Is College (As We Now Know It) Dead?

Victoria College in the University Toronto tak...
Victoria College at the University of Toronto; my alma mater, Image via Wikipedia

What’s the future of post-secondary education?

I think about this, although many decades out of university, perhaps because college classes in the U.S., where I live, are so expensive for many students, with no — of course! — jobs guaranteed at the end of it all. I never continued on to any form of graduate study for a variety of reasons:

I loathe debt and could not imagine how I would pay for it

I saw no need for it in journalism

I attended a school with 53,000 students and, while I am very happy with its high standards, did not enjoy feeling largely ignored and anonymous. That put me right off any more formal education

I attended the University of Toronto, for years deemed Canada’s most competitive and demanding school. I loved having super-smart, terrifyingly erudite world-class experts in their fields as my professors. I still remember their names and their tremendous passion for Victorian poetry or Chaucer or history and the excitement they were able to convey to us about it all.

I enjoyed having super-smart fellow students, knowing some of them — as they have — would go on to lead some of my country’s financial, intellectual and cultural institutions.

In the 1990s, determined to leave journalism (and then having an MD husband’s income, certain this was possible), I studied interior design at The New York School of Interior Design. Loved it!

What a totally different educational experience:

Small classes. Nurturing teachers fully engaged in making sure we were succeeding. The inspiration of talented classmates but no cut-throat sharks.

It also showed me something really important about my learning style. I need it to be hands-on: drawing, painting, drafting….all were challenging but also engaged my brain in wholly new ways. I liked learning!

Like many people, I’m more of a visual and tactile learner and sitting in a lecture hall for hours  — what most college classes still consist of — was deadening.(Which is also why journalism has always felt like such a terrific fit. It’s life-as-classroom.)

I have very mixed feelings about learning away from a school and classroom and campus. Yes, online learning is democratic.

But I think we also need to learn how to defend your ideas in public, that little knot of fear in your belly before you speak out in front of a room full of smart fellow students. You need to work face to face. You need to see how ideas play out in person.

And I loved the campus and its beauty and history and the clubs and activities I took part in at U of T, and my equally demanding and passionate profs at NYSID at their charming Upper East Side building. I was terrified there when, as we all had to in our Color class, I presented my designs to a room full of fellow students (just as we would have to with clients in the real world.)

But I managed to score an “A” (yay!) from the very tough professor. It still remains one of my proudest moments.

Yesterday’s New York Times ran this piece arguing in favor of getting a college degree, although I completely disagree — with plenty of anecdotal evidence to back me — that cashiers and clerks with a college degree earn more. In my time at The North Face, (the subject of my new memoir of working retail, “Malled“), I didn’t see this among our college-educated staff, nor have the many emails I’ve received since then from fellow associates, current and former, suggested higher earnings elsewhere.

Here’s an interesting essay from an Australian university.

Theoretically, tertiary study could become an opportunity to choose your own adventure. Innovative universities might form select international consortiums that would allow students to tailor degrees; with on-campus stints in Sydney, London and Beijing, for example, and a huge array of subjects offered on-campus or online from the entire list of combined course resources.

Yet universities jealously guard their individual reputations and their place on the competitive, global-rankings ladder. Everyone knows all degrees are not equal; their value depends on the reputation, history and standing of the university that confers them.

For individual institutions, with their campuses physically anchored in one place and their budgets built around the face-to-face delivery of core programs, its likely to be a very complex way forward.

At the same time, the internet is facilitating the entry of private players into the local and international education market, some of which will compete with universities for paying students.

Postgraduates, in particular, want access to experts from the professions and industries they aspire to join.

So when a group of globally renowned, private-sector achievers offers user-pay courses online, for example, which way will future students go?

Did you enjoy college?

What did you study and why?

Would you do it differently today?

17 thoughts on “Is College (As We Now Know It) Dead?

