Thursday, April 02, 2009

What to Do After High School

What to Do After High School: "One word: Plastics." Of course, the contemporary version of that is probably Nanotechnology, or maybe Bankruptcy Law. But the open question that has hit everyone at age eighteen since World War 2 is, Now what? For most the answer is college but, the fact is, that is likely just accepting a default. Most 18-year olds don't have the slightest idea what they want to do and undoubtedly don't have anything resembling a plan -- this is not a criticism, I certainly didn't. For Mom and Dad, this makes for a minefield; one wrong step and you have an undergrad who's changed her plans during her sophomore summer and you're looking at paying for 6 years of college.

Unless there is some sort of extraordinary clarity of vision on the part of the child, the advice I generally offer is: Don't go off to a four-year undergrad program at the most elite college that will accept you. Just don't do it. Get a full-time (or almost full-time) job and go part-time to a small college or community college. Make sure your job is very social (restaurant work is a good example), have a million friends and stay up all night drinking and talking and whatever. Meanwhile, you knock off a few underclassman credits that, with appropriate planning, will transfer to whatever school you end up at for your degree.

The lessons learned in this period can be far more valuable than a free ride in the dorm courtesy of Mom and Dad. You will learn what it means to pay rent, and you'll learn how much cable TV costs, and you'll discover that unlimited phone plan may not really be essential after all. You'll figure out how to separate good friends (the ones who pay their share and don't use your stuff without asking) from bad ones (the ones who stiff you for the security deposit and invite their no-account friends to sleep on the couch). Then there's always the difference between gross pay and net pay to come to terms with. You'll get a lot of practice making smart decisions about the opposite sex (to put it delicately). Broadly speaking, it's really your first chance to encounter the wider world beyond school and family. It's a hugely important time, and the perspective a young person gains from this can completely change their character. For obvious reasons it's better if this happens before you're parents are out 50 large for a Bachelor's degree.

All my wisdom works very well in theory, but it's contingent on one thing: once you are done with this extended exercise in real world education, you come out of it knowing what you want to do. That is far from a foregone conclusion. You could find yourself exactly where you were when you started only with the ability to drink legally. And that's the ultimate problem with my plan. It's really just a minor deferment. If you don't know what you want, at some point, you gotta pick something and go with it for better or worse or else you'll find yourself trying to keep a straight, 35-year old face when you explain to your date you still live with your parents. If that's going to be the case, well, why not pick that something now and get your undergrad degree over with as quickly as possible?

Obviously, all this is coming up because My Darling Perfect Miss Anna Banana, the little girl who was scared to run in the ocean surf when she was three feet tall, is now facing that issue. She just wants to find a school where she can have fun, no idea what she wants to study really. Her mom is pushing for standard 4-year-degree-and-start-a-career path. Me? Well, I completely undermine her by suggesting Anna take the cruise-and-have-fun for a couple of years approach. That makes me an ass, yes, but does it make me wrong?

It's really a roll of the dice as to whether a two or three years of undirected sub-adult life will be fruitful. Of course, I should shut up either way, shouldn't I? Yeah.

Semi-related: The brain-in-a-vice website Overcoming Bias has a roundup of commentary as to whether university prestige matters.