College? Who needs college?

English: Cropped image of Soldiers' Tower of H...
English: Cropped image of Soldiers’ Tower of Hart House (University of Toronto). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s becoming a serious question, at least here in the United States where student debt is totally out of control, with graduates carrying $30,000 or $60,000 or even $100,000 in debt they’ll be re-paying (or not) for decades.

And that’s not even the bill for medical, law, dental, vet or MBA degrees, or computer science or engineering, each of which can probably net you $100,000 a year or much more, which is at least a decent ROI.

But digging into $85K worth of debt, as this young woman has for an English degree?


I was very lucky. My entire year’s tuition — no, that’s not missing a zero — was $660 in 1975. Today it’s not much more than $5,000 for most undergrad classes at my alma mater, University of Toronto, consistently ranked as one of Canada’s top three. I studied English and read Chaucer aloud in Middle English, learned about 16th century drama and 19th century poetry. Did it help me be(c0me) a better journalist?

Not really.

But — perhaps most essentially — I had to work really hard, independently and consistently, for four years on new-to-me and challenging material. None of my profs knew or would have cared that I’d been attacked in my crummy little apartment or that umpteen boyfriends had dumped me or that my growing freelance career was making attending class almost impossible some weeks.

I had to figure all of this out for myself, plus living alone.

All of which, while sometimes horribly stressful, was excellent training for journalism, and for life.

So why go to college?

Can you learn what you need elsewhere — through an apprenticeship, internships, community college or vocational training?

Here’s my latest New York Times business story, about a select group of very bright, insanely ambitious men and women — all younger than 20 when they started — who’ve skipped school, given $50,000 a year to work on their own projects instead, thanks to the Thiel fellowship.

I interviewed seven fellows, (three female, two from Canada, one of them a U of T dropout!), three parents, two administrators and two observers. The gorgeous photos were taken by Peter DaSilva, who is based in San Francisco, and who also shot the images for my Times Google story. The photo editor on this piece was my husband.

Unlike Americans, who often choose to attend college far from home, most Canadians attend their local university. U of T is Canada’s Harvard, tough to get into and tough to get through. It’s also enormous — 50,000+ students — so it’s not a great fit for someone who needs or wants a lot of hand-holding. Its downtown campus, is right in the heart of Toronto, blocks from the provincial Parliament buildings and gleaming office towers.

In some ways, U of T was perfect for me. My fellow students were really smart and, being a competitive person, I liked that. The professors were passionate world-class scholars who took their work seriously. I loved the downtown campus, so gorgeous it’s been featured in many films and commercials.

I started my journalism career there, writing as often as possible for the weekly Varsity. By the end of sophomore year I had enough clips from there to start writing professionally, my dream, for national magazines and newspapers.

My first serious boyfriend was — natch! — the paper’s editor. University gave me everything I so craved in high school: lots of cute boys who liked me, tremendous intellectual stimulation and growth, terrific athletic facilities, new friends.

But in other ways, it was a really rough ride.

My parents were both far away and out of touch, traveling the world, so navigating it all meant living alone in small apartments on very little money while freelancing and attending class. I got a D in French. When I cried with frustration and bewilderment, the prof merely sniffed; “It’s clear you arrived here very poorly prepared.”

A life-changing experience was participating in the Tarheel Exchange, which carried a busload of U of T’ers south to UNC Chapel Hill, in North Carolina in November and returned the Tarheels north to us for a week in January.

In Chapel Hill, we encountered many novelties: attending church service at a black Baptist church and a pig-picking (barbecue) and we heard an administrator struggle to retain his composure discussing race relations. The Tarheels, on their visit, had never seen snow!

I fell hard for a tall handsome redhead named Seth.  I went back the next year as an organizer of the group and met Rip and Beau, men whose monosyllabic names stretched to three syllables with their charming southern drawl.

Canada offered nothing so exotic!

College, for me as it is/was for many of us, was a place to grow up quickly, to learn to meet high standards, to deal with demanding strangers, to make new friends, to think deeply and write thoughtfully.  Ironically, I was the first in my family to graduate university — my Dad, a film-maker, had dropped out of UBC, my step-mom never attended and neither did my mother. Everyone did just fine without a degree.

Did you enjoy — or are you now enjoying — college?

Do you feel the investment of time and money is worth it?

