Driver’s License

Driver’s License

08/07

Few coming-of-age rituals in our car-centric culture are as important as getting one’s driver’s license.  I remember being fifteen and already forecasting how to get mine.  All around me, drivers offered advice.  They told me what to study in the DMV booklet, which driver’s ed instructor was not boring, and what hour was best to schedule for the driver’s test. Many loved to share triumphant stories of thwarting a persnickety DMV instructor with high rates of failing others.  My family doubted I would pass the test on the first try, but there was never a doubt that I would eventually get my license.  Getting one’s license is an obsession for young  adults in America and no one questions its importance or relevance.  So why isn’t attaining a four-year college degree just as important?

There are pockets in America where going to college is inevitable.  Elite colleges have legacies where two or three generations of family members promote a proud tradition of producing alumni.  For some, college automatically happens after high school.  In these families, if one were to pass on the choice to go college, it doesn’t mean many of their siblings and cousins also decline on college.  For these families, Christmas time is spent asking the high school seniors in the family, “Where are you applying to?” or “What’s your first choice?” or “Do you wanna hear a funny story about your Dad and his first year in college?”  In these families, college degrees are as plentiful as driver’s licenses.  It’s not a question of whether you go to college or not, but of how selective a college can you get into.

I work with families who do not have a college-going culture yet.  Many of these families can be described as working class or poor, many are non-White, and many of them are close to their immigrant roots.  Once a young person embarks on the college process in these families, they are not surrounded by the ubiquitous message that college is possible.  The message first generation college students often hear is doubt, uncertainty or silence. Although these families may know that gaining a four-year college degree decreases ones chance of unemployment by half compared to those with just a high school diploma and that they’ll earn 73% more than an average high school graduate, cultivating a consistent message of college is as difficult as learning a new language.

If you are someone who owns a driver’s license, think about what it would be like to get your license with absolutely no help.  How would you know how to sign up for class?  What car would you use for your test?  Who is there to keep you motivated should you fail your test the first time?  I do not know how I would have gotten my driver’s license if I didn’t have around me other drivers familiar with the process and always assuring me that it would happen.  As for my college experience, the gravity of “How did I do it?” is tenfold.  College is such an important step for first generation college-going students to improve their family’s course and, in turn, this country’s future.  For those of us with a college education, let’s do what we can to support their college ambition and their drive.