In the United States — where all post-secondary education is called “college”, while in Britain, Canada and elsewhere it’s “university” — it’s anathema to suggest the very possibility of not attending college.
By this I mean a four-year degree — (Americans don’t confer three-year bachelor’s degrees) — from a private or public institution whose annual costs can be up to $60,000 a year.
This in an era when many blue-collar/manual labor jobs are begging for employees and, once you’ve finished your apprenticeship, (and usually gained union membership, which protects your wage-earning power), can make up to $100,000 a year — far more than many jobs that require multiple degrees.
In 2014 and 2015, I was an adjunct writing professor at Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn best known for the arts.
I taught freshman students in their four-year-writing program, amused and appalled by their parents’ willingness to cough up more per year — $60,000 — than 99.9% of the students will ever earn in a year of actually selling their words to anyone outside of Hollywood.
My husband attended New Mexico State University at no cost because his father was a Baptist minister in Santa Fe and he was given scholarships. I attended the University of Toronto (Canada’s best) and paid full freight — a fat $660 (yes) per year, also graduating debt-free.
What did I learn at university that has stayed with me?
—– Intellectual confidence
Having to argue my ideas in front of smart fellow students has helped me in a business where I have to do it every day.
— Social confidence
I led a student event in my junior year and that reminded me I do have leadership skills.
— Professional confidence
I wrote so much for the college weekly newspaper in freshman year I was writing for national media before I turned 20, still an undergrad.
— Language skills
I studied French for three years (fluent, thanks to a year spent in Paris) and four years of Spanish, both of which I’ve reported in.
— Dislike of authority
I got virtually no support from my professors or administrators beyond a (much appreciated) shout-out in a freshman English lit class. A year later, when I dared to ask for college credit for being nationally published, the chair of the English department sneered in reply without a word of congratulations or praise.
I’ve never given my alma mater a penny since.
Almost none of these was my course material — not Conrad or Chaucer or Locke or Plato.
The best thing university did for me was to force me to work hard for demanding professors who basically didn’t care if I succeeded or not, competing with smart and determined people around me.
Sounds like the “real world” to me!
Unless you’ve mastered specific technical skills — engineering, architecture, dentistry, law, medicine, business, computer science — I often wonder if college/university is truly the best preparation and the wisest investment of time and money.
What do you think?
What did you study and how has it helped you succeed professionally?
So, unless you majored in computer science or engineering (congrats if you did), you may have just entered one of the worst job markets in history. Awesome!
I’ve been seeing a lot of hand-wringing, despairing blog posts lately from frustrated fresh grads wondering if or when they’ll ever find a job, let alone a job that matters to them, let alone relevant to anything they studied. Plus all the other grads, two or three years out, who still can’t find a job that makes them feel that all the costs of college were worth it.
Here’s a great article with a lot of common sense suggestions, once you do land a job, no matter how menial. It’s from the U.S. edition of Glamour, a women’s magazine, but the savvy therein is unisex...
And here’s a funny, smart blog post by a young British female journalist about the need to “fake it until you make it.”
Here are my 12 tips to help you cope:
By all accounts, your generation has been cooed at/over since birth, almost without interruption, with a chorus of “Good job!” The second you’re not accomplishing something or winning an award or polishing your resume, (and getting lots of attention for it all), you feel ill at ease, possibly useless. Praise is so sweet…and yet, often, so meaningless.
Take an hour every day unplugged from all forms of technology
Savor it. Your best ideas will come to you alone, in silence and probably while in the natural world. Do not tether yourself to Facebook or Tumblr clutching for some sort of emotional blankie.
Read challenging, smart material. Every day
It’s easy to think “Thank God. I’m done!” No more papers, tests, exams, finals. Just because you’ve snagged your diploma doesn’t mean it’s time to turn your brain off. Veg for a while, but make a point of reaching for some smart, tough work. If you’re an art history major, are you up on the (latest) banking scandal ? Do you know what Libor is? Read the business section of the Wall Street Journal and/or New York Times, the Financial Times if you’re really ambitious. If you’re an economics or political science major, take the time to read history, arts and literature. Throughout your life, and not just to get or keep a job, you need to keep broadening your horizons and stay sharp!
People tend to hire and promote people with insatiable curiosity and the ability to quickly analyze and sift through complex data.
