I have spent the last ten years ranting about how stupid it is to spend money on college. So it is the Murphy’s Law of punditry that both my kids would choose conventional paths through higher education.

Right now I have one kid who is literally begging me to find tutors who will teach to the test so he can go to college and launch an academic career in science. And the other son is auditioning for Juilliard in a few weeks, which means he won’t just be doing college, but extra years of college.

I have read enough about nurture vs nature to know that my kids are not making choices based on my parenting. They are making choices based on who they are. So I should just follow their lead and enjoy my time with them.

Okay. Fine. But while I am enjoying my time with them on their chosen paths, let me just say that academia and professional music have got to be two of the most high-risk/low reward careers out there. And I would not advise anyone to spend a lot of money on school thinking they’ll get that money back.

I know a lot of you are thinking in terms of college. If nothing else, homeschool kids killing it on the SAT, so why not leverage that, right? But I also know I am not the only person thinking that kids do not need to go to college. The reality is that your kids are probably doing well academically, but that doesn’t mean they will benefit from dumping tons of money and squandering time into the vortex of traditional college. So what is the best path to adulthood?

Work or study or both?
Some kids can start working, with each job presenting more ladders to climb, and school is a perfunctory hoop to jump through on the way to the top of the ladder. For these kids, school should be something that comes second to work. Take a look at the stories from students at Virginia College—school is not the focus of their life, but rather a tool they use to get to where they want to their life to go.

Of course, this scenario presupposes knowing where one wants to go in their career. If you don’t know what you want to do with yourself—at all—you probably need to spend time in school doing the difficult work of getting to know yourself that you should have been doing in your early teens. (Parents of pre-teens, take note. It’s never too early to decide what to do with your life. Really. It’s not a contract, but rather an exercise in flexing muscles of focus.)

Network management or healthcare management or liberal arts?
So if you have no idea how to focus yourself, go to school and practice. But don’t spend a lot of time or money. And go to a place that is practical. Because you don’t need four more years of Chaucer and Heidegger.

I was sniffing around the Virginia College site and I saw a list of areas of study. It blew me away. The list should be the list of choices you give to any kid who does not want to spend twelve hours a day learning from books. Go look at this list. It will get anyone thinking about really, where the future is. Because it’s not law and medicine. I’ll tell you that. Not when paralegals and nurse practitioners can do pretty much all the same things but at half the cost.

Instead of lawyer or doctor, think welder or plumber. 
USA Today reports that the new blue collar worker earns about $80K per year. And Blue Collar Gold: How to build a service business from the dirt up is a great book for understanding how to grow service businesses the same way you’d grow an online marketing business or a therapist practice. The only difference is that there is a glut of online marketers and therapists and there is a dearth of millennials stepping up to replace blue-collar workers who are retiring.

Finding an industry that interests you and is likely to provide employment is a much smarter path to adulthood than do what you love. Click that link. And then don’t ever give someone the advice to do what they love again. Do you like to eat? Is it your job? I rest my case.

Actually, you can do what you love. Just choose from the list of degrees that Virginia College offers. Really. There’s something there for everyone. Well, everyone who is not a trust fund kid and actually has to support themselves when they graduate.

Many of you are thinking your kid is too smart, too special, too privileged, too whatever to join the ranks of vocational schoolers. But you might consider that the paths you think smart kids should take probably aren’t as smart as you are thinking they are.

Nontraditional is the new traditional.
I think about the scholarships University of California at Irvine is giving to video gamers and it’s clear to me that even the kids going the traditional college route will not be doing it traditionally. Traditional college route is gone. You can embrace that, and head down the path of the people leading the march. Or you can hide in a study carrel and hope the realities of adult life go away.

And I think if I took a poll, many of us would choose the latter. But that’s for another post. In this post, the right answer is to embrace change and go forth with gusto.

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35 replies
  1. malaika
    malaika says:

    “what to do with your life is not a contract, but rather an exercise in flexing muscles of focus.”

    absolutely loved this. and AMEN.

  2. Bos
    Bos says:

    I find it hilarious that after long preaching “do what I say, not what I did,” our host is adding “whatever your kids do, it shouldn’t be the thing my kids are doing.” But really, I’m laughing with her. Because it’s totally a situation I could find myself in.

    Yes, one of the few professions with a lower likelihood of gainful employment than academia is classical music. But take heart – there are tens of thousands of employed orchestral musicians in the country. (Who tend to play until they die, making the number of actual openings in the hundreds, vs. thousands of new conservatory graduates every year).

    But the kid is doing what he loves. Which is great, except never do that!

