Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
While recently reporting from rural Idaho, I met Justin Sarbaum, a retired 43-year-old Army infantryman who was grappling with his feelings about higher education as his three children — who are 16, 14, and 11 — get closer to making their own decisions about life after high school. Below is his first-person perspective on education, slightly edited for clarity and length.
I have always told my kids, ‘If you guys want to go to college, that is fine. I’ll send you to school. But I will not send you to school because you want to go into graphics design or something like that. And it’s not because I don’t want you to follow your dreams.’
Warren Buffett said do not make an investment into something that doesn’t have a long-term projection. And so I tell my kid the same thing: ‘Don’t invest your finances in anything that does not have longevity.’ Why do we do that with our education? Why do we do that with our dreams and aspirations?
When I was graduating from high school in the late ‘90s, everybody was pushing CD technology, DVD roms, all that stuff. And I was like why? It was just boring. What happens when the next thing comes out? Sure enough, it wasn’t just four or five years after I graduated high school, thumb drives started coming out, iPods started coming out.
Look at that truck! It’s not going to drive down the road without a mechanic. That building isn’t going to get made without somebody to come in to pour the concrete. That structure isn’t going to get built unless somebody knows how to weld and construct it and build it.
Jobs like electricians, concrete, all the trades of the world that everybody shies away from it seems, that’s what’s going to keep society going. As the old term goes, the world needs ditch diggers too. If you don’t have the ditch, where’s the water gonna go? How are you going to water your crops?
My oldest boy, bless his heart, he wants to do everything and it’s a different story every single day.
In the military, one thing we were constantly told is that, in the absence of orders, you should make a decision and stick with it. And so I just tell him, ‘Look dude, you’re at that point in your life, where you’ve got to make a decision and stick with it. And if you don’t like it, then you can move on from there.’”
He says he wants to be a YouTuber. But, how many kids play peewee football, high school football, college ball, then how many make it to the big game? At every level, there are less of them. Only so many people can be in these industries.
You will forever need someone to work on your car, forever need a roofer. You want to go get a cool job? Go be a heavy machinery operator: Pioneer CAT operators, they make upwards of $100 an hour. The money is there, it’s just a less glamorous job.
I think a lot of people are putting too many eggs in one basket. And with how crazy and fast this world changes, it almost feels like you’re running across an ice rink in a full sprint.
Look at COVID: It happened overnight, and it shut the entire world down. For perspective, it took us longer to go from the bronze sword to the iron sword than it did to go from the iron sword to nuclear weapons.
Our world moves so fast now that you have no idea where you’re even standing half the time any more. Let alone where you’re going to be tomorrow.
The current system has this big push for a type of higher education where, if you don’t start out your adult life with $250K in debt from college, realistically, what are you doing with your life? Well, I know a lot of successful people with zero education outside of high school.
I absolutely believe in people doing more micro-courses, shorter-term education, things like that.
One of my nieces, her fiancé just graduated from lineman school in Boise — I think it was a six month course. Now he’s a lineman and that’s going to be the plug of the future.
The big push for everybody right now is electric vehicles. Our power grid cannot sustain everybody. So what does that mean for the future of the next one to two decades? House electricians, linemen, all that stuff.
The only way to get more electricity is to get more lines. And if you don’t have the technician that’s able to run the lines, where are you going to power your Tesla at?
Last year, I was talking to a friend of mine that I help with the spud harvest each year. And I discovered that I didn’t even know this man I had known my whole life.
I had no idea that he has a master’s in agricultural science. His dream job, it turns out, was not to be a farmer. It was to be an agricultural professor at a college somewhere.
He graduated from university, though, and his dad was just like “Hey, I need help on the farm.” He originally said he would just move back for a couple of years, but here he is now, 30 years later.
He loved it more than he thought. And that’s something people don’t take into account enough for. One year after graduating, you are not the same person you were. That’s a problem a lot of us have, where we don’t think about who we are going to be next year.
Matthew McConnaughey was asked: “What do you want to be in five years?” And he said: “I want to be a better version of who I am today.” What is that? Well, you don’t know because you haven’t gotten there yet.
Never force anything. Life is a lot like a fart. If you have to force it, it’s probably gonna be shit.
More Rural Higher Ed News
Is Gordon Gee ready to leave? We’ve been writing about some of the turmoil at West Virginia University, from faculty and students organizing amid major budget cuts to the frustrations of a rural town after the flagship left. Now Gee, the famously bow-tied college president at the center of it all, has announced plans to step down from his position (and potentially join the law school faculty) when his contract expires in 2025.
Recruiting rural teachers through affordable housing? Bertie County, N.C. recently celebrated the groundbreaking of a teacher housing complex meant to attract educators to the county by offering them cheaper, dedicated housing. Local leaders, including the principal, said finding housing was so difficult that it was contributing to near constant teacher turnover in the rural area.
Potential grant opportunity. Round Three of the Catalyze Challenge is open for organizations working to plan, pilot, and implement innovations that provide young adolescents with career-connected learning opportunities and pathways into fulfilling careers, while activating employer partnerships.
- Past rounds have awarded $10 million across 40 organizations, including rural-focused groups such as the Rural Community Alliance and Oregon STEM. Applications are due by September 22.
Seeing the effects of place-based education. Jeremy Eltz reflects on the first year of the University of Indianapolis CELL’s rural teacher place-bound education projects in Indiana in this piece for the Rural Schools Collaborative.