Who Needs College? Maybe Fewer People Than We Thought

Princeton University Alexander
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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.

Immigrants Smarter Than Ever, Census Shows — Time To Revise Old Prejudices

Statue of Liberty (more formally, Liberty Enli...
Image via Wikipedia

As someone who’s technically, after 21 years in the U.S., an immigrant, I’ve long known that thousands of people living here and born elsewhere are smart as hell: lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, entrepreneurs, professors and then people like me who only have a bachelor’s degree but are still doing fine, making our mark professionally, contributing skills to our communities.

We’re not all bedraggled day laborers with six kids!

Yet if you listen to (God help you) conservative talk shows and focus only on what the mass media show us are “typical” immigrants, we’re an undifferentiated mass of low-wage workers forced by useless foreign degrees or poor language skills, whether legally or not, into doing the nastiest of jobs, whether slitting cow’s throats in midwestern abbatoirs or delivering Chinese food in Manhattan for $2/hour.

From that depressing inaccurate snapshot, it’s a quick, simple, racist progression to conflate immigrant with poor/struggling/uneducated/send ’em back!

Now the Census is revealing a sharp spike in immigrants with doctorates, reports The New York Times:

For the first time, fully 1 in 10 adults had an education beyond a bachelor’s degree. Among adults in their late 20s, 35 percent of women and 27 percent of men had a bachelor’s degree, an eight percentage point gender gap, compared with three percentage points in 1999.

Many immigrants don’t fit the tidy — and politically useful — working-class stereotype, such as the professional Haitians, like doctors and nurses living in the U.S., who rushed back to help their countrymen, profiled here by the Times.

This is a sensitive topic for me for two reasons — it’s ignorant and it’s rude. I’d say simply racist, but there are plenty of pale-skinned immigrants underestimated along with those whose skin contains  more melanin.

The U.S. was built by, and continues to thrive thanks to, the skills, ideas, drive and creativity of millions of educated, ambitious workers who choose to come and stay here, not merely those whose lowest hourly wage in the U.S. equals a day’s — or week’s — wage in their homeland. I interviewed such a man yesterday for my book, the funny, forthright, passionate CEO of Reflexis, an IT company working with retail giants like Staples; he and most of his management team are from India.

My partner, who is of Hispanic origin but an American citizen, born and raised here, has been the object of such casual racism it has shocked me to my roots. One sunny fall afternoon, wearing clean, quality casual clothing, he was looking up at the fall foliage on our building’s property, admiring the colors and said “What a view!”

A resident of our co-op, assuming he must, of course, be a day laborer who worked on the building’s brick re-pointing, responded: “You guys did a great job!”

My sweetie, which is his blessedly gentle nature, said nothing to correct this insulting assumption. The man has a Pulitzer.

People with dark skin, an accent and/or a foreign passport aren’t always struggling to climb the social and professional ladder, no matter how comforting that belief.

Some are seriously kicking ass.