It’s time to clear up a certain myth about teens that seems to be cropping up a lot lately. The myth is that all teens go on to be college students, and then college graduates. It’s a common assumption among marketers and advertisers that teens aspire to attend college, and if you want to reach 18 and 19 year olds, you’ll find them on college campuses. Even a recent article in The New York Times suggests that a college degree is the new high school diploma, noting “so many people are going to college now.”
While it is true that Millennials are the most educated generation in American history, many people are astonished to learn that people with college degrees are still a significant minority.
Let’s start at the beginning: a recently released study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 96% of female high school seniors and 90% of male high school seniors wanted to go to college as of 2004. That’s certainly the vast majority of seniors, although already 1 in 10 guys have no interest in attaining a college education.
But when push comes to shove, only 55% of 18-24 year olds are actually enrolled in college or have earned a degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey. The remaining 45% aren’t in college for a variety of reasons — from being unable to afford tuition, to choosing to enter the workforce, to failing to complete high school (16% of 18-24 year olds haven’t earned a high school diploma).
And, of course, enrolling in college doesn’t mean they’ll graduate. In fact, only 32% of 25-34 year olds held a college degree in 2011, including 28% of men and 36% of women that age.
So why is it that so many high schoolers want to go to college but so few end up with degrees? One factor for their wanting to attend college is a cultural mindset that values education over other skills. Their parents encourage them to go to college. In addition, the high school educational system is designed to groom students for college; they’re encouraged early on to think about their post-secondary education and reminded that their high school grades matter to get into a good school. It’s assumed they’re going to college. However, when they graduate and enter the “real world,” they realize that other career paths are open to them, which some choose (and some are forced by circumstances) to explore.
With the Millennial spirit of entrepreneurialism, today’s teens may be even more likely than their parents’ generation to consider alternative careers, forgoing college or dropping out to found their own companies or turn a part-time job or hobby into a business. Today’s teens can name any number of personal heroes who have launched their careers from a young age and without degrees, including Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Tavi Gevinson, and any number of reality TV stars. Moreover, as digital natives at ease online, it’s never been easier to start a business, get noticed, or get funding, even as a teen.