  1. Lisa (Woman Wielding Words)

    I knew as soon as I read the title of your post that I would have a lot to say, so please forgive the length of this response.

    I love learning. but, unlike you, I had a fear of “the classroom of life.” For whatever reason, I felt like all of my knowledge had to come from a book, under the “safe” and “protected’ guidance of erudite minds. I don’t mean that I never went out on adventures and learned from living, but that whenever I decided it was time to take a new direction I immediately leaped to the idea “I have to go back to school.” That lead me to getting an MFA in Theatre (Directing), a PhD in Theatre for Youth and even a certificate in writing for young people. But, my reality is that all of this education has not made my life easier. I’m too expensive for some places to hire, too experienced for some jobs I would love, and lacking some skills for other jobs (skills that I know I can easily learn, but I now want to learn on the job not by going back to school).

    Now I live in multiple worlds. One which recognizes the value of learning for the sake of learning because it makes us better people. One, where I am sharing my knowledge as a teacher. I love to teach, but I know longer love the system. Academia as it exists today is broken. It does not suit the needs of the students. It focuses too much on the business and not enough on the learning. But the blame falls on both the system and the students, as many youth today want to be spoon fed just enough information to get the high paying dream job, but do not want to look beyond their self-defined world. I’ve written about this in a separate blog at The blog is linked to mine, but has some password protection because of some of the situations I discuss. The final world I live in is the one where I recognize that life-learning and experience can lead to valuable life-choices. This is the world that I am learning to embrace.

    I find myself balancing on a fine line, where I want to encourage people to go to college and embrace learning, but also recognize that the system does not work as it is. More often than not, I find myself encouraging students who don’t have a clear path to go out and explore the world before they decide on further education.

    1. I knew, knowing who reads this blog, this might provoke some thoughtful comments…Thanks for sharing this.

      I often berate myself for not having a grad degree — not because I have the slightest desire to go sit in a classroom and pay $$$$$$ for it and still not be able to get a job because of my age — but because where I live and work, near NYC, it’s de rigueur for anyone hoping to get ahead.

      I have done a little college teaching and it didn’t impress me much. It looks like many kids go to college because they are expected to…with no ideas what they want to do or how to get there or do it well after they graduate and stop meeting professors’ expectations. I see this with some of my younger journalism friends; what your grades say mean NOTHING in the “real world.” 99% of employers don’t care what you did 3 or 5 years ago in a classroom but only how you will save them $ and make more profit for them today.

      The problem with kids who’ve been spoon-fed and had parents hovering from day one is “exploring the world” looks frightening. Who will tell them how to do it?! OMG.

      1. Lisa (Woman Wielding Words)

        I hate the fact that my age, and being a woman, only add to the challenges–education shmeducation (I get to create words now). My students care more about the grades than the learning, and will do anything including plagiarism to achieve those grades. Sadly, the lesson they learn through plagiarizing is that they will get caught.

  2. I loved college, though I admit I may not have loved it from the education perspective. I enjoyed the freedom of picking what I wanted to learn – which courses to take – etc. I entered college with the intention of obtaining a degree in journalism, as I wanted to be a writer/reporter. However, after an ethics course (taken the same quarter I took a PR course), I decided to drop out of the School of Journalism and enter Speech/Communications.

    I would not change a thing. I appreciated the opportunity to explore the world within the safety of a college campus.

  3. I also loved the panoply of experiences U of T offered — from playing squash three times a week to organizing a week-long student exchange with UNC Chapel Hill for our students, which made me even hungrier to move to the U.S.

    I never studied journalism and Canadian undergrad education is very different — you have to take 3/4 of your classes in your major, so from day one you have to be ready to focus.

  4. I have both an undergraduate and a graduate degree in Communication Studies from the U of Calgary. I went into university mostly because it was expected of me, and I didn’t have the foggiest idea what I wanted to do with my life– I just knew I didn’t want to take any math courses. 🙂

    My education has never conferred higher wages or more respect on me– in fact, with the tighter job market in Victoria where I now work, I often had to take my Masters degree right off my CV just so I could get a call back. (I never had one prospective employer contact me when I had my MA degree listed.)

