Why One Student Believes High School Should Focus on Real-Life Skills Instead of College Prep

I think the United States is coming to a real reckoning over the way that, for the past four or five decades, we have pushed college degrees on every single person who matriculates from high school. Even as the internet has broadened what’s possible as far as potential careers and sources of income, high school students continue to be made to feel as if college is the only “worthy” destination post-high school graduation.

This person agrees, and thinks that while some students need to attend University and will thrive there, plenty of other kids will graduate and wish they knew how to do things like file their taxes or pay their bills, because college isn’t in their future.

CMV: High school should prepare students to become responsible adults, rather than focusing on college prep

I realize this has probably been done to death, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Also, a couple of disclaimers. I’m coming from a US perspective, so I apologize if any terms or concepts don’t correlate to other cultures. And, I graduated from high school ten years ago, so it could be that high school curriculum has changed since then.

I understand why schools focus so much on college prep. In the US, college is treated as a requirement, despite the fact that a huge number of people never get a college degree. So many jobs that pay a living wage have the luxury to require a bachelor’s degree due to the sheer number of applicants, even when the position really doesn’t require any advanced education. They can afford to be picky, if only to reduce the applicants to a manageable number. So parents know that for their child to achieve a financially comfortable life, they need to get a college degree. Parents vote for educational leaders who will implement policies aligned with that goal.

And when I say college prep, I’m talking about the more specialized classes we take in high school, like chemistry, biology, college algebra, and basically all the AP courses. Of course all of those teach valuable skills that apply to multiple areas in life; I’m not trying to say that these classes aren’t valuable. Consider biology for example. There are many aspects of biology that are relevant to the average citizen, things like overall health awareness, understanding common medical procedures like vaccines, how diseases work and how they spread. The only reason I remember dissecting frogs is because I hated it, and I didn’t really learn anything meaningful from it other than the haunting image of what a dissected frog looks like. I suppose you could say it helped me understand how life forms in general work, like how things have organs and blood vessels and system and such. I just find myself questioning the importance of knowledge like that, when there are other things I needed to know that were not taught to me.

When I think back to when I graduated high school ten years ago, I realize that I knew basically nothing about how to be a functioning member of society. School taught me about all of these advanced, college-level topics, but I didn’t know a single goddamn thing about the following:

  • That I had to pay taxes. I’m serious. I didn’t pay my 2012 taxes because I didn’t know I was supposed to. (I was part time minimum wage so don’t worry, I don’t think the IRS cares. It would have been a refund anyway, so technically I saved the government money)
  • How to calculate my tax bracket. I had to learn this myself when I was self employed in 2016, and I ended up miscalculating and was $3k short in my self-withheld tax savings. I also didn’t know that self employment tax had to be paid quarterly rather than annually, so I had to pay a nice fee for that.
  • How to send a letter. My first landlord actually taught me because that’s how he wanted me to send rent checks.
  • How to budget effectively. I spent my first few years of employment paycheck to paycheck, sometimes being completely out of money days before my next paycheck, when I could have been saving money if I had a budget.
  • How to maximize my savings, things like tax-advantaged accounts, investing, stocks
  • How to build and maintain good credit
  • How to build a resume. I actually learned this in my last year of college, everyone in the class had no idea.
  • How to apply for jobs effectively, tailoring the resume and application to the position, nailing the interview, etc.
  • How to get involved with the local community, townhall meetings, council meetings, boards and commissions, nextdoor, local news, etc.
  • The importance of being politically involved and voting in both local and federal elections. I voted for the first time in 2018, before that I just never cared about politics because I didn’t keep up with the news at all.
  • Almost anything related to the law other than really simple things like don’t attack people, or driving laws (which I didn’t learn in school, technically). I didn’t know anything about labor laws, local codes and ordinances, residential laws, my rights when interacting with the police, etc.
  • How the government works, which branches are responsible for what, which elected official have the power to make what changes, etc.
  • Almost everything related to the home. Maintaining the systems and foundation, utilities, how and when to buy a house, etc.

I don’t think I’m the only one who graduated high school without the above knowledge. But now, as a 28 year old adult, I don’t know how I could function without knowing those things. How could we expect any 18 year old to become a productive member of society without this knowledge? The only reason I made it is because I had a lot of privilege. Between my supportive parents, friends, other mentors, and the internet, I managed to learn everything I needed to know, but I often had to endure hardships because I didn’t know these things when I needed to. In fact, if not for my somewhat natural talent with computers, I don’t think I would have been able to learn what I needed to know before it became a very big problem.

