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For some, college not in the cards

BY NORA HEATON | NOVEMBER 12, 2010 7:20 AM

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It took Jessica-Leigh Arends six years to almost finish her degree.

She started in 2004 in the communication-studies program, hopped to Bachelor of Liberal Studies, then landed a job without finishing her degree. She is now working full-time as the sales and events coordinator at the Clarion Inn Wasserbahn Waterpark Resort in the Amana Colonies. And now, she said, she couldn't be happier.

"I kind of went to school because that's what you do after high school — it was just what you did," she said. "I went to class but I didn't have a sound idea of what I wanted to do."

Several other students echoed that feeling — college is what people do after high school.

And that's a common problem, said California-based career counselor Marty Nemko, who believes not all graduating high-school seniors need to look at college.

"Some kids are just not academically oriented," Nemko said. "They need to be out learning with their hands and in the real world. To force those kids to go to college has just ironically the opposite effect."

But college attendance and completion has taken center stage in recent years, and President Obama has called for the United States to once again have the most college graduates in the world by 2020. University of Iowa officials have set increasing retention goals.

Area high schools work to advise students with wandering career interests as well as those with solidified paths. City High guidance counselor Eric Peterson said that while the department recognizes a higher education is important, counselors strive to set students up to meet those knowledgeable in their aspiring career field, be it medicine or carpentry.

And at the UI, Registrar Larry Lockwood said, counselors put retention desires aside when advising students.

Oftentimes, students are advised to go to or stay at a four-year institution.

That is, if it's necessary.

A back drop to the dream

Like many soon-to-be college graduates, UI senior Landen Boyer's plans are, he said, a "mystery."
Boyer plays guitar and sings for a local pop-punk band BackDrop — and despite his double major in marketing and management, music is the dream.

But he always knew he'd attend college, he said.

"I don't know how I would have been able to say I wasn't going [to my parents]," he said. "It wasn't even in my mind. It was just what you were doing after high school."

But midway through school, the band members started to waver in their focus.

"We thought, 'We can always go back to school, just put it on hold and hit this up,' " he said. "But I've seen so many musicians do that. Most of the time nothing happens, they blow some money, have some fun, and most don't go back."

They all stayed, and Boyer said he doesn't regret his decision. He said he knows a degree is an important safety net — even if he hopes he never has to use it.

It worked for Johnny Depp

"Johnny Depp never went to college," said UI freshman Carlyle DePriest, an aspiring actor. "Some people are lucky enough to get that break."

But before she chases her big break, she is chasing an education not directly required for her career goal as an actress.

"Part of me really wants to take a gap year," she said. "But being here really shows that we wanted to master that art. And my parents said education is where everything starts."

It's certainly the start to a higher paycheck, said UI economics Associate Professor John Solow. But he noted that the security comes at a cost — not only do college students pay the usual tuition and fees, but they also pay the cost of likely not working full-time for four or more years.

Still, waiting for a degree will likely pay off in the end — if not in money, in the simple commodity of being employed, which is difficult enough, Nemko said.

"I like to say, a college degree is merely a hunting license for a job, not a guarantee," he said. "It guarantees a shot at getting a job."

Pedal to Success

"I want to have the same standard of lifestyle my parents have," UI sophomore Ryan TeGrootenhuis said. "But my motivation for going to school is to get my Harley Davidson."

He has worked seasonally at the Lisle, Ill., Harley Davidson for four and half years and aspires to own his own motorcycle business one day. He said he doesn't believe a college education defines a person's intelligence and initially didn't want to come to the UI.

He went to school because it was expected.

"The guys at Harley Davidson — they might not have the credentials to say that they're smart, but they've got good heads on their shoulders," he said. "[Those credentials] are important, but they don't represent the whole person. You can say I have a major in this, a triple minor in that, but they might not have the street smarts."

But TeGrootenhuis is turning over a new leaf along with C-clamps and box wrenches. He is switching his major from business to mechanical engineering — which he calls "a stretch and a half" — and throwing his focus back into school, where, he said, it belongs.

Even Arends, armed with her $29,000 per year hotel job, said she has every intention of going back to the UI to finish school. And she has hopes to attend Kirkwood Community College for a supplementary associate's degree in hotel management. But she voices her plans with a certain reluctance.

"I have to go back and learn something that doesn't apply to my life," she said. "I understand the importance of a college education, but ..." She trailed off.

"I just feel like I wasted a lot of time and money at the university," she said. "And that's my own fault."


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