What Preschool Can Teach Us About Choice and Opportunity
There is a pantheon of sitcom cliches that, no matter how many times they’ve been done before, always turn up in new ones. Among the repeat offenders: outrageously stressful wedding planning, pregnancy and baby delivery hi-jinks, new parents shopping for the “perfect” preschool, arguments over dolls vs footballs, and how these early childhood influences will determine the baby’s entire future from school choice to occupation and social status.
The sad reality is that the last two of these absurd situations have a kernel of truth. Does getting into the right preschool really determine whether a given child will go to the best university? Probably not; but when everything from friend groups to hobbies can factor into college admissions — and attending college can determine future career opportunities and professional networks — it is easy to see how major decisions can blur into the web of minor decisions surrounding a child’s future.
Early Childhood Competition
Everything concerning kids in America has gotten more competitive, starting early in their lives. Competition for better-paying (and future-proof) careers leads to more intense competition for any professional advantage at school. Getting into the best schools (by any of a number of definitions of “best”) heaps more pressure on kids while they are still in high school. From participating in sports to getting into AP classes, high school today eschews recreation in favor of workaholism and manicured student resumes.
Altogether, life for modern kids looks less like a series of choices and opportunities, and more like a long line of dominoes, set up and and sent cascading over within weeks of their birth, if not before. How can parents possibly hope to line them up just right for success and happiness?
But the problem isn’t just the hyper-competitive atmosphere surrounding the university system, and all the inputs considered in admitting or rejecting students; it is the preoccupation with the importance of college education in the first place.
When it comes to preparing children for the challenges and opportunities of adulthood, part of the messaging we need to fix — and soon — is the idea of ”college above all others”. Tuition prices have exploded in part because demand has exploded. Even historically mid-range schools face a demand beyond their capacity. For-profit schools have had lucrative success in taking advantage of this gold-rush mentality toward degrees, even as their students fail to graduate and default on their student loans in droves. More than a third of all defaults can be attributed to students from for-profit schools, even though they are just 26 percent of borrowers.
Trading School for Something That Works
The most common jobs in America today are retailers, cashiers, and fast-food workers. None of these requires any advanced education. Even filtering opportunity in terms of careers which require some minimum of post-secondary schooling and licensure, there are nearly as many truck drivers as there are nurses. If that comparison seems inappropriate, consider that trucking can be as essential to providing healthcare as nursing: nurses can hardly hope to treat a patient if they lack the necessary supplies and equipment on which they rely.
Trucking actually exemplifies the disconnect we, as a nation, have between the pressure we put on our youth to get educated, and the limitations we construct around how they “contribute” to our collective wealth and well-being. Without truck drivers, there is no clean water, no medicine, no food, and no consumer goods for a vast majority of Americans. But the career path into trucking — as with most skilled trades — takes people somewhere outside the world of universities and degrees.
The same impact trucking has, collectively, can be attributed to electricians, plumbers, and other skilled trades on which the modern world relies, yet bestows no particular social capital. Without electricians, all the gizmos and apps of Apple and Google, two of the world’s wealthiest corporations, would be useless. Without plumbing, our entire healthcare industry would be less preoccupied with inventing the next miracle pill or pushing the boundaries of surgical medicine than it would be with mitigating disease spread by poor sanitation. We are not so insulated from these alternatives as the popular imagination would assume; just ask the folks in Flint, Michigan whether plumbing is a worthwhile vocation.
The Value of Education
None of this disputes the intrinsic value of education, or the importance of giving students opportunity by expanding their access to learning. Rather, it points out how we’ve undermined our own drive to provide kids with the best chance in life by undervaluing the careers, and educational pathways, they might well follow to find their own form of success.
Trade school isn’t just a viable option, it can be downright lucrative, as well as rewarding, secure, and meaningful. But, as with all other things, planting that idea means having the conversation earlier, and undoing the damage of generations of parents and professionals marginalizing the trades that keep America running. Universities aren’t a solution to any of America’s challenges. They are merely one of a spectrum of options people face in deciding where they want to make their mark on the world, contribute to the maintenance and advancement of society, and find both purpose and acceptance among their peers.
The more parents encourage their kids to see the alternatives to college as equally worthy, the more the national conversation will pivot away from how we can give kids a leg up on the competition. At a time when our nation’s youth could feasibly have more options to learn, create, and work than at any time in history, it is absurd that they should be under such extreme pressure to conform to the parameters of a few selective universities.
The old sitcom trope of shopping for a prestigious preschool needs to die — not just for the sake of television comedy, but to reflect a society that celebrates the diversity it already possesses.