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A University of Oregon Student studies in the Lokey Science Complex on campus. (Marissa Willke/Emerald)

College. The educational institution that American culture has painted as the ultimate promised land for all students. Except, it’s not. The mindset that college is the only path to success is not only wrong, it’s damaging. College can be wanted, or even needed, for certain skill sets, but there are other directions that can be just as rewarding. Considering how COVID-19 has restructured the college experience, now is the ideal time to evaluate if college is the right step.

I was only in the fifth grade the first time I was introduced to potential universities. My teacher lectured about the characteristics colleges sought in potential candidates and how, going forward, my fellow 10-year-olds and I could check off those boxes. From an early age, children across the U.S. are introduced to the mindset that college is the only place where success is sure to follow.

A New York Times article showcased just how young the new wave of college potentials is. 6-year-old Elizabeth Mangan was attending Johnsonville Elementary School in North Carolina when a Times reporter asked what college was. Elizabeth responded, “It’s someplace where you go to get your career.” When college is presented as the gateway to success in the early and formative years of our lives, that path will begin to morph into the only path. The idea of success quickly becomes dependent on college. All other avenues are shut down from the very beginning.

And as much as universities like flaunting their post-graduate employment rates, there is not, and never will be, a guarantee that a well-paying, enjoyable job is waiting for you. In fact, a 2020 New York Federal Reserve Bank report stated that recent “college graduates — those aged 22 to 27 with at least a bachelor’s degree — have a higher unemployment rate than the general public.”

While I do think it’s a good idea to introduce the idea and benefits of college at an early stage, I strongly believe that other optionsshould be showcased as well. Schools should talk about apprenticeships, trade schools, entrepreneurship, volunteering and community or junior college just as much as they talk about four-year universities. When alternatives are positively displayed it allows for individuals to focus on what interests them and for the restructuring of success, making passion and enthusiasm the driving forces behind decision making.

I’m not “anti-college,” nor is my goal to persuade other college students to drop out. I’m attending the University of Oregon for a reason. The classes I’m taking and the technical skills I’m learning will benefit me and my future. What I’m trying to say is just because college was the right fit for me, it doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for everyone — and that’s okay. Any path that will get you from point A to point B should and needs to be talked about and encouraged. Because, ultimately, it’s not our paths that define us — it’s what we do on our paths that mold who we are and how our future will turn out.