Who Needs College? Maybe Fewer People Than We Thought

Princeton University Alexander
Princeton. Image via Wikipedia

True/Slant writer Michael Salmonowicz writes, in favor of attending college:

Meeting different kinds of people, navigating a new environment, opening one’s mind to unfamiliar ideas and possibilities, and living away from home are just a few of the positive developments that students experience in college. I certainly understand that in a rough economy where money is tight, but should we really encourage 18-year-olds to give up on a four-year degree that could help them in myriad ways for the rest of their lives?

For him, the very idea is anathema.

I see the word “could” in his sentence and that, as someone who has taught graduates and undergraduates, gives me pause. I was underwhelmed by many of my students. Lovely people, sure. Fun, friendly. But really working hard? Determined to excel and do whatever was necessary — not just grade-grub — to get it?

Most were so busy sucking up to their profs they had no idea how to negotiate with/in the real world beyond campus, the one where you don’t wear pajamas during the day or drink yourself unconscious on weekends. I’ve seen way too much slavish thinking and book-focused learning to believe that “college degree” = prepared to compete effectively in a multi-cultural, global economy.

I also think, in a global economy where the world is wide open to those with the vision or guts to go for it — through student visas and work-study programs, and volunteer work or even just hanging out for a while with people whose jobs really interest you, if they’ll let you — one can learn a tremendous amount that is useful, life-long, far away from any college classroom. For every student whose eyes are opened and whose horizons are broadened, there are those hanging out with all the same rich kids they went to prep school with and who’ll snag them great Wall Street jobs when they all graduate.

I’m not wildly persuaded that college is so enlightening, nor that it is the best place in which to watch the world at work and find your place within it.

From The New York Times:

The idea that four years of higher education will translate into a better job, higher earnings and a happier life — a refrain sure to be repeated this month at graduation ceremonies across the country — has been pounded into the heads of schoolchildren, parents and educators. But there’s an underside to that conventional wisdom. Perhaps no more than half of those who began a four-year bachelor’s degree program in the fall of 2006 will get that degree within six years, according to the latest projections from the Department of Education. (The figures don’t include transfer students, who aren’t tracked.)

For college students who ranked among the bottom quarter of their high school classes, the numbers are even more stark: 80 percent will probably never get a bachelor’s degree or even a two-year associate’s degree.

That can be a lot of tuition to pay, without a degree to show for it.

A small but influential group of economists and educators is pushing another pathway: for some students, no college at all. It’s time, they say, to develop credible alternatives for students unlikely to be successful pursuing a higher degree, or who may not be ready to do so.

Whether everyone in college needs to be there is not a new question; the subject has been hashed out in books and dissertations for years. But the economic crisis has sharpened that focus, as financially struggling states cut aid to higher education.

It’s a question that needs asking. University education in the United States is, as most know, an extremely costly proposition, unless you’ve won a free ride or a lot of scholarship or grant money. (In my native Canada, at even the best schools — all of which are publicly funded — a year of tuition is still about $5,ooo.)

No one would argue that, for those with the emotional maturity, academic preparation and intellectual drive, college is well worth their time, as students choose or focus on a possible career choice. But blowing $25,000 or $30,000 or more, each year — a downpayment on a home, a really good car — to “find yourself” and send emails all through class? Not such a great idea.

Many people hate college. They hate sitting for hours in a classroom, listening to some boring old prof drone on and on. Or they beat their profs up for grades because they have to get into competitive graduate or professional programs because….Mom and Dad want to see a healthy return on the $100k+ plus they’ve just dropped on their schooling so law/dentistry/MBA/medicine are it, kids!

What you might really want to do? God forbid it’s blue-collar or creative — not important.

I enjoyed my time at the University of Toronto in some ways. We had tremendous teachers, a gorgeous campus, really smart fellow students, lots  of student clubs and activities. But ask many U of T grads — then as now — if they really liked it. Not so much. The school is huge (50,000+) plus and often impersonal, in itself a great prep for the “real world.” I learned, because their standards were high, to place the bar for myself a lot higher than I might have thought necessary. (I never attended graduate or professional school. I’d really had my fill by then.)