    Your kid is going to love being part of a proper conservatory prep program. For his interests, it’s a good reason to leave rural Wisconsin. Juilliard pre-college is so snowed with wannabe violinists and cellists that they only audition them by invitation, so making the most of your association with his new teacher was a good plan. Once he’s in there, they’ll manage his developmental needs as far as orchestras and summer camps go. All you have to do is pay and drive.

    As for “Virginia College,” it’s not really a college at all. It’s a for-profit, unaccredited chain of diploma mills owned by Education Corporation of America, which has been the subject of lawsuits for fraud for misleading students about the value of their degrees.

    Giving your money to a place like that isn’t a guarantee of a job, it’s not even a guarantee of your money back if they suddenly close overnight. Because the school is unaccredited, students are not eligible for federal loans, grants, or other financial aid. It’s cash on the barrelhead, you pays your money you takes your chances.

    Lack of accreditation also means that the courses taken may not qualify at all for professions that require certifications – such as most of the professions they claim to prepare students for – and that they wouldn’t be accepted for transfer to an accredited institution.

    Seriously, did you take money from this scam to pump them online, PT? That’s not doing anybody a favor.

    • T. Edwards
      T. Edwards says:


      Virginia College is right up there with Trump University.

      The overweening ignorance and audacity of someone to belittle reading Chaucer and then pimping for a ridiculous degree mill is stunning.

  3. Tina
    Tina says:

    This post is such BS. At least the part about the kids and nature vs nurture.

    P, you totally encouraged and supported the cello thing. I seriously disagree with how you handled this with all of the commuting, travel, moving and money. And now after many years and tons of resources devoted to cello, you act like you are surprised this is what he wants. You’ve mentioned that your cello son has other interests (like clothes/shopping, video games, etc) and you were able to set up opportunities for that (I recall a photo shoot a few years back).

    I think there are other things where he could make more money that would be fulfilling for him. You could have pointed him in that direction by not funding the music extravagance. You need to own your role, but you want to fall back on “it’s just nature.”

    • Bailey
      Bailey says:

      Yes, cello = way to distance P and sons from her husband and failed marriage, no matter the cost

  4. J.E.
    J.E. says:

    The for profit college thing is a big red flag. Many are unaccredited and employers see that on a resume and pass it over. Look up anything on for profit colleges and you’ll see all the negative press they’ve been receiving lately. Several have been shut down.

    • LR
      LR says:

      I agree. Students in the trades are usually better off in a community college or on-the-job apprenticeship (when possible.)

      • Bos
        Bos says:

        One of the benefits of looking to a community college is right there in the first word: it’s connected to the community.

        I don’t work in the trades anymore, but I did once. I also had a nice professional career, later on. It seems to me there are two kinds of things one needs to learn, whether for trades or professions: the theory about how things are and work (which you can learn from books), and the practice of how things really are and work (which you need to learn from people). These fly-by-night diploma mills do a half-assed job of covering the first, and make no attempt whatsoever at the second. You come out with second-rate theory and no angles.

        When you consider a career in the trades, it’s not just about what you’re going to do, it’s about who you’re going to work with and where you’re going to work. The praxis is of relatively greater importance than with professional careers. You could even start with the who and where and pick up the what along the way.

        Stick with a community college, and keep one foot firmly in the community. In Boston, you could make a good living in the trades; just ask my carpenter.

  5. Bob
    Bob says:

    There are maybe 2000 orchestra positions in the country that arguably pay a living wage or better. Not many more than the NFL, which at least has turnover. “Bleak” doesn’t even come close to describing the outlook.

    • Bos
      Bos says:

      The career outlook for the NFL is better, because nobody in the NFL holds down one of those 2000 positions for seventy years.

      Spill a cup for Jane Little.

  6. Fatcat
    Fatcat says:

    I’ve got one kid who is graduating a traditional college next week, one who went straight to work and one who is thinking about an apprenticeship residential carpentry program. I personally have a traditional 4 year college degree and a trade school diploma that I had to get to actually make some money (and now I need to find something else to do!) My husband got an associates degree and it has been great for him.

  7. Lauren Teller
    Lauren Teller says:

    Cello boy: Julliard is the best so you’ve increased his chances for successs and happiness, again. Yea you
    Science boy: How can you best support him in attending swarthmore? Maybe you can save on room and board for a few years.

  8. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I told my sons that I wasn’t going to pay for college if they wanted to major in medieval art or any language or in literature — anything, really, that led to jobs that involve saying “do you want fries with that.”

    Maybe it’s my blue-collar upbringing shining through but I wanted my money to have a return on investment.

    My older son chose to study medical lab science, which I didn’t even know was a major but will lead to gainful employment in the medical lab industry so I was in.

