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Neither of my parents went to college.

My dad came back from the war in Korea and went straight to work as a butcher at the local A&P. He eventually opened a neighborhood market before becoming disabled in his 30s.

My mother went to secretarial school for a while after high school and then spent most of her career as a bank teller in our small town. She climbed the company ladder and became a low-level bank officer before she retired.

Both born before World War II, my parents were among a generation of Americans for whom college was not a given. College degrees were the gateway to the professions in the 1950s, yes, but the middle class was still largely populated by blue collar and clerical workers.

By the time I graduated high school in the mid-1970s, going to college was expected of kids who made good grades. Higher education was cheap, and a bachelor's degree virtually guaranteed a white-collar career. So, why not go?

Defaulting to college has been a way of life for middle-class families ever since, but there are signs of cracks forming in the system.

First of all, college is no longer cheap. According to the Association of Public Land Grant Universities: "Among those who borrow, the average debt at graduation is $25,921 — or $6,480 for each year of a four-year degree at a public university."

I was talking to a group of college students recently who said they resent that college no longer seems like a choice to them. Instead, it feels like an obligation. Several said they wish the decision to go to college was theirs, not their parents'.

A couple said students at their high schools who didn't express a clear interest in college were marginalized at graduation time. One young woman, who attended a small private high school in another part of Tennessee, said non-college-bound students there were asked to fib about their intentions so the school could claim "a 100% college acceptance rate."

And even the students who do follow the college path say merely attending college is not celebrated. They feel pressure to make top grades in high school, get college scholarships and ultimately excel in their studies. All this pressure is why there are so many kids with diagnosed anxiety and depression, they said.

Troublingly, some of the students say they have learned to conform their beliefs to match their professors' in order to get good grades in college, which is the opposite of what you'd expect at institutions that supposedly value a free exchange of ideas.

All this adds up to a possible backlash.

Expect more and more teenagers to take gap years after high school or check out vocational/technical schools. When young adults who are trying to exercise their independence feel trapped, something has got to give.

When I told my younger son recently about a school that trains aviation mechanics, he was all ears. Even before that, he was sending us signals that he would like all options — including college alternatives — on the table when it comes to life after high school.

Interestingly, that's the way the economy is moving, too.

Parents and college administrators need to realign with student sentiment and not take the college track for granted. Or the the train will leave the station without them.

Email Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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