But there are people who never attend college, let alone never graduate, and thrive. Many skills are just as easily — and much more affordably — learned through an apprenticeship or internships or networking and freelancing.

In our family, award-winning and highly successful, only two of us graduated college, me and my half-brother who runs his own software company. My father, mother, step-mother and her son, now 30, all made terrific money and enjoyed international success without a college degree.

For everyone who reveres the mythology that college is the only, or the most important, place to get smarter, I think there are many more ways to spend $40,000 to $100,000 over four years and get an education — jut not a expensive, official piece of paper certifying it.

9 thoughts on “Who Needs College? Maybe Fewer People Than We Thought

  1. citifieddoug

    This is the advice every theoretically college-bound youth should hear. I started my bachelor’s program when I was 24 and knew why I wanted to get and what I wanted to study. As you say, that’s a lot of money for parents to pay or debt for students to take on without a clear understanding of what you’re there for. Besides, things like diversity and intelligent peers are easily to be had just about anywhere you go.

  2. Ms. Kelly,

    This trend of discouraging college is a political effort. Conservatives in the US have for decades now been selling voters on the notion that they can have the government services that they want with with lower taxes. For several decades, they have come to power and lowered taxes. Services were not cut immediately because of tax sharing programs (“Block Grants” for the Feds to the States, State government robbing local treasuries, various government programs started charging fees when they did not before, or increased them dramatically). The other half of the conservative shell game was to “get rid of government waste”, which meant unnamed government services that conservative voters did not want.

    Now, however, the shell game is playing itself out. It is increasingly clear that you cannot keep cutting taxes and keep the services you want. College tuition is great example. When I attended Los Angeles City College in the lat 1970’s, my tuition was zero, free. Later, in the early ’80’s, I attended California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA) and paid a whopping 210 USD year. My daughter is attending CSULA and we are paying almost 4,700 USD per year (with several furlough days included!). This is putting college beyond the reach of many people.

    So now we are being told, “You don’t really want to go to college anyhow, it is just a big waste of time and money. You won’t get a descent job whether do or don’t. Besides, the only way to lower tuition is to raise taxes and we can’t have that can we?”.

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    I wonder how many students do hear it, though. I knew I wanted to be a writer and wanted to study languages so I could become a foreign correspondent; I decided against journalism school after speaking to a few succesful journos.

    There is such devotion to college and not to skills. I am not persuaded one attends college to acquire saleable skills, but without a clear sense of direction, it seems a liittle challenging.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    David, thanks for your thoughts. I tend to shy away from political analysis such as this, but there may be elements of this… Which doesn’t address the soaring costs of private schools and the shocking reduction in Pell grants and other subsidies. I see kids at adequate schools that still cost a fortune and wonder how they imagine recouping that “investment.”

  5. geekysarah

    From someone who is currently going through the college slog, yes, I see people who I don’t think truly belong here. On the flip side, it took me going through the lower-division courses in the Computer Science to figure out that I really didn’t want to be a computer scientist.

    A lot of the people I see are younger people who believe college to be a right of passage into adulthood. Goodness knows, there are a few who need to grow up a bit. My first dorm roommate would stagger in the room at 3am most nights drunk as a skunk and ended up flunking out that semester. I kept up with her afterwards a bit, and she did grow up a bit after that. She told me later that flunking out like she did was a bit of a wake-up call that she needed to get with the program.

    My fiance, on the other hand, is an ITT grad because he knew exactly what he wanted to do, and ITT was willing to give him the piece of paper in return for money and courses passed. He’s considered going back and getting a 4-year degree to replace his current 2-year one, but he would rather keep working and keep saving for a house than go back to school.

    In both his my field of study, having the fancy paper is good, but it’s the certifications you get on top of that which is the gold for jobs. Because he’s in technology, proving that you can keep up with the latest gadgets is important to an employer. Also, I find the courses for the certifications much more interesting that many of the college courses I have taken.