    Although I’m satisfied– in retrospect– to have a graduate degree, I haven’t used it in any meaningful capacity since I graduated. If I could do everything all over again, I would probably take more time to learn hands-on in the “real world” (travel, volunteer, etc.), figure out what I was really interested in doing/learning in a university environment, and then get an applied degree with actual employment prospects post-graduation. Whew!

  5. I wonder how many people would say this of their undergrad, let alone grad, degrees. In the recession — much worse in the U.S. — a college degree is now a mere sorting tool, but it is not guaranteeing access to any well-paid or interesting work as now even retail jobs at minimum wage insist on a college degree. Yeah, right, you need to know how to write a 20-page paper to fold T-shirts.

    I think unless you are on a very clear track into a very clearly defined and well-paid field (engineering, health care, whatever) a college degree is a a charming way to rearrange the resume piles, but it doesn’t seem to be worth as much as people keep insisting it is.

    One of the stupidest women I ever taught had four Ivy league degrees and no idea what to do with her life.

  6. I’m always rankled by students (and parents) that seem to think that a college diploma is some sort of ticket that you exchange for a job. This is not the point of education. If you want a job after training, go to a trade school. Education should be about intellectual enrichment — both from a classical “knowledge-based” standpoint and from a “personal growth” standpoint, in that in college you should be challenged to see what you can complete and excel in while you’re learning. Both enrichments are skills that would serve graduates in whatever they chose to explore next. One problem is that modern students don’t seem particularly interested in applying themselves.

    The Beloved is involved in higher education and has spent a lot of the last couple of years trying to shape curricula in the California State system to help students be prepared for the next challenges after they graduate — and it’s not easy because there is an entrenched system that’s VERY resistant to change, even though they recognize their not doing a particularly good job right now of producing ready-to-be-successful graduates.

    1. The problem I see is that, certainly in a recession and with the severely rising cost of college, these notions feel bourgeois and out of date to many people — no matter how valid they were or may still be. There is little room to “explore” in an economy and nation with a 22% jump in corporate profits — and stagnant hiring.

      What do students need to be successful that they now do not have? I doubt it could be taught in a classroom….I studied English literature. No one ever cared or asked what I planned or hoped to do after I graduated. That’s unfortunate.

  7. I took one semester of an interior design class many years ago. I liked learning, but the teacher was horrible. I have taken a few courses through the company college where I worked for several years and I do enjoy learning when the teacher is good and it is something I enjoy. Like you I am a hands-on and visual learner.

    I would like to have total free time and enough money in the bank to not worry about finances 🙂 and learn more about the writing, publishing, etc. and going to quiet places to be inspired and write 🙂

  8. Great post, and the topic is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. It seems that articles about the worth of college and post-graduate studies are all the rage these days! I mainly find them posted by friends, acquaintances, and professional contacts on Facebook right now; like I said, it seems to be popular topic these days.

    I don’t think the idea of college is dead. I think the reality of college is dying. We can’t support the financial strains that it puts on the students and the parents. I’m lucky; my parents could afford to send me to the small, liberal arts college that I fell in love with, and do so without taking out loans on their or my part. I left school at 22, without any debt to weigh me down. Only two years later, I decided that I had to go to grad school to further my life as a theater designer. I believed I had to; in order to get to the next level of success, I needed that MFA from Yale and I needed an East Coast stamp of approval (the Midwest didn’t impress people much). I was frugal and lucky, I only left with $34K in debt.

    Even though that burden (and I consider it a small one) weighs over me, I still value the lessons I learned at my college and then the skills I learned as I earned my MFA. My college valued and preached the benefits of writing an argument, of believing in your argument, and of stating those arguments. I would never give up the three years I spent slaving away for my MFA; those years of gave me a lot of angst, but they taught me how to operate on another level in theater.