Many people who support the current curriculum believe that it is the parents’ responsibility to teach what I listed above. I will say my parents taught me a lot of important things that allowed me to learn what I needed to learn. For example, how to use computers and the Internet effectively, that was hugely important for me. But I guess for me, I just don’t think it’s right to expect certain things like paying taxes and being politically involved without making sure that the federal education curriculum teaches those skills. Just look at how many young adults end up in prison or homeless because they just don’t know how to do basic things like maintain a budget, get a job, communicate effectively, and so on. These people end up being a drain on society whereas they could be meaningful contributors. I felt cheated when I got out of high school and realized I didn’t know any of the things I was expected to know. Again, I don’t think things like biology aren’t important, but what does it say about my education when I remember that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, but I don’t know anything about paying taxes? It just feels like we’ve got the priorities reversed.

There are other things I think high school should teach based on what seem to be many shortcomings of current adults. The most important one, in my opinion, is how to research and evaluate sources effectively. I learned a little bit of this in high school, mainly that wikipedia doesn’t count as a proper source for research papers, but college taught me so much more. Things like how to identify bias, how to evaluate research methods, red flags like spotting whether or not an article lists any sources, or if those sources are credible, diversifying information sources, being aware of my own biases and not only agreeing with titles that agree with my preconceived notion.

Literally just think about that for a second. How many people read a title that agrees with their bias and just assume it’s true? How many people read or hear something very charismatically delivered and assume that they must be telling the truth? This is why there’s such a prevalence of conspiracy theories, anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, and so on. If we all understood the basics of fact checking and how to evaluate credible sources, these things would almost certainly disappear. We would immediately have a better educated society. We would start to see presidential candidates based on merit rather than popularity. This is one of those things that I genuinely think could solve a tremendous number of problems all by itself.

High school is supposed to prepare children to become responsible adults. I think rather than hoping that parents should teach life skills and government mandated responsibilities, the school system that our taxes pay for should give us at least the bare minimum of knowledge to do everything an adult is expected to do. Ideally other life skills like finances and job preparedness should also be taught, and for those who intend to pursue a career that requires higher education, they should have the option to include college prep courses. I don’t think someone should be allowed to graduate high school without being taught how to do what is expected of them in adulthood.

Should high schools change their focus when it comes to preparing young adults for the future?

These 12 Redditors are sounding off with their thoughts!

12. Adulting is straight into the deep end.

The point is that finding those things out for yourself and doing a little research is part of adulthood, you aren’t going to be spoon fed everything your entire life.

A lot of what you said is very basic and you find that out from just readings books (not educational, fiction and stuff you’d read for pleasure), or even just talking to people and asking stuff. I understand not everyone have a good enough relationship with their parents to ask this stuff, but friends, colleagues is also good. A lot of the failings like how to send a letter is not on the school.

How you could learn the structure of the government and not realize you have to pay taxes is honestly baffling.

11. Kids will be kids.

My school required a class that taught what you proposed for kids to graduate. I forgot what it’s called, but basically, everyone had to take it and pass it in order to graduate.

Not a single kid gave a s**t. Why? It’s boring AF. Smart kids thought it’s stupid (because they already knew all those) and it’s a waste of time.

Kids who didn’t have plan to go to college or didn’t care… well, didn’t care at all for usual reasons.

So in the end, no one gave a s**t.

High school must focus on teaching kids how to learn, so they can learn on their own when they finally realize that they should learn things.

10. Google University.

Its almost like when you fail or get penalized for something you learn from it to make sure it never happens again.

Let’s be f**king real most highschoolers could not give a s**t about learning to do taxes. They want to hang out drink and be hooligans.

I skipped a ton of classes in hs

Guess what I can google

What are taxes How do you do taxes What happens when you dont pay taxes

9. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I’m not saying things like math, science, and history should be replaced
Implicitly though you are. There are X hours in the school day and they are all full of math, science, history, arts, and so on. If you still only have x hours, you need to replace some amount of formal subjects with “Adulting 101.” Only alternative is to increase the total amount of classroom time.

How is a person supposed to know to look up how to do their own taxes if they don’t know they’re supposed to do taxes in the first place?
I agree that financial literacy should be mandatory in high school, and in many (if not most) places it is. A lot of your suggested curriculum though is so basic that I have a hard time believing that you were successful at AP Chemistry but somehow didn’t know you had to do taxes or know how to mail a letter. Like, how is it possible you literally never heard of taxes before? Do you read or watch the news around April? Do you read books? Watch TV? Talk to your parents and peers? How did your AP American History course not mention that taxation exists? How uncurious do you have to be for something so significant to personal and public life, and so common in popular media and culture, to pass by you completely unnoticed?