25 thoughts on “College? Who needs college?

  1. My law degrees (one from U of T’s competition, Western) taught me that I can do anything I set my mind to. Even though I no longer choose to practice law, I take that confidence with me. I can’t put a price on that. That said, I don’t think university is for everyone. Many students go to fulfill other people’s goals, rather than their own.

    1. Multiple law degrees! I didn’t think I could be more impressed, but I am. 🙂

      I agree with you that that sort of confidence is a great asset and it has helped me negotiate here in New York where, as you know as well, egos can be large.

      I am intrigued by when and how we find our vocations.

      1. Only two – I was just finishing up at Western when my husband got the job transfer that brought us to the States. I had to do two years at Villanova to get a US law degree in order to practice here.

  2. Nemesis

    I was awarded a ProvincialScholarship [in more ways than one, Ms. Malled]… but I tossed it and spent the entire cheque on my first Nikon instead. I dare say your husband would understand.

    It worked out rather well in the end… But I’m lucky.

    Well. There it is.

  3. I won several scholarships which made attending my school easier, particularly the first year, and I absolutely loved university. My degree is largely considered useless (European Studies, emphasis English History), but I got a lot of opportunities when I was there. I interned at NATO, worked as a personal assistant for a professor and helped him redevelop the major as the uni began offering it again for the first time in year, and as a student assistant in my international students’ office, and took intellectually challenging classes. I learned to write well, think well, and converse well – and I do credit the university setting for much of that.

    University isn’t for everyone (I wish the US would do better on catching up with proper trade schools, apprenticeships, and alternative career certifications so that those who choose not to go to uni can get an education and professional training), but for many it’s the right choice. It was for me. I’d do it again, “useless” degree included.

    And so far, incurring debt for grad school looks like the right choice for J., but if we hadn’t felt as if it was the right thing to do, or if it had seemed utterly beyond us, we might not have forged ahead the way we did. J.’s extremely lucky to have landed an offer with the firm he wanted to work for, many of his classmates have not been as fortunate. Ultimately we’ll have to see if our higher ed gamble pays off.

    1. I can see, from what I’ve learned about you here and through your blog, that you would thrive in uni, for sure. I love the range of experiences you had there as well, really the ideal of what college can, and should, offer the bright and ambitious.

      Congrats on J’s job offer! That must be a terrific relief.

  4. Oh believe me, I’m enjoying college, and I believe that it is definitely a great investment! I’m learning so much, I’ve got a great job, and I’ve met some friends. Three short stories I came up with during my first year are also getting or have already gotten published, so what does that tell you?
    And the man’s name was Rip? That’s the name of a major character in my sci-fi novel! Tell me, what sort of man was this Rip?

  5. I first took a gap year between graduating high school and starting college, and then I proceeded to quit school one year away from obtaining my degree. Although I love learning, the college experience just wasn’t for me. I’m not a big fan of large classes, or learning surrounded by so many other people. Also, my local University has a strong focus on athletics, and a rowdy reputation – parties just were never my scene (in fact, I found myself quite happy to skip the college lifestyle almost completely).
    All in all, I found everything about the college experience to be lackluster and not worth the amount of money I was paying. This was compounded by the fact that although I enjoyed my major (cinema studies), I floundered throughout the years, trying to figure out what I really wanted to DO with my life. At the end of the day, I’ve found enjoyment in independent studies outside of classes, and have taken up work for my mom’s Interior Design business, as it is a passion of mine and our state currently does not require a degree for licensing. This may not be a path that works for everyone, but I’ve found it was the right one for me!

    1. This sounds like a great fit for you!

      Interior design was something I studied later in life and LOVED it. I did not go into the business as I didn’t want to make $10/hr in my late 30s to get started. I just couldn’t afford it after my marriage busted up.

      But I had a wonderful experience at NYSID and have much fonder memories of my time there because I knew my teachers and had very small (20) classes filled with some talented people. I loved learning spatially, about color, art history, drafting…it was a totally different experience in every way from U of T. I think it’s easy to forget we all have individual learning styles.

