A Letter to my Cousin Rose

I wrote this for unrelated reasons, but I’m posting it here as an update to “I am a 4-Year College Opt-Out. Here’s Why.” It’s not necessary for you to read the original post in order to understand this one; in fact, I’ve restated most of the original post here. Still, I’m leaving the original post alone, because I believe it’s important for people to see my progression over time.

Dear Rose,

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other; my memory of you is frozen at the age of 5. But I know you’re 14 now and starting high school. Your mother told me that you were considering your future: if and where you’ll go to college, what you’ll do for a career, and all those major life-determining questions we’re expected to answer in our adolescence. These answers are more complex and nuanced than most people realize, and since I’m closer to you in age than your parents are, I thought I would share my experiences in this area with you.

For me, awareness of college started the summer I turned 8. My siblings were debating with my parents where to go out to dinner, and as with most families trying to decide on things, we voted on it. The kids were initially in the majority with one decision, but then the parents threw a wrench in the rules: “adults get five votes.”

I didn’t mind, but I was curious about the reasoning. “So we get five votes when we turn 13?” I asked, being a Jew who becomes culturally an adult at 13. (By the way, Rose: congratulations on your bat mitzvah; I’m sorry I couldn’t be there!) “No,” said my mom, “it would be silly if you could age into it. For our purposes, an adult is someone who’s graduated from college.”

From this and other similar conversations, I decided I was going to college. But when a child decides to pursue something, it’s not because they’ve done a cost-benefit analysis and found it’s the logical conclusion based on their knowledge and past experience. A child thinks something is worth pursuing if it sounds impressive, fun, or cool.

In and of itself, this wasn’t a problem. Children choose to pursue plenty of silly ideas: when I was 8 I also wanted to make a career out of inventing a time machine. 

But then society perpetuated the problem by leading me away from ever questioning my belief. “Of course college is the right choice for you,” spoke the voice of the populous. “You’re smart, capable, and a hard worker. And you want a good job, right? You need college to get a good job.” I didn’t question these comments: they came from people I knew, trusted, and both knew and trusted to understand more than me about the world.

So as I was entering my senior year of high school, I was just assuming I would go to college. That’s what you do, right? But despite this, I had gotten really sick of taking classes. The things I worked on in my courses seldom related to the real world, and if they did at all, they reflected real-life work through a funhouse mirror. Due to dual-enrollment, I was close to graduating high school with my Associate’s in computer science. At last, I thought, I could start doing meaningful work and creating value for real people! Wait, no, I couldn’t. I had to go to college. Didn’t I?

Finally, I realized that I had pursued college with partially mistaken and mostly absent reasoning. This was not the right way to go about making a major life choice. When I began genuinely considering my options with a fully sentient brain, I came to the conclusion that I did not have nearly enough evidence on which to base a decision that would cost me years, and tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, if I chose wrong.

This terrified me, but I had no way to remedy it. I didn’t have enough data to decide whether or not college was the right choice. The only way to gather that data would be to get a job in or near the area in which I wanted to work, figure out what types of degrees the people working in my desired field had, and then go to a 4-year college or not based on that.

So, at the end of high school, that’s exactly what I did. I went through a selective program that matches young people with startups, and chose to move to San Francisco and work as a digital marketing consultant. 

While living in SF, I met a lot of technology professionals: programmers, business analysts, technical writers. Before I moved, I’d never thought about the differences between these professions, nor had I made any effort to choose one. Now, because I understood what they were and knew people who did them, I could find out which I would be good at, which I would like, and which paid the best; the combination of which I used to choose a target career. (I decided on business systems analysis.)

Now that I had an idea of what career I wanted, I could work backwards. Do people working in that career have college degrees? What types of degrees do the best new hires at their company with similar jobs have? If they have degrees, where are they from, and what are their majors? 

Based on all the data I gathered, pure programmers often didn’t have degrees at all, or had Associate’s or Bachelor’s degrees in unrelated things from schools I’d never heard of. Pure writers were the same way. Consultants and analysts were much more likely to have Bachelor’s degrees. Finally, data scientists, especially those in research-intensive roles, often had Master’s degrees or PhDs.

From a year of living as a self-supporting, independent adult and working full time for a technology company, I decided with input from friends and associates that the best fit for me was to be a business systems analyst, most of which have Bachelor’s degrees. Therefore, I decided to get a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Systems, which, as you may have heard, I’m now working on.

I have three points of advice for you, Rose, from my experience.

First, if you haven’t already looked into dual-enrollment during high school, I recommend it. It’s much more cost-effective in terms of both time and money to get as much of your college work done as possible while you’re still in high school, and I know you’re smart and hardworking enough to do it.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, don’t go to college just because everyone does it. Even if you get a full-ride scholarship, it will still cost you 3-4 years of your life which might be better spent working. 

Third, you may have heard from various adults that you start by choosing what you want to study, then where you want to study it, then what career you want to get. This was the way our parents approached college, but it’s the opposite of how we should do so. Begin by doing research into what career you want to get, then use that to determine whether or not you need a college degree, and if so, which type. From there, you can choose a major that best suits the career choice you’ve made, and use that to decide between colleges.

I know this has been a long letter and is probably a lot to absorb, but I hope it has been useful. If you have any questions, or just want to chat – I would love to catch up – just let me know.

Your cousin,

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