Why bother with college?

By Caitlin Kelly

Academic (Photo credit: tim ellis)

Why stay in college?

Why go to night school?

Gonna be different this time…

— Life During Wartime, Talking Heads

It’s been an interesting exchange here this week. Said one commenter:

The questions to ask aren’t why are you applying for a job with me when you didn’t go to/finish college, ( under the assumption ( as you put it ) that they never had any desire ) but why didn’t you, and why do
you you believe you can do this job without the degree?

It’s all perception based. Your perception ( likely based on experience ) is that one without a degree can’t process high volume data or intake complex scenarios and send them back out in some semblance of order. But it’s a flawed one, just as the pay grade issue is. But it is what you’ve come to expect. Just as people without degrees have come to expect to take low paying jobs.

It’s the system as it stands.

So…let’s discuss.

If you — as many Broadside readers are — are a current college student, graduate or undergraduate, or someone teaching them — what’s up with that? Why did you  choose to attend college? Not this or that one.

Govt. Rizvia Islamia Degree College, Haroonabad
Govt. Rizvia Islamia Degree College, Haroonabad (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Any one at all.

I attended the University of Toronto, Canada’s most competitive and highest-ranked. I needed good grades to get in and I had to produce at a high level to keep my grades high enough to stay. It was not a place to dick around, skip class, show up hungover or say stupid things in front of smart, ambitious peers.

I liked that. I wanted to be honed and sharpened. It never occurred to me (lack of imagination?) not to attend a competitive and demanding university.

Maybe because no one in my family had a college degree.

Not my mother, who worked as a national magazine journalist and television talk-show host and film-maker. Not my father, an award-winning film-maker, nor my stepmother who made a very good living writing for television. Several — long loud laugh! — have vastly out-earned me, with my fancy schmancy B.A in English.

Do I regret my four years on campus? No.

Did they prepare me for a career in journalism? Not really.

I’ve written about young, smart people who leave college — the Thiel fellows. I’m fully aware that the U.S. has an atrociously low rate of graduation from college, with one-third of students dropping out without graduating.

I’ve hired a number of assistants over the years and their education matters, but not as much as their work ethic and ability to pick up and use complicated information quickly.

Here’s a 24-page policy paper by Anya Kamenetz, of the policy group Third Way, with her proposal for a $10,000/year college degree.

Clearly, there are many professions that will simply never credential anyone without a college degree, let alone specialized study: engineers, accountants, physicians, dentists, nurses, architects and lawyers among them.

English: Taken from a scan of a degree awarded...
English: Taken from a scan of a degree awarded by the college. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But all those young ‘uns finding themselves — at an annual cost of $15,00 to $50,000 a year for an American college degree? Would their time be better spent elsewhere?

Doing what?

For how long?

For some, a vocation — carpentry, HVAC, hairdressing, animal care — is the better choice, for a variety of reasons.

I don’t care what someone does to prepare for employment as long as they can clearly and persusasively explain their choice.

If you have hiring authority, and an applicant has no college education at all — and no desire to acquire one — would you interview them?

Would their decision affect how you view them as a potential employee?


17 thoughts on “Why bother with college?

  1. Excellent questions. I would certainly consider hiring someone who is not a graduate as long as they can demonstrate a good work ethic, stickability and intelligence (all depending on the job of course). In fact, my current assistant, one of my best hires ever, left school at 16, and by the time she came to work for me had been working fulltime for 5 years. She was far better at the job than the 4th year uni student I previously employed, despite his undoubted intelligence and lovely nature. I don’t have a degree, and now that I am in my 40s feel that it is not relevant for the type of work I do. I do think it demonstrates intelligence and an ability to communicate, but sadly in this day and age also demonstrates people who are willing to take on a crushing financial burden or who have wealthy parents. I did a year at uni, and although the main reason I left was because I couldn’t afford to continue (no financial support, living away from home etc) one of the reasons was because I was actually happier working, with regular people who had no sense of superiority because they were at uni. I have a tertiary management qualification obtained by studying part-time after hours. I was top of the course because the study was relevant to me, and I was ready to do it. I was in my mid-20s by then and working full-time.

    The ideal for me would be someone who had a degree, but who had worked throughout university to support themselves. Too many uni students come out with a degree and a sense of entitlement. Why should I hire them as a customer service person over someone who has been working, talking to people all day every day for the same amount of time the degree took? Depending on the role, a person who had worked in retail would be a better fit than someone who had been studying for years.

    And yet…there’s a real cachet to having a degree. And I’ll certainly be encouraging my kids to go to uni. They’re smart and several of them are hardworking and I’ll be encouraging them to apply for academic scholarships and work part-time through uni.

    Great thinking point. I will say that specialist qualifications and knowledge aside, nowadays I am far more likely to hire on attitude than experience or qualifications.

    Also, would love to do your webinar, but because of the time difference, I will be at work! Is there any option to have it recorded and do it in my own time?

    1. Thanks for sharing your story…

      What many employers are saying now (which is sad) is how poorly prepared for work uni students are…they apparently are very poorly skilled at analysis and communication, which virtually every field relies on!

      I think, if you can afford it, and if you thrive on the hyper-caffeinated stimulation of a very good/tough school, why not? I remember still my profs and my excitement at learning difficult material. But it seems so many students focus on getting grades (or not caring) instead of learning to deal well with adults…one of the challenges of school is the power imbalance of prof/student, when in the work world the relationships are sometimes more fluid.