      1. It’s so true! I do much better in a smaller, less chaotic environment, but I know many people who thrive in large classrooms. There is something to be said for picking the right college for you, each one is a different fit 🙂

  6. Life was such for me, that college wasn’t remotely in the cards when I dropped out of high school. I always felt bad about myself for that. Then in my mid-30’s I earned a G.E.D. (general education degree) and went to college, starting with a community college first which ushered me into a world of education that was exciting, stimulating and inspiring. I was twice the age of most of my freshman class. The BA that I earned from Naropa University in Creative Writing and Poetics was never going to be a credential that prepared me for a career. Still, the college experience, albeit late in life, along with a real deisre to be there (I obviously wan’t in college because my parents wanted me to be) was one that has colored the way I view the world. Naropa especially awakeed a sense of social justice in me that is active in my life now and brings balance to my work-a-day world. I think it is sad that college is financially out or reach and becomming more so. Education is a right of passage that I don’t think we as a country can afford to lose!

    1. It’s an ongoing and interesting dilemma — the notion of college as work-prep (alone) or (also) as you saw, a place to awaken a wide range of other possibilities. College as credential alone is too narrow and sort of sad.

  7. I would never regret my decision to go to university, it have learnt lessens of life that are unique to a university education, It has given me confidence, support and self worth. On the other hand my brother has made a successful career, at the age of 23, from an apprenticeship. There is an answer to every direction, inevitably we make our own futures. It is deeply saddening that the cost can restrict so many individuals, it shouldn’t be like this. Great post thank you!!

  8. I didn’t know about your Tarheel connection. Congratulations from a native tarheel. Isn’t Chapel Hill a fun place? My middle daughter went to UNC as a seventeen-year-old and she’s still there three degrees later. She’s a lawyer and works for the Institute of Government on campus.

    I think it’s shame that even state institutions have become cost-prohibitive for many of our students. It probably means some of my nine grandchildren will not attend.

    1. I LOVED Chapel Hill! I liked it so much I organized the trip the following year just to get back there then went and visited friends I made a few times. Love Cat’s Cradle. I really like NC a lot so I can see why she stayed so long.

      I hope your grandkids will find some work they value and that will allow them to make a good living, with or without that degree.

  9. I am back in a community College right now. I started out thinking that I would major in comparative literature with a minor in linguistics, (farsi, spanish and english). Then it kept changing. Now I am taking a ton of random classes like photography and weaving and the more I stay in school the less I can identity a specific major. But I am having a lot of fun

  10. I went to college. I graduated. I loved it.
    But it never taught me how to network or forcefully pursue the things I was interested in. I wasn’t lazy, but I don’t think the college I attended had enough relevance to the real world. And I don’t think it could have. College is many steps away from being forced to ‘survive’ without the concrete safety net of counselors and teachers and easy friends.
    Perhaps my school was too sheltered. Perhaps I was too sheltered. But knowing what I know now, college (in the US) seems like an industry designed to keep kids ‘just happy enough’ that they’ll continue to give the school money.
    But in a catch22, only because I went to college can I say that with confidence. If I hadn’t gone, I might now feel like I missed out.
    So I guess it was worth it for me to make a mistake like college to get where I am now.
    Still, if a high school student came to me asking for advice about college, I’d recommend they try to start a career or get a job and live on their own, or travel on their own dime before thinking about ‘higher learning’.
    Thanks for the post. You made me ponder a question that’s been bothering me for a while 🙂

    1. I agree.

      College allows students to remain passive for four more years — then when they graduate into a highly competitive world they have no idea how to do that. The problem for many 17 year olds is that they do not know what they want to do, then or later, and need to figure it out. Spending $$$$$$$ to find yourself in college seems silly to me, but I bet a lot of people are doing that still.

  11. excellent timing. my older child just started at boston u. tuition – about $60k. holy crap. her mother allowed her to tour and select whatever university she wanted. she was accepted at johns hopkins, columbia, and boston u. she was disappointed she was not able to attend duke. not sure why, but hey, i’m just the father.

    then the mother asked me, “oh, please send me a check for half.” and i answered with, “really? to what degree was i included in the process? did you ever ask me what i could afford to contribute, or did you just, as usual, spoil the child and allow her to have whatever she wants? such as the beer party when she was 17 and the tattoos when she was about the same age?

    in a time when jobs and the economy are dancing on a thread, how can anyone – other than mitt romney – justify sending a child to a university that costs more than a new BMW per year?

    wait. what were you talking about? something about colleges?

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