If you didn’t know taxes exist, I’m reasonably confident that if your high school offered precisely the course you’re proposing, you would just fail to notice and register for it.

8. These courses already exist for some.

A lot of the things you listed are part of high school curriculum. Idk where you grew up, I’m sure there are differences from state to state but idk what to tell you man you should have taken civics at least. People complain about this s**t all the time without realizing that kids don’t give a s**t about learning taxes and stuff like that.

I’m a high school teacher. When there are “life skill” type classes or units kids just respond with “I won’t have to know this for years” or some version of that. There’s no winning.

7. An argument about responsibility.

The school system isn’t there to teach you how to do taxes. It is to train you for the work force. Its a public service so that when you are an adult you have been trained to ideally show up on time, complete projects, work in groups, have a shared understanding of basic concepts that you can use to problem solve.

Its free training for the work force. Kids who fail at this are self sorting themselves into low skill jobs. Kids who succeed are hand picked for higher positions. Teaching you basic skills to help you function as an individual is not in the budget.

6. No one is going to hold your hand in the real world.

Part of the problem i see is they do give you the knowledge. Compound interest can be dealt with using algebra, basic shop knowledge is in geometry and trig (i do gd&t tolerance stacks and the shop guys have to know their stuff).

Physics, i learned hooks law and basic ballistic motion. Knowing chemistry made me clean better than anyone else when i worked on a food line. Managing heat and chemical reactions on a grill top was intuitive.

What frustrates me is people just want to be shown how to do it. Well, how are you supposed to know if you dont know the basics? How can you do finance if you cant do algebra? Why do we have to go over doing taxes when there are programs that guide you through?

Turns out, those bare minimum things also role into the bare minimum for college.

5. Your parents should step up.

Schools shouldn’t raise you. You’re parents/family should. People who dont have access to those should have access to some kind of family centre or neighborhood centre.

Why drag down the whole school system (which has it though enough already) because adults dont raise their kids anymore.

Also taxes are easy as s**t. And you think teens/kids care about taxes or that stuff? We had a “homeskills” class when i was young and you learned how to bake a egg. Or how to make a grilled cheese, fold laundry.

For real everybody skipped that class because everybody that wanted to learn those things already knew them for 4 years and the rest didn’t want to learn it. Then they started to control attendance more and punish people who skipped class. Our reaction was getting drunk/high before entering the class. And not just 3 or 4 people. Almost the entire class (i think 2-3 people there) were sober. A friend of mine started drinking to join in on the action.

The class got dismissed after all the complaints. Nobody who attended it (even the teachers) thought it was a decent idea.

4. Things are always changing.

Teaching how to file taxes would be useless. The methods are likely to change in the near future. Filing over an internet forum is relatively new. People who are just now entering the work force may have benefited, but the generation before wouldn’t have. And the next generation will likely learn it then never use it because the system will be changed to an automated one or something.

It’s much better to teach the basics of how interest works so the person has the tools to consider whether they want to pay in more with each check or not.

Teach critical thinking and that student will be able to learn to do taxes on their own. Teach discipline and they’ll be motivated to do it on their own

3. How would we fit it all in?

But something would have to be replaced. There is limited time/energy/money in schooling. So to add in all the things you just mentioned something would need to get cut.

I’m of the opinion that we as a society continue to push off more and more responsibility on the school system to solve or at least treat the symptoms of our sh**ty society.

The answer is that all these “life skills” should be taught by the parents/family. There is more ti parenting and raising kids than just providing food/shelter/clothing. Unfortunately like many have pointed out too many households don’t get the quality time to do a lot of this. My solution would be to solve the problem of parents and family wasting away working all the time just to survive and allow them the opportunity to parent. We really should stop trying to make the school system fix all the shortcomings of our society.

2. Too much time elapses.

I was personally taught many of the things you list but it’s not very effective. You’re teaching a child the rote steps to a procedure in the hopes that will use it multiple years later and remember how to do it. The likelihood is that they won’t and will just google “how to address a letter” when they need to use it.

The goal of teaching more abstract concepts, like biology, is so that students develop an intuition about the underlying systems. They don’t need to remember the specific facts about the parts of a cell to remember that the human body has a highly advanced system for filtering and removing waste so that expensive juice cleanse that “removes the toxins from the body” is likely bulls**t.

1. It’s every man for himself.

Econ class teaches you taxes exists.

Other classes teach you how to look s**t up on the internet.

You gotta add two and two together on your own sometimes.

I have to say that I agree – it should at least be 50/50, depending on the student body.

What do you think? Or comments are open for your opinions!