I hugged my baby girl goodbye. Pulling a giant duffle, dressed in her hippie-farm clothes, she shouldered a loaded backpack with a single, deft movement. My youngest was off to a creamery in Montana to learn about making cheese.
A talented and prolific artist growing up, we thought sure she’d go to college, major in art and get some kind of creative job. But after high school, she had flat-out refused to go.
She said she was burnt out on art and couldn’t stand the thought of more studying, more books and being trapped in classrooms all day. Meanwhile, she had discovered a passion for growing food and decided to go wwoofing instead.
As parents, this pretty much freaked us out.
Then there’s our oldest. You know, everything parents want in a kid—high GPA, International Baccalaureate, fluent French, mechanical engineering major. She worked hard for all of it, and we sincerely hope it leads to a well-paid, professional career.
Though we always presumed she’d go to college, after high school, she made the unusual choice to spend a year abroad in Belgium on a cultural exchange. It was a scary experience, leaving everything she knew to go live with strangers, attend school and build relationships in a foreign language. But she rose to the challenge, and it gave her the space to grow as a person and decide what to do next with her life.
Prior to leaving, she felt pressured to go to college.
She felt pressured by us, her school and society at large. But by the end of her exchange, she had concluded on her own that higher education made the most sense for her. We were happy about her choice.
Despite living on a budget, we did want to pay for college so that our kids wouldn’t graduate with the burden of debt. Our oldest had several choices, but for us it came down to this: who was offering the best deal?
In our case, it happened to be the University of Wyoming. We estimate our cash outlay for her 4-year degree will probably come in at around $80,000, which is actually pretty cheap for a university education these days.
She did her part to reduce costs. She won a partial scholarship, which diminished out-of-state fees, and she took on several campus jobs to pay for her living expenses.
We wonder, will this be $80,000 well invested?
Her education is an investment, so we’re looking for good returns. Hopefully an $80,000 mechanical engineering degree yields at least a $60,000 annual starting salary, which means, after taxes, we might break even in two years, a similar timeframe for the average new business.
Given how much other people pay for less practical degrees, we think it’s a pretty good deal for a career with upward mobility. We simply must consider the math.
When you pay $200,000 for a sociology degree that yields a $40,000 job, you might break even in six years after taxes, assuming you paid cash. If you borrowed that money, interest on top of principal means a longer, more expensive payback period.
We looked for cheap colleges with good engineering programs. We implored our oldest not to assume debt and even advised her to ask potential boyfriends about their level of debt before getting seriously involved, because if you marry it, you own it.
But there’s more to college than just the degree.
Our oldest landed a summer job on campus as a conference assistant, which led to a resident assistant job during her sophomore year. This covered room and board and eliminated summer travel expenses, a huge savings for us. She continued in those jobs the following summer and fall, picking up valuable skills along the way.
As her engineering classes became harder, the round-the-clock nature of her work began interfering with her studies. Halfway through her junior year, she made the difficult decision to resign at the end of the semester, a blow to our budget.
But she came up with an alternative plan to lower living expenses. She proposed moving off campus with a friend and created a spreadsheet to show us exactly how much we’d save. It was a good pitch, so we said okay.
A couple months later, she found an excellent, engineering intern job on campus, once again covering the cost of her own room and board.
So our oldest is learning to pay for what she wants, maintain work-life balance, pitch ideas and succeed in professional positions. She’s also learning about signing leases, paying bills and preparing her own food—adulting 101.
Seriously, you want to be a farmer?
When our youngest said she wanted to learn about organic farming, visions of poverty danced in our heads. But I looked into it and found that the organic food movement is a powerful, growing trend with many opportunities for entrepreneurs.
Wwoofing seemed like an inexpensive, organized way to try it out, so we helped her pick a farm, bought a plane ticket and tumbled into uncharted territory.
The first time we took her to the airport, I was so nervous. I mean it’s one thing sending a daughter off to college, where there’s a formal structure, accredited programs and credentialed adults to supervise what goes on.
But it’s quite another sending a daughter off into the complete unknown, where she has to find her way from a strange airport to a Greyhound bus station to get to some Podunk town, where some guy will be picking her up after 10:30 pm at night.
What if he didn’t show up? What if he was a freak? Were we mad?
Her so-called education has been a wild ride ever since. The farm host did pick her up on time, and she worked on his property for three weeks, learning about homesteading, animal husbandry, cooking, preserving, gardening, water systems and off-grid electricity systems.
It was all going great until that mishap with the golf cart. No damage was done, but she was asked to leave and had to make new arrangements immediately. After a weekend on the Appalachian Trail with a new friend, they came up with a plan.
The two of them road-tripped from North Carolina to Missouri to visit Dancing Rabbit, an intentional living community. They stayed for a month, learning about sustainable, eco-friendly living while helping out with resident projects.
Then she and her new friend drove to Idaho to volunteer on Mountain Cloud Farm, where she learned how to grow market and CSA veggies along with harvesting, transplanting, seeding, amending, processing and storing. She also learned how to merchandise product and engage the customers at farmer’s markets.
My youngest got up before dawn to work long hours on hot days in dirty conditions. She slept in a tent most of the time, but she was eating better than she ever had. We thought she’d tire of the physical labor after a few months, but she didn’t.
After the harvest season, she and her new bestie left the farm and drove to the west coast. Along the way, they decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in the spring.
Now you want to be a hobo? What about freaks, bears and hypothermia?