Run, bike, walk the dog til s/he is exhausted. Climb a mountain, or several. Mow the lawn — without an electric mower. Stress and frustration mount exponentially if you don’t release them; hard physical exertion will calm and soothe you. During the absolutely worst six weeks of my life, (I was 19 and alone, both my parents far away traveling and unreachable), I went to the gym every single day and worked out. I ended up with something like 8 percent body fat, Olympian style. It was free and gave me a place to go, a purpose, a routine, a uniform — and wicked muscles.
Find an activity or hobby you love so much you can’t wait to do it every day
Make it something physical, tactile, sensual, practical. If at all possible, make it outdoors, social and an activity that produces something visible, useful and/or beautiful. It’s deeply satisfying and will keep your confidence up.
Spend time around people much older and/or much younger than you are
Visit your grandparents or a nearby nursing home. Do it face to face. Read to someone whose eyesight is failing. Anyone over 40 has already survived three recessions since they graduated — so they get it. And they’re OK. Anyone who lived through the Depression really gets it; perspective is useful. Hang out with your younger siblings or cousins, if you have any. Play is good. Get far away from your peers on a regular basis — they’re probably either equally whiny and miserable or happily employed which will make you even more miserable.
A dream deferred is not a dream necessarily permanently denied
The economy is somewhat on the mend. I see it in my own freelance business, which was in the tank 18 months ago. So you can’t, right now, have the job/income/life you want and think you have earned and are so certain you deserve. Take a number! Stay cool and focus on things that can make you happy in the meantime. Keep taking baby steps toward your goal, even if it means working without pay for a while. If nothing is making you happy, get a grip. Or get help.
Whenever someone gives you a chance to work for/with them, be amazing
It’s “only” retail or dog-walking or baby-sitting or waitressing or whatever…Rock it! I’ve spent the past month working with a fresh grad from the Midwest who is smart, brave, organized and follows up and through on everything I ask her to do as my assistant. (She’s getting busier with her internship — if you want to help me out, paid, email me. I’d prefer someone in Canada or the U.S. who understands how American business works. You must be ethical, a very quick learner and 200% reliable.)
Find a community and show up regularly
It might be a faith-based community or a softball team or your local yarn-bombers. You need to be around fun, funny, happy people face to face who’ll keep your spirits up and remind you that work is not the only thing in the world. One of the toughest parts of graduating is leaving the home you created for yourself at school — friends, frats/sororities, clubs, dorms, campus groups, maybe even a few favorite professors. The comforting routines are gone. An unstructured life is fairly terrifying, especially if you’re not terribly self-disciplined.
Many of the people you hope will hire, mentor, network with, refer or promote you are people who have likely already weathered a whole lot more than you have yet. They may have survived serious illness, the loss of loved ones, being fired from one or several jobs with all the financial and emotional stress that entails. Professionals do not vent at work and certainly never to their bosses. We don’t want to hear how tough things are. We know.
Travel, as far, often and cheaply as possible
Even if it’s only within a 10 or 20 mile radius of your home, you’ll learn something new if you’re open to it. Take a notebook and camera and be observant. If you can possibly find a way to flee the borders of the United States, preferably alone and cheaply, do so. Get a passport, and use it! You’ll quickly learn a great deal about how other people think and behave, and why. We all live and work in a global economy. You need to get that on a fundamental level to thrive in the 21st century.
Make a good-looking business card for yourself
“But I don’t have a job!” Yes, you do — job-hunter. Your card, which is simple, clean and elegant, will have your full name, your home and cell numbers (if you have both), your email address and your website(s) that show your work. Every time you leave home, carry your cards with you so you can use them whenever you meet a potential job lead. This alone will make you stand out from the sweaty, desperate pack.
I’m amazed more grads don’t know what this is, but it’s the best way to find out if you even really want to work in a particular kind of job or industry. I decided, in my mid-30s, to leave journalism and become an interior designer, but before I even enrolled in school, (which cost plenty), I went out and interviewed three women who had worked in the field for many years. I learned a great deal, and a few things that surprised me.
People are generally happy to help if: 1) you do your homework first so you have intelligent questions to ask them; 2) you take no more than 20 minutes; 3) you send a hand-written thank you note on good quality paper through the mail the next day; 4) you do not ask them for a job! The point is simply to learn, but very often, if you leave a fantastic impression, you’ve opened a door for future contact. Things to ask might include: Why did you choose this field? What do you enjoy most/least? What’s a typical day/week/month? What are the three most essential skills to succeed in your field/industry? What’s the worst deal-breaker you typically see when you meet a job applicant? What has surprised you the most about working in this field? If you were to start again tomorrow, would you still choose it?
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.
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?
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.
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.