Vail Daily columnist Warren Miller: Are you ready for college?
Vail, CO, Colorado
There comes a time in every family when their oldest child is getting ready to graduate from high school and college is looming on the horizon, costing anywhere from $100,000 to half a million dollars. Dad had better have been saving that money for a long time.
Is college worth it? I don’t know, but my goal was to get my three kids through college while I was on the road making and showing ski movies.
My high school graduation was 60 days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and 10 months before I reached the draft age of 18.
It was very different in those days. Most people went to college if they needed a license to practice their chosen profession – doctors, lawyers, teachers, pharmacists, engineers, professions such as that.
Now it is thought that young people must go to college to get their proper start, although it’s too bad that the draft doesn’t still exist for girls and boys. After a couple of years of strong discipline, college would have so much more value to them and they wouldn’t waste their parents money as so many of them do, partying and then dropping out.
There are thousands of professions out there today that don’t require college. When kids get into high school, many parents start pushing them to make a choice that they will have to live with their entire life.
I personally think it is wrong to start heading kids to make those decisions so early. They will get out of college owing a lot of money, and would those four years be better spent doing something they really want to do? Maybe turn that smooth ski ability into a lifetime at a ski resort teaching students all about freedom and changing their lives.
Do you want your kids to achieve a big bank balance first and live a good life second, or should it be the other way around? My wife, Laurie, and I listened to a university president almost a decade ago tell us that kids today would have between four and seven careers, four of which haven’t even been invented yet.
How can they know what they are really good at, let alone want to do, unless they get out in the world for awhile?
In some ways I was lucky because I did not have a choice. The Navy played a big part in my growing up. And my mother, wanting me to be socially acceptable, said, “You are going to go to college whether you like it or not.”
My high school grades were barely good enough to allow me to graduate. My grandmother paid my tuition until the Navy took me over in its V-12 program and it was a free ride.
I did not have the slightest idea what I would do when college was over, but the Navy made my decisions for four years, and I never did major in any particular thing.
After I registered for the draft at 18, enlisted in the Navy and then got called to active duty, school was a lot more important to me. I had to do well so I did not get kicked out of the officers training program and sent to boot camp in San Diego.
In 1943, when war was really raging in Europe and the Pacific, I really studied hard.
Looking back, I really enjoyed the sciences, and most of my choices of courses involved them. In my astrophysics courses, for example, we were taught the formula for the escape velocity of a rocket from the pull of gravity. Once we learned it and passed a test, our professor told us we could forget the formula because in our lifetime nothing would ever escape the pull of earth’s gravity. How wrong he was.
My art teacher told me one day, “Quit drawing all of those cartoons on the corners of your drawing paper because you can never make a living drawing cartoons.” He thought he was right, but I have had a lifetime of fun drawing them and self-published 11 books in my life in which cartoons were a supplement to my story. I tried to tell him to look at Disney, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
Was it a good deal for me to go to college? In my case, it was almost $200 a semester and that was for as many as 16 units. (General wages in 1943 were about 25 cents an hour.) But I would never have survived as long as I did if I hadn’t had the discipline and real-life experiences of the Navy.
I went back to college after the war ended, but I never did graduate. I just couldn’t see the point.
Parents are going to hate me, but I hope they’ll listen closely to my thinking about sending kids to college before they are mature enough to get anything out of it. My recommendation in today’s world is still the same.
If you are going into a job that requires a state license, then you have to have the degree, but learn enough about life to know for sure that is what you’ll be good at and it will fulfill you.
If you have not yet decided what you want to do for a living when you grow up, spend the same four years traveling and learning to be an adult. Go to North Dakota and earn $100,000 a year with no experience as a laborer in the fracking oil fields; go to Hawaii for a year or two and learn how to surf and work in the hospitality world over there (nothing lets you see reality quicker than working to please other people); serve your country in the military; or get a job in a ski resort. Maybe one of those will fit your psyche.
The world is definitely a different place than when your parents went off to college. It is your life, and as long as you can support your life in an honest manner, it is time to start making life-changing decisions such as college and which one you will go to when you are ready. Up to you.
Are you choosing it because of the potential income, the girls, the boys, the parties or the proximity to the beach or where you would rather be living?
Whatever decision you make, make sure that you are so excited about it that you can hardly sleep because you want to be up and out of bed and going for it every day.
My three kids chose professions before they chose a college. Two of them are self-supporting still and movie photographers, and the other is a very good sales and marketing guy. All professions they learned in college, but all three would have benefited greatly by having to face reality much earlier in life.
Your background will probably make your decision for you, but make sure it is right for you because part of what you learn, either going to or not going to college, you will be doing for about 50 years.
What I did with my three years of college is not for everyone, but I’ll stress again, thank heaven I had the Navy to shape me up. I was a lousy employee until I had that experience – so lousy, it was pretty clear I’d better look for something where I could work for myself.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto warrenmiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, visit
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