    My youngest is going to four-year college in the fall to study computer science and mathematics, like his old dad. Brings a tear to my eye. But honestly, he could go to a code school and get employment far faster and cheaper. I remain on the fence about that one.

    • Bos
      Bos says:

      I’ve obviously had a different experience than you have seen in others; my graduate study of languages and literature was well-funded and lead immediately to very remunerative employment. I went to my PhD defense with a briefcase full of documents I was getting paid 75 bucks an hour just to read (they were not just in English).

      So I tell my kids that languages and literature are great things to study, especially the languages. My seventh-grader has a couple of years of Spanish under his belt, is doing great in Latin, and starts German next year. My son listens to me(!)

      I’m planning to pay for them to study whatever they want to study in college. I’m hoping it works out, but I know that some kids have an extended adolescence (into the late 20s), so who knows. I figure my daughter will have a dramatic journey full of reversals, and my son will fly straight as an arrow. But who knows? The future is the part we don’t know much about. Maybe it will turn out the other way around.

      College is all so exciting. I always loved new beginnings. I took classes at… nine different colleges. I hope my kids have lots of new beginnings so I can enjoy them vicariously. I should probably go back to school my own self, it’s so much fun.

      If you want to get your money’s worth, send your kids to university in Germany. They don’t even need to speak German, though it helps.

  9. Fed Up
    Fed Up says:

    What the f? Do as I say, not as I do. Don’t send your kid to college — but I’ve been prepping my son for Julliard since he was two. College is a waste of money — but my kids have had and continue to have so many tutors to ensure they ace the SATs. Sincerely, wtf?

    And God help kids who might read your posts — you just gave them permission (and have been doing do for years) to bypass college or better yet, just go get a degree from one of the bogus online schools.

    I am 100% confused. Will the real P – A, please stand up? Your words impact lives Penelope.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      I don’t take the blog literal. I take it as a collective of ideas about parenting, family, and education. The ideas presented are sometimes Independent of her and her kids personal choices. It’s about being informed and figuring it out alone way. We can’t predict the future and she can’t force her kids to not go to University although I suspect it is an expectation in her household since they are not interested in non-academic careers and are bright. Having a degree without a vision for that degree in some way, can and has been an enormous waste for an entire generation of career stunted individuals.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        “Having a degree without a vision for that degree in some way, can and has been an enormous waste for an entire generation of career stunted individuals.”

        Agree!!! However, I don’t agree with P’s suggestion or quasi-solution of Virginia College…akin to Trump University (?) and other now defunct “colleges”.

        Read a few weeks back about a new head of high school that resigned after student journalists uncovered she had a fake diploma…possibly from one of those diploma factories.

        • Bos
          Bos says:

          One of the saddest truths about college is that it’s not a very good system for providing upward mobility, but it’s an excellent system for preserving class privilege.

          Our host and other commenters have amply covered the idea that kids learn most of what they need outside of school, whether they go to school or not. School is typically incidental to their development. Is college a huge exception to this? In only a small percentage of cases.

          A major change in the use of education occurred during the twentieth century. As late as 1950, only 34 percent of the population had completed high school, but by 2000 more than 80 percent had. From the sixties through to the eighties only about half of the kids who completed high school went on to college, and that was only around 3/4 of kids. From the eighties to the end of the century, both percentages skyrocketed, until now around sixty percent of all Americans go to college at least briefly, double the previous rate.

          At the same time as the rate of Americans going to college has doubled, the readiness of those students has plummeted. Only about a quarter of high-school graduates meet ACT benchmarks in all four subjects, and a majority of college students now require remedial classes. Perhaps as a consequence, the majority of students attending college now never get a degree.

          I remember when I brought my son to his public kindergarten, the kids were all asked to wear a college tshirt to school on certain days, in celebration of the district’s theory that every single one of them should to to college. I reflected on how this game would play out: a majority of them would indeed end up at college, but a majority of those would drop out, and a substantial proportion of those who made it to the finish line would end up with expensive degrees that did them absolutely no good.

          Gone are the days when only a minority of kids went to college, but the colleges haven’t changed their function as quickly as we’ve changed policy. College still only works for a minority of kids (though now a majority attend), and it continues to work better at preserving existing class status than it does at creating a meritocracy through advancement. YMMV, and it will vary substantially depending on your family’s social capital.

          • jessica
            jessica says:

            It’s interesting to me. In the UK, people I have met generally do not believe in upward mobility. You are born either upper class or not. Within the lower classes it’s a take what you get mentality, through public programs. That’s just the way it is. Expectations are lowered and thus achievement is considered novel rather than encouraged. Personally, it’s quite stifling.