My baby girl’s bestie dropped her off in Truckee to stay with family friends. She immediately landed a job at New Moon, the local, organic grocery store, working in the produce section, where she put her newfound farm knowledge to good use.
After five months, she’d restocked her bank account, organized her trip, and reunited with her farm friend at the Mexican border to hike the PCT.
This plan seemed like a major derailment. We’d just gotten used to the idea of a career in organic farming, and now she wanted to walk a dirt path for five months? We worried that something terrible would happen, that she didn’t have any real direction, and that she was consigning herself to a life of poverty.
But it was her life, and we had to let go.
The trail taught her many things. She learned how to plan an expedition, deal with strangers, navigate terrain, ration supplies, get rides, stealth camp and forage for food. She made it 1200 miles before deciding it was time to return to farming.
Her next stop was a family homestead in Oregon where she learned how to milk a cow, make cheese, prepare meals and do everything necessary to keep a small farm operation running.
Then she went to The Mushroomery, a mushroom farm where she learned how to grow, cultivate, sell and forage for local, edible mushrooms.
She went back to the family homestead for the winter, before moving on to Pholia Farms, a well-known creamery where she learned more about the science of artisanal cheese making in a high-quality, production environment.
Is this really an education?
Looking at our oldest, going to college, studying hard, taking exams and doing projects, we get it. We both did that ourselves, and we benefited tremendously.
But the wandering-around, following-your-curiosities thing that our youngest is doing? Frankly it’s scary, unstructured and hard to grok.
It’s difficult as a parent to go against the grain when high schools judge success by the number of kids who enroll in college. But then again, when you look around and see so many highly educated kids relegated to restaurant and retail jobs, you have to consider that maybe what worked before no longer does.
Her hobo life is certainly cheaper. Our youngest works in exchange for room and board, and we just help with occasional medical, dental and travel costs.
Though we keep offering college, she seems to prefer learning by apprenticeship. Maybe someday we’ll invest, in lieu of tuition, into a business venture she might propose. But whatever plan she comes up with, it needs to be rock solid, a worthy, viable investment with the potential for good returns.
Is one track better than the other?
Watching both daughters pursue their own paths, we do see differences starting to emerge.
Our oldest is learning to delve into difficult, technical material, make sense of it and build actual things that work. Her language is more polished when she speaks, and she’s collaborating with others at a professional level. She’s also learned to work hard, persevere and pay her own way.
Our youngest is learning to grow food, turn milk into cheese and run a small farming operation. She is comfortable setting her own course, asking strangers for help and thriving wherever she lands thanks to her newfound street smarts. She has also learned to work hard, persevere and pay her own way.
While the oldest has a better shot at a prestigious, corporate career, the youngest seems more likely to take an entrepreneurial route, where anything is possible.
The best path ultimately depends on the individual.
Honestly, it seems cruel to make a 20 year-old commit to a college major that determines their career for the rest of their lives, when they’ve hardly lived at all. That European idea of a gap year between high school and college is fantastic. But even then, one year may not be enough time to magically find your calling.
A while back I heard a fantastic interview about finding your life’s purpose. The guest speaker was Steve Greene from the Johnson O’Conner Research Foundation, where they’ve been studying, testing and matching people’s aptitudes to work that naturally suits them since the 1920’s.
After assessing people for almost a century, they’ve found that individual brains are uniquely wired for certain activities. Those who do the work they’re wired for are those most likely to find career satisfaction and success.
Intrigued, I scheduled both girls for testing, despite the hefty price tag. I figured it’d be cheaper than a 4-year degree that our youngest didn’t want or may not need.
The girls spent six hours over two days taking a lot of strange tests—solving puzzles, arranging objects, discriminating sounds, identifying words, remembering numbers, recognizing patterns—that sort of thing. Following this, they spent another hour and a half with a trained counselor who helped interpret their results.
Suffice it to say, this was absolutely money well spent.
My oldest learned that she was on the right track with her engineering major (thank goodness). She also learned that she needs a high degree of collaborative communication, visual expression and problem solving to feel fulfilled at work. This explained why she found herself drawn to engineering project management.
My youngest also seemed to be on the right track with her non-traditional approach. She learned that it’s critical that she believes in what she’s doing and works with her hands, so farming and cheese making fit right in. She also learned that she has high ideaphoria, meaning the ideas are always flowing, which translates well into teaching, creative and entrepreneurial endeavors.
Both girls walked away with detailed assessments of their natural aptitudes and a list of compatible careers that they’d find fulfilling. With a few surprising insights, it was mostly about confirmation, science clarifying things they’d been fuzzy about.
For example, my youngest was relieved to find out that doing what she believed in was a hard-wired necessity versus some frivolous personality quirk. My oldest confirmed that she is pursuing the best career for herself and learned what will satisfy her most when choosing a full-time job in the near future.
And for us, testing confirmed that each of our daughters had chosen the paths most appropriate for who they are and how they’re wired as human beings.
So what happens next? Nobody knows, but we can speculate.
Our older one seems best suited for a professional career at a big company including an urban lifestyle, an apartment, a car and money to buy things and experiences.
With our younger one, anything goes. Maybe she’ll become a professional affineur, start a market garden or go off grid and teach sustainable living skills.
Only time will tell. But as long as the girls stay true to themselves in making their choices, they’ll probably be just fine.
About Diane Cohn
Diane Cohn is a seasoned marketing professional with a background in real estate, finance and tech. When not geeking out on digital strategies for driving traffic, you'll find her on YouTube feeding her creator addiction.