My advice to my children about college sounds nothing like my parents’ advice to me

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  • The average worker will have 12.4 jobs in their career, which means it’s important to build skills.
  • I tell my kids to think about what they want their future lifestyles to be and think about what it will cost.
  • I remind them that the cost of an education is an investment, and it’s not automatically the best one.

I always assumed I would go to college. In my home, the question wasn’t if you went to college, just where. This cultural paradigm was the norm among my peers as well. We were raised by baby boomer parents who had full confidence that if you got a degree — any degree — you’d have a secure, well-paying job and that it would be worth the cost.

While I know that the urging to attend a university came from a place of love and concern for my future (and I don’t regret graduating from college), the educational advice I give to my children will be very different from the advice my parents gave to me. The long-term cost of student loans and the question of what kinds of lives my children want will affect what I think they should do.

A large part of the discrepancy between my advice and my parents’ comes from the recent tectonic shift in the college landscape. Inflation has risen by 890% since 1963, but skyrocketing costs are just one piece of the puzzle.

Online programs, rising demand for skilled trade workers, and a glut of bachelor and professional degrees have made me reconsider the “degree at all costs” mantra. In light of these changes, here is the educational advice I am giving to my children.

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1. Build your skillset

Starting in early childhood, teachers, friends, and family ask children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I chuckle when I hear this question now. It assumes that it is normal to choose a single career path or job and stick to it for most of your working years. The data show that this is the exception, not the rule.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that over a 39-year span, workers change jobs an average of 12.4 times. An Indeed survey reported that 49% of workers have switched to an entirely new career.

Knowing that my children likely won’t be in a single field for their entire lives, I advise them to focus on building a set of marketable, in-demand skills rather than preparing for a single career path.

Capabilities like coding, customer service, digital marketing, operating heavy machinery, and bookkeeping aren’t necessarily related to a single job. But having a myriad of diverse skills protects you in the event of a layoff, job displacement from technological advancements, and economic downturns. They also give you options if you decide to change fields later on.

2. Consider your lifestyle

I thought precious little about what I planned to do with my linguistics degree. All I knew was that the degree was the key. I thought about teaching ESL or getting my Ph.D. and becoming a professor, but I never bothered to look up how much either of those professions made.

As my teenagers consider future jobs, I talk with them about how much they can expect to make at each one and what kind of lifestyle it will produce. This cuts against some of my cultural grain — aren’t you supposed to go into a career fueled by your passion, not just for the money?

Most of our dreams cost money. We feel great when we talk about our life goals but dirty when we talk about the money to achieve them. Like it or not, money is a big part of choosing a career. I want my kids to go into the workforce with eyes wide open about where their job will allow them to live, how often they can go out to eat, whether they can vacation once a year, and more.

3. Know the cost — in dollars and opportunity

Every investment comes at an opportunity cost — your money cannot be invested in more than one asset at a time. However, we rarely think about this when it comes to education.

The fact that degree-earners outearn their non-degree counterparts is well known. But many of these statistics look only at wages and don’t factor in the cost of student loans (which can eat into earnings for years to come) or the money non-students make while their counterparts attend school, all of which contributes to the return on investment for a degree.

Data published by the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity reveals that not all degrees produce a positive return on investment. In fact, students in 7% of college majors would be better off financially if they had skipped college and gone straight into the workforce.

I tell my children that they don’t necessarily need college to have a career — but they do need an education and a plan. And while I may have a smug smile as I impart revised educational wisdom to my kids, it will be wiped off my face in a few years as I listen to the updated advice they give to their children.