    I just wish the job market were better. Yes, that’s selfish, but with the current economy in the US and the world, taking these financial sacrifices to pursue your passion isn’t always feasible, possible, and recommended. That’s what I regret.

  9. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment! I think of you now whenever I go to the theater — saw Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo on Saturday and am seeing The &&^$ With the Hat tomorrow…

    You are very right about how badly one needs that fancy Ivy/grad stamp of approval here in NYC. I had no idea, and it came as a real shock to me how much it seems to matter.

    I was fortunate enough to attend school at the U of Toronto where — no, this is not a typo — my annual tuition was about $660 a year; it’s now about $5,000, still an amazing bargain. So my greatest cost was not tuition but books and supporting myself as I lived alone in an apartment after the age of 19. So I did not graduate with debt, but living on such an insanely tight budget left me with NO taste for being that poor and struggling again. I doubt I could have gotten any student loans because my family (off traveling while I was in school and not contributing financially at all) was well-off. It was very frustrating and I often wonder if I could have had stellar grades if all I did was study, instead of freelancing like mad after my second year. Something had to give, and boy was it my GPA!

    That’s another reason grad school has always seemed hopeless to me; my grades are not good, even though I’m smart and worked pretty hard. I was just too busy writing for a living to care about getting an A.

  10. Did you enjoy college?
    I enjoyed the learning and didn’t get caught up in the ‘fun’ aspects of college. In reflecting, I may have missed out on some fun. I went to college to figure out what I wanted to do as a profession.

    What did you study and why?
    I got degrees in Psychology (BA) and Personnel Psychology (MA), because I was very good at it and also because it interested me, mainly the people dynamics of the business world. I was also very good at Math, yes that guy that screwed up the curve, but didn’t want to be a numbers cruncher my whole life.

    Would you do it differently today?
    Not sure if I would do it differently. I was in a rush to get out of school. This ‘gap year’ that I’m taking now has been a great opportunity to reassess.

    But is college really necessary??? It’s up to the individual. The business world encourages it, with all of the custom training companies give to their people, I’d bet that if given the same training to a college grad and non-college grad, the performance would be very similar.

  11. Jessica Lu

    1. i hope and pray every single day that the idea of college as defunct does not catch on, as i prepare to enter graduate school and dream of years as an inspiring, relatable, all-around lovable professor.

    2. college is not for everybody.

    3. college, at $52,000 per year (a la Villanova University, my alma mater), is not for ANYBODY. something must be done about the cost of higher education, before the realities of life keep our coming generations from seeking knowledge and experience. though it was not without incredible value, my college experience was most definitely not priceless. it was pricey.

  12. I went to work straight out of high school. I had to support myself and I viewed college as a luxury I couldn’t afford. After four years in the hospitality industry I came to the conclusion that college was a necessity I couldn’t NOT afford. I told my manager if he wanted me to do my job and do it well then he needed to send me to an accounting class at the community college. He did even though they hotel didn’t have a program for that sort of thing in place. I took an accounting class on the hotel’s dollar and paid for a psychology class on my own. The psychology class (or more specifically the amazing professor)changed my life. I took every class she taught. The community college didn’t offer an assoiates degree in psychology, so I flitted around major to major – computer programming, accounting, business, and then settled on an associates degree in general technology when I had enough credits to graduate.

    When the profesor took a job at a small liberal arts college, I followed her over there and majored in psychology. From there I went to grad school for a masters and doctorate in communication science and disorders because it seemed like the most interesting thing on the planet.

    I wouldn’t change a thing. My education – formal and informal – is who I am. I love teaching, I love learning. I have a job that pays me to do both! Does life get any better?

    1. Interesting. I know some people LOVE school. I love learning, (which journalism offers) but I do not enjoy school much, for a variety of reasons.

      Glad you have found such a great way to accommodate your passions!

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