will probably allow him to earn a large income, and if he’s smart, save and create a large net worth. I think we have this bias towards those who don’t finish college, when often, trades are a fantastic way for people to create large incomes for themselves without accruing mountains of debt.

    • I agree. Our high school is working really hard to build up their trades programs. I have a cousin right now who is shadowing with the local police force on weekends.

  4. Carolyn

    There are a lot of high paying trade skills that having a four year degree in liberla arts, general or gender studies don’t qualify you for. A welder, electrician and plumber will always be needed and pay for those trades can be quite good. Sadly the kids who are indoctrinated to believe that they have to have the “college experience” and run up ridiculous amounts of debt in student loans without a career goal. And realistically many do not know what they would like to do with their lives, and a year or two break from school working full time can help them mature to make a choice. And doing a job that sucks can motivate them to realize they don’t want to be doing that 10 years from now. There are kids that are motivated to get into a good school to get degrees in math, sciences and engineering as well as go onto medical school. Nursing is a career that focuses on specialized training not a little of everything and not much on anything. So the teens really should be looking at all areas to include a stint in one of the military services that provide excellent training in high tech fields while they are getting paid.

    • I agree with all of this! We just did a career day at our middle school, and it was incredible. The room that I sat in was with a gentleman who served in the air force. He talked all about the different routes you could go (military or non). He also really challenged them all to think about community colleges. It was awesome! In our particular suburb, there’s a huge myth that you had better go Big 10 or Ivy. For most career paths, that’s just a mountain of debt and not much else.

    • That’s so true. I didn’t even factor that in, did I? I’m ultra educated with my three grad degrees (hopefully if this last one pans out!). Not only do I know that I can’t hold a candle to some people in terms of intelligence and other qualities, but I definitely had a TON of help along the way.

    • A tweet 🙂 Someone said that we need to do a better job reaching people who don’t have degrees, especially since they don’t seek out information on their own. Well, then.

  5. I so appreciate the unique insights you bring to this community, Penny (and wow your parents are badasses!).

    I’m the product of a family where not only my parents but also my grandparents went to college and got degrees. It was just what was expected of me after high school, and given the astronomical cost of college, that’s a hugely privileged expectation.

    • My husband and I talk a lot about how we just assume our son will go to college. He likely will, but as you point out, it is just an assumption.

  6. Great post, Penny! My parents didn’t go to college either, and while my college degree helped me get ahead, it was more the piece of paper than the actual learning. My wife didn’t go to college and she’s one of the smartest people I know. It’s easy to make assumptions and hard to remember that not everyone’s story is the same, but it’s well worth the time and energy to listen to those other journeys. Thanks for a great reminder.

    • I agree, Gary! I couldn’t teach without my degree. And I really loved studying English in undergrad. But there are so many ways to get ahead and fall behind. Education levels are just part of the story.

  7. The fact that you start with a Garth Brooks reference means I now adore you for life. <3 As if I didn't already. Beautifully written, concise yet poignant. There are definitely many paths and the beauty of blogging is that it gives people a platform to tell and share their story. Thanks for sharing a piece of yours.

  8. Thanks for sharing your story. 🙂 Isn’t it crazy how our lives can be so different, but not really? I do think the right degree, when acquired with as little debt as possible, can help you get ahead. But it’s not the only way, not at all. My mom was a first-generation college student and my dad never went to college (he went into the Army). They were also teen parents!

    I hear people mock the cashiers at Walmart for being stupid, but my mom worked at Walmart for years while studying and raising us. Your occupation or lack of formal education doesn’t mean you’re stupid. In fact, I think the word “stupid” is … stupid. Everyone has something valuable to offer and different experiences.

  9. Great post, well written. Another first generation college graduate here who’s father also never finished high school. College isn’t the only path, and actually depending on where you are in the country there are tons of companies who can’t find skilled labor for trade jobs that pay pretty well.

  10. Our family is also working class. My parents went to vocational schools. He was a bus driver and my mother worked as a market vendor. I think I’m also the first in our family to have a college degree (and a master’s!). But my mother started working really young, and she was able to buy land that we still live on. So we have very different ways of thinking about money.

    • I’m so glad you shared, Sera Q! I’m not sure how you feel, but I felt like I learned a lot from them. It stretched my thinking to see kind of the conventional way that most of my friends’ families did things and then to compare it to my parents!

  11. This is very true Penny, we need to make sure all ways are valued equally. And we let far too many people go to university now, there is no need for that many graduates,

  12. Melissa

    I have always resonated with your blog Penny and felt we had a lot in common, and this just proves it! I too am a first generation college student and my parents have very similar backgrounds as yours. And let me say, I learned more about frugality, living below your means, and using your money in pursuit of your dreams/values from them than from any blog. They provided me with a good financial education, much more than some of my friends from wealthy families with college-educated parents. This stereotype that the poor are dumb makes me SO angry. My mom grew up in extreme poverty and told me as an adult that her high school counselor told her she was too stupid to go to college so she never went. I just wept because my mom is an intelligent woman and to think someone working in education just dismissed her because she was poor and therefore “dumb” makes me ill.

  13. It baffles me when people claim their target audience (in blogging, business, nonprofit work, etc) is one they’ve never been a part of and don’t actually know much about. I’m first-generation college and know lots of broke and rich people on all ends of the educational divide.

    In my current town, some political folks want to “reach the unreachable in flyover country.” I pointed out that if you don’t even know what state is what and what locals call themselves the chances of you being a good messenger for whatever you are shilling is relatively low. And that folks get rightfully insulted when strangers show up with “the right way” to do things.

    There are many ways to learn and do well. Privileging the one you chose is near-sighted.

  14. Goddamn you write better than me. I use to be a very 1+1=2 person. But it’s not at all how life works. It would be pretty boring is college was the right path for everybody. I know for me it wasn’t but being there only child of Chinese parents, it was either college or nothing at all.

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