      Some webinars are turning into individual coaching sessions, which is fine…but they are more expensive as it is one on one. I charge $150/hour, with a one-hour minimum. But then you can ask whatever you want and we can work by Skype. The time difference is tricky, I know…but a Saturday afternoon here is a Sunday morning for you, so that can work. Feel free to email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com and we can find a time that works for you.

  2. This topic has been on my mind lately. I have my undergraduate degree a BFA with my major in Drama from the University of Calgary. Personally, it has helped me get many a job in mostly unrelated fields. My first job out of university could have been obtained without this degree; my last 3 jobs, probably not.
    Currently, I’m teaching English in South Korea and the minimum requirement to do this is a bachelor’s degree; with many SK university jobs now requiring a master’s degree.
    So, in my case, even with a degree that I’ve never used directly for my chosen major, I’ve always been quite grateful for the opportunities it’s given me.
    That being said, education has become too much about the money and not about the end results. I was shocked to watch a documentary stating that in America student debt currently exceeds consumer debt; I was shocked by this. The education industry is working every angle to bleed their students of as much money as possible by constantly raising tuition fees and requiring textbooks that have a magical new edition each year.
    The business of education leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Now, as I contemplate taking my master’s, I find it hard to fork over my hard earned money to something that I feel is over priced and literally just a piece of paper. BUT that piece of paper will get me a university job teaching English which is what I want, so at the same time I kind of feel like I don’t have much of a choice.
    My compromise for the whole thing is to take my 2 year master’s degree online, with the U of C, while I maintain my current teaching job full-time and put myself through school free of any loans.
    And that gets us into the discussion of online schooling being inferior, in my mind it’s the future of secondary schooling. We’re at the point where it’s become so expensive you can’t afford to not work while attending. So, instead of dropping out half way through because you realize it’s not feasible, why not make it accessible for everyone via online? Obviously certain careers wouldn’t work as well as others, but some would work just like it would if you were to attend a live lecture.
    Great post – very thought provoking!

    1. Thanks for commenting! Lots to think about…

      I also hate the idea of going broke to earn a credential, but it seems impossible to get into certain jobs without it. I have no master’s degree so — even with 30 years’ experience, two books, awards — I cannot even get an adjunct teaching job anywhere. What on earth would a master’s degree add to my knowledge? In my view, very little and nothing that makes trading hours of my time and $$$$$ for a poorly-paid adjunct job. I did recently discuss teaching a class at NYU night school that I actually created in 1995 — the money was SO low I have made almost twice there here with my own webinars and coaching, in less time.

      So the rip-off also applies to the many adjuncts who are paid pennies. I think many people are quite fed up with the system as is.

  3. I have an associates degree and have been employed since I left college. 4.5 years at one job and 13 years at the second. I don’t believe a college degree is necessary for everyone. My heart aches for these kids who graduate $80k in debt and can only find internship type jobs. I think experience means so much more than a degree. I do sometimes feel like I’d want to go back to school and finish my degree but not to get a better job more for checking that off my list and I would study something that interests me like math or art history.

    1. I’m glad it worked out for you, and I wish more people would tell their stories of non-college success. As I saw in my own family, there are ways to make a very good living without a degree, but most people shuffle off to college, piling on debt, because….they are unaware of other options or find the idea of vocational work declasse. My plumber charges $125/hour. My hair salon appointment yesterday cost more than that…They’re doing just fine without a college degree!

  4. A willingness to work and the desire to get the job done are the requirements I look for. What the degree shows me is they can stick it out for at least four years. However, if the applicant has shown they can work and can be taught, I will at the very least talk to them. On the flip side, a degree from a university with little or no outside activities/interests is a red flag that the applicant may just be an academic and has theoretical but not practical knowledge. I’ll take a “B” graduate with a slew of outside interests and a solid work history over an “A” student with four degrees, all day long!

    1. Interesting…It’s a sad comment (although true) that we view “sticking it out for four years” as some sort of desirable quality. I admit, I wanted out quite a few times, but stuck with it.

      I agree, I prefer people with a variety of interests and passions, but to each his own.

      1. I did not mean ‘sticking it out’ as high praise. Just a minimum indicator of commitment. Practical experience is still the most desired quality. If someone has the desire to work, in most cases, they can be trained to the job.

  5. College has opened up so many opportunities for me: a wonderful part-time job, new skills I wouldn’t have learned in another environment, friendships that’ll last for years, and so much more. I’m not bothering with college; I’m partaking in college, I’m indulging in it. It’s awesome!

  6. I think that this is a really interesting question, and one I’ve asked myself since a lot of the careers I’m interested in don’t actually require a degree. But I think it helps. Like you, I’m at a really strong competitive school — one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. And no, I don’t know that I’m going to pursue graduate school or directly use my degree in my future career, but I do feel that college has offered me four years to do a lot of growing without having to worry about supporting myself and putting food on the table in the same way that working would have. I’ve been challenged, taught to push myself, think critically and write clearly. I’ve been able to network with a ton of people. And I’ve been able to travel abroad twice to countries that have fundamentally changed me and my worldview.

    Granted I never considered not going to college. In my family, as the daughter of an undergraduate professor, that was never really a question. But I do think I’ve learned so much and grown so much in the last four years, that I’m really grateful for my time here. I feel better prepared for whatever’s ahead, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. (That said, I know that from a financial standpoint, college has been pretty easy for me thanks to the help my parents/grandparents are giving me, and I know that’s not the case for everyone. But I hope that schools, like the one I’m at, keep having strong aid programs, because I really believe that equal education opportunities are really important and that (idealistic I know) students should be able to have access to a strong college education if they want it.)

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