President Obama has set a national goal for the United States to have the world's highest college graduation rate by the end of the decade. A key component of the initiative is providing academically gifted but disadvantaged kids with opportunities. But an underlying assumption of the program is that a four-year school should be automatic for every student—even those who aren't interested or may not be right for it. "Some kids just aren't college material," says Joe Lamacchia. He doesn't mean that as a put-down: Lamacchia is a landscaper and the voice of Blue Collar and Proud of It (HCI), a book and website celebrating the rewards of working in a trade. He has become a spokesperson for the blue-collar grassroots movement. "We're not all cut out for sitting at a desk, whether it's in a classroom or a cubicle," he says. "Individuals like me are driven to move and build and create." Society needs people to call when cars break down or roads are full of potholes or faucets are leaking—services that are necessary even during an economic downturn. In fact, many of these jobs are recession-proof. "There are ways to make a good living without a bachelor's degree," Lamacchia says, "but people are told the only way to succeed is by going to college. I once met a mom whose son was always fixing things and taking doors off hinges. He built a workshop in the basement. Is four more years in class the only option for a kid like that?"
For a smarter approach, ask your teen if he knows what he wants to do, then brainstorm potential career paths. "A teen's future should be tailor-made to his talents, likes and dislikes, and financial situation," Vedder says. For example, if a kid wants to be a hairstylist or chef, a trade school or two-year program may be a good choice. "Culinary classes are very popular at community colleges," Vedder says. And getting on-the-job training as a line cook or in some other trade can jump-start a career while providing valuable "real world" experience, which students exiting a four-year college bubble might lack.
Even if your teen's dream of being an artist or musician doesn't pan out, school as an option won't suddenly disappear. And a person who enrolls a few years later with a sense of purpose and an idea of what to study as a foundation for a meaningful career is likely to be better off than someone who discovered college wasn't the right choice—at the unfortunate expense of thousands and thousands of debt dollars.