  6. Michael Salmonowicz

    Caitlin — That was a pretty quick and thoughtful response to my post! I think some of my passion about this issue comes from how college attendance is talked about in the public forum. Instead of talking about the many options available at the end of high school, students are often told what they don’t need to do (e.g., you don’t need to go to college). Therefore, they can get the idea that only certain people who want to do certain things belong in college, and other people settle for lesser things like trade school. I would rather see us talk in positive terms about all of the options–trade school, two-year degree, four-year degree, work, etc.–and find out where students see themselves after they have explored each of them fully. Ideally, students also would hear from people who had positive experiences choosing each of these options immediately after high school, as well as people who may have chosen to forego the four-year experience at first, but went back later and earned a bachelor’s degree.

  7. Caitlin Kelly

    “I think some of my passion about this issue comes from how college attendance is talked about in the public forum. Instead of talking about the many options available at the end of high school, students are often told what they don’t need to do (e.g., you don’t need to go to college). Therefore, they can get the idea that only certain people who want to do certain things belong in college, and other people settle for lesser things like trade school.”

    Thanks for this perspective; I know you’re really in the trenches on this issue and are devoting your career to this.

    Would it make any difference if there were more/better guidance counselors in high schools? Co-op programs or ways that students can shadow someone in a job or industry or career they are interested in? My sense is that corporate America is much more on top of this than the trades or creative fields (film, hair/makeup/theater/music) or blue-collar, unionized world. I know how well one can make a living in HVAC — a lot more than I’m making these days! I grew up knowing a lot about film/TV/journalism because my family worked in these fields….but didn’t know a thing about science or tech. My youngest half-brother, even in high school, managed to come up with some fresh ideas, won a major prize and was soon working with/being mentored by a major figure in that world — through his own efforts, not family connections.

    I think students can only know about work they see in front of them and having people who do this sort of work who will truthfully answer your questions. College looks like the yellow brick road….but who’s to say it’s the only one or the right one?

    Later in life, I considered attending interior design school. I went and interviewed more than four women, all super successful in different aspects of the industry, before I laid down a penny in tuition. It gave me a much clearer idea what to expect and how I might fit into that world, not just with a head full of new facts — but my own attitudes and aptitudes.

    Who would have thought that being highly verbal and persuasive would matter as a designer? Turns out, it’s crucial.

    1. Michael Salmonowicz

      Caitlin – I think more high school counselors is a key component of helping kids better understand their options. Unfortunately, extra counselors and the programs they would run would cost a lot of taxpayer money–money that most citizens don’t want to spend. There are close to 27,000 high schools in the United States, so if we provided just one extra counselor per school, at a cost of $80,000 per year (salary and benefits), that’s over $2 billion. Counseling offices in high schools are so understaffed as it is that many would need 2-3 more counselors to be able to do the type of college/career counseling we’re discussing here, so that cost could be even higher.

      To compensate for understaffed counseling offices, many high school teachers serve as defacto counselors. As a teacher, I designed a 3-day unit for my freshmen students that provided an overview of college, but as proud as I am of having done that, it wasn’t nearly comprehensive enough to meet the needs of all of my students.

      One would hope that the Internet would allow students to explore college/career questions and opportunities for themselves, but sadly, I’ve found that many teenagers aren’t nearly the online wizards that adults assume them to be.

  8. Caitlin Kelly

    Too bad this couldn’t be done — could it? who would pay for it? — on a freelance basis; i.e. someone who worked with a dozen schools or whatever in a city, with each paying the counselor enough to make up a good income, but not the $80K per school you say would be prohibitive.

    I have a friend in Toronto who is in charge of their co-op internship program — helping find placements for kids who want to check out a particular company or industry. I still think sitting in a room in an institutional setting is not nearly as helpful when thinking about a career or vocation — not just a college — compared to even a few hours shadowing someone who does X for a living and being able to ask them anything you want about what it’s really like to do that job. I learned more in speaking to four interior designers about the field than any one counselor would possibly have known or any website could have told me.

    There has to be a better way!

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