Q: Our 18-year-old son made only slightly better than average grades in high school and finished in the top half of his graduating class. He could have done better, but has a history of underachievement which we explain as boredom. He managed to get into a second-tier state college, but has decided after one semester (and as one might expect, mediocre grades) that he doesn’t want to go back. In fact, he’s telling us that he doesn’t want to go to college at all. Instead, he wants to become a diesel mechanic. Needless to say, we’re very disappointed, but also conflicted. His father is in favor of this new plan, but I’m inclined to tell him that we’ll pay for college only and that he is going to have to figure out how to pay for anything else. What are your thoughts on this?
A: I don’t quite understand why you preface your disappointment with "needless to say." Disappointment at the prospect of having a son who is earning a decent living by fixing diesel engines is not the inescapable or default response. And as for telling him that he’s going to have to pay for anything other than college himself, well, I suspect you may be letting pride get in the way of clear thinking. In my estimation, you should be celebrating.
For one thing, if you do decide to support his plan — which I encourage — you’ll be saving yourselves a significant amount of money. Second, given your son’s academic history, the strong possibility exists that he might graduate from college with a degree that would be difficult to market. For that very reason, lots of young people with college degrees are working at jobs that require no more than a high school education. Third, there’s nothing shameful about being a mechanic, and whereas gasoline engines may not be the automotive standard in 10 years, diesels are going to be around for quite some time.
All in all, I think your son has made a good decision. Let’s face it, college is not for everyone — a fact that seems to escape many parents and high school counselors. The world is always going to need plumbers, electricians, mechanics, carpenters, brick-masons, tailors and so on. When I was in high school, counselors had no problem telling certain kids they weren’t college material and helping them explore and find career paths that didn’t involve lots of academics. I take it that it’s politically incorrect to tell that to a high school student today, which goes a long way toward explaining (a) the dramatic rise in college tuitions, (b) the number of young people who graduate college with degrees that are virtually useless, and (c) the ubiquitous college-loan debt and debt-default problem.
Your question intrigued me, so I did some looking into the mechanics, pun intended, of becoming a diesel mechanic. There seem to be three tracks that all lead to that end. Many community colleges offer associate degrees in diesel mechanics, after which further specialized education is usually needed. Then there are technical institutes that do nothing but train diesel mechanics. Finally, there’s the military, where a young person can acquire at least the fundamentals of diesel engines and be paid for doing so.
I realize that you’d rather tell people that your son is a pre-med major, but it sounds to me like he’s given this a good amount of thought. What remains is deciding exactly how he’s going to obtain the necessary education and training. Please, support him. And take the money you’re going to be saving over the next four years or so and see the world. Like I said, celebrate.