          • Bos
            Bos says:

            Jessica, one of the most interesting things about this cultural difference is that intergenerational mobility is not really much different between the UK and the US. Your neighbors in the UK have a clearer vision that we do. According to the EPI, intergenerational earnings correlation is 0.47 in the US and 0.50 in the UK. Compare that to 0.19 in Canada or 0.15 in Denmark – indicating more than three times the probability of intergenerational mobility as the US or UK. We’re a lot closer to Slovenia (0.54) or Chile (0.52) in terms of lack of class mobility.

            Our cultural myths are vastly different, but our social reality re intergenerational mobility is much the same. If you’re born poor, you’re very likely to stay poor, etc. This with the majority of kids going to college here shows that college is unlikely to change that by itself.

            I was pondering this matter in light of Jim Grey’s resolve to only pay for his kids to study a field he can see the financial benefit of. There’s an extra way that advice makes sense, which is that no matter what your kids do in college, once they’re out they’re likely to rely on your family’s social capital to move along again afterwards. If they’ve studied something far out of your experience, you won’t be able to add much to their degree, but if their college degree is in your realm (say, you’re an engineer and they studied engineering), they’ll more likely be able to combine their degree with your family’s social capital – relevant advice, experience, and contacts – to make a successful go of it.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            It’s very depressing to read how difficult it is to move up. There are outliers who are very inspiring, usually some scientific genius, but they came from humble beginnings and moved up several classes. From bartering to our monetary system things haven’t changed much, have they? This is where the discussion for a living wage becomes relevant.

      • Holland L Webb
        Holland L Webb says:

        “Having a degree without a vision for that degree in some way, can and has been an enormous waste for an entire generation of career stunted individuals.”

        This. I really like this. The choice is not between liberal arts college or community college with one always being a good choice and the other always a poor one. Any college may be a good choice provided the student has a vision for the degree.

        I actually had my mother read this article because it’s what she tried to tell me nearly 25 years ago. That was when “do what you love and the money will follow” and “you have to go to college to get a decent job” were the dominant mantras. I listened to them. I wish I hadn’t. It’s not that I should have been a welder or plumber (I shouldn’t), but I could have taken a major or a graduate degree that offered a key to the door of a vocation. Instead, I find myself among the “career stunted,” with a couple of interesting but ultimately unsatisfying majors. I say unsatisfying since they didn’t open a door into one of the most satisfying components of adult life–a valuable and interesting career.

        Whatever your choice for post-secondary education, have a vision for that choice. Yeah, I like that.

  10. Cate
    Cate says:

    Interesting post. I was an English major at a liberal arts college. I work in my field in industry and make approx 83k/year. I love my work.

    It was a roundabout way of getting to this job – I worked for a temp agency immediately after college and was hired in to a company doing logistics work. I learned a lot there about how companies work and also, importantly, accounting. A great education that has helped me to this day (also, the need to support salespeople in your company – no sales, no company!).

    I still think “do what you love” is good advice, because when we do what we love, our brain is fully engaged. We may not end up working in “what we love” but it will develop our talents and brain, which we can then put to use to make ourselves some money if we are also open to opportunity – and there is luck.

  11. Cheryl
    Cheryl says:

    After homeschooling for 20 years and I still have 7-8 to go…. My experience has been this: Parents worry TOO much about the future for their kids. So much energy is going into worrying about things that could/haven’t/should happen it is totally bypassing what is right in front of them NOW – the child(ren) and who they are TODAY.

    Setting the example of “overwhelm and stress” as an adult is setting children up to experience their own adulthoods in the same manner. Yes, as adults we have to maneuver so many struggles in life – because well….it is LIFE. But we have the ability to choose what we want in our lives – and if you don’t believe that then I am sorry for you. Because you do. Hard choices sometimes? Yes. Painful to make the shift? Yes. Sacrifice and loss? Yes. Life is meant to live and thrive right in the present – not some far off time or future situation that might/might not happen.

    Give your kids choices. Give them good food. Give them a clean bed to sleep in and a few sets of clothes that they can take care of and feel good in. Listen to classical music on You Tube and be choosy about what they watch and listen to. What goes into their brains. What you say…..what you do.

    I understand all the research and constant noise on how to be a better parent. How to strategize your moves to get your child the “best” of education, opportunity, etc. Ask yourself this though: Are these people happy?? Like truly happy? Are they able to relax at the end of the day and just “be”. Are they able to truly read to their children without picking up their phone and checking the status of every social media site or email that comes through every 3 minutes? Are they able to actually wind-down themselves so they get the deep sleep they need to be able to function in their own lives and do it well? Feel together? Feel grounded and mindful in what they choose to do everyday?

    Penelope is not feeling grounded and mindful. She is not standing still and feeling confident in herself or what she is doing. She is a person who started homeschooling and is trying to analyze every single moment/movement in every area of her kids lives. I applaud her for and love her for her devotion as a mother to “do the BEST” for her children – but not at the expense of herself. People can only go so far so fast for so long. We all inherently know this. Her garden? That was her way – in her brain – to shut down the noise in her life. That was HERS. Her way of making sense of a life/situation that was pretty crazy to be in (because I know all about the dynamics of a toxic relationship and the abuse that goes along with it from my own experiences).

    I think she needed to move….but maybe not to the city. Maybe to her own little farm that she and her boys could manage. Somewhere that was still close enough to enjoy all the cultural and opportunities bigger cities/towns can bring into your life. I grew up in the country in Kansas…. it didn’t stop me from experiencing life and gave me so much more practical life lessons that I have used and built on in my adult life. Looking back, I don’t think I ever had “less” of an opportunity than children that grew up in the city with everything right at their doorstep.

    A person can run all the numbers, research the hell out of the “best” careers and the $$ potential – but in the end that is just what it truly amounts to is POTENTIAL. I know many, many people that have miles of exquisite credentials behind their names and they have absolutely NOTHING – NOTHING when it comes to relationships that are healthy, a place they call home that is inviting and is their “safe place” from the world. They don’t know how to cook or even do laundry. I mean seriously, these are the things that matter in life. Being able to have basic foundational living skills and the resourcefulness that it takes to get back up when you get knocked down. THESE are the things that matter and if you are a parent and out chasing your own dreams and worrying so much about a math course for your kid that will “look good” on their university application – slow it down and make some good food with them. Eat slow. Listen to some beautiful music and watch the sun go down together. BE PRESENT and have confidence that life will work out the way it works out and that it will be GOOD. The constant doubt and anxiety that Penelope exhibits through her writing is her way of dealing with it – getting it out of her head. But I always wonder the “why” of it being in her head in the first place….why is she so worried about all these minute details that she is trying her best to control and running her mental, physical and emotional self into the ground. You can medicate all you want – but the truth is that it is killing your liver, blurring your brain and giving you a very out-of-focus view of reality. People don’t have to exist like this and neither do our children, but we have to be mindful about our priorities for them because we are teaching them WAAAAAY more than a text book or tutor could about life. And another thing – don’t pay for your child’s university. Seriously. If they want to go – then they will find a way and honestly, it is the best gift you could ever give them. Be the parent and be the parent who gives the gift of real life and the skills to live it in THRIVE mode – no matter what the circumstance.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      I liked one commenters’ idea about P renting/borrowing/buying a house in Swarthmore and gardening there with some home-like-roots. It makes a lot of sense and would move her along a bit smoother, I think.
      Not sure what’s up with the farmer. That is very unclear to me.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thank you for this comment. So much insight. Also, I love when parents who have been through homeschooling til the kid is out of the house — when those parents stand back and tell me to relax. It’s the only admonition to relax that I pay heed to…. if any.


  12. inthetrunk
    inthetrunk says:

    Check out Western Governors University. An accredited online school. It is limited to four disciplines: teaching, nursing, business, and IT. In other words, it’s directed toward filling real jobs.

  13. Bleh
    Bleh says:

    This blog (and the career blog) has become one part “You are not special. You want the same things as everyone else. You should face up to this reality and do xxx” and another part “I, however, am special. And so are my kids. So we’re going to do yyy instead.”

  14. Caroline
    Caroline says:

    My daughter has been unschooled through middle and now high school. I’m no fan of the typical academic path, especially the debt-college path (which is a concern for her). She wants to go to college for theater and music because she believes she needs an elite school experience with solid training on a professional actor’s resume. She says she has looked at the backgrounds of many actors and they either have connections (we lack this) and/or they went to very prestigous schools. Is anyone else experiencing? If so what are you thinking and doing in response?

  15. Ashton Osbourne
    Ashton Osbourne says:

    On some points mentioned above, I can agree that the nontraditional is now the traditional. But I still believe that schooling is a way to boost our kids as they enter the world of working class. This is more important if our kids are aiming for specialized career paths. It can give them the tools they need as well as the know how to make it easier for them to do their job in the future.

    • Ashton Osbourne
      Ashton Osbourne says:

      In addition to this, I also agree with you that there are options we can take like looking for vocational schools and inexpensive schools if our kids are planning to go with the academic path.

      What is important is to research on it and check your household’s budget, or check for a good scholarship opportunity for them.

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