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?

So, Fresh Grads — Time To Slack Off? It Might Change Your Life

Luke Stedman of Australia rides a wave to win ...
Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

I liked this piece in The New York Times a lot, advocating some serious downtime post-graduation. But I wonder how many can afford it (student debt?):

After graduation, I spent five years wandering around doing nothing — or getting as close to it as I could manage. I was a cab driver, an obsessed moviegoer, a wanderer in the mountains of Colorado, a teacher at a crazy grand hippie school in Vermont, the manager of a movie house (who didn’t do much managing), a crewman on a ship and a doorman at a disco. The most memorable job of all, though, was a gig on the stage crew for a rock production company in Jersey City. We did our shows at Roosevelt Stadium, a grungy behemoth that could hold 60,000, counting seats on the grass. I humped amps out of the trucks and onto the stage; six or so hours later I humped them back. I did it for the Grateful Dead and Alice Cooper and the Allman Brothers and Crosby, Stills & Nash on the night that Richard Nixon resigned…

“So, what are you doing after graduation?” Thirty-five years later, a college teacher, I ask my students the old question. They aren’t inclined to dissimulate now. The culture is on their side when they tell me about law school and med school and higher degrees in journalism and business; or when they talk about a research grant in China or a well-paying gig teaching English in Japan.

I’m impressed, sure, but I’m worried about them too. Aren’t they deciding too soon? Shouldn’t they hang out a little, learn to take it slow?

I spent four months traveling alone through Europe when I was 20 and it changed me forever, as I knew (and hoped) that it would. I had no student debt (Canadian universities, today, are still only about $5,000 a year in tuition for citizens) and some savings and some assignments and some money from my Mom.

I had never been so lonely — or so adventurous. I began in Lisbon, traveled through Portugal, Spain, Italy and France. Workaholic even then, I sold 10 freelance stories to Canadian newspaper editors.

But I still had some wild moments, from being taken home by an odd Frenchman missing a few fingers to his wife and kids to the unbelievable hospitality of a German Reuters stringer in Barcelona who invited me into her home, alone with her kids, after barely an hour’s acquaintance. I learned to trust myself and others; when and how to ask for help (and when to tough it out); that being the only woman amid 55 men on Easter Sunday in Evora’s town square was very, very weird. (In rural Portugal, women were only acceptable, and remained unharassed in public when accompanied by their husband, father or child[ren.])

I still have powerful memories of that journey: writing a letter to John Cheever with a question about his collected short stories I was reading en-route (he wrote back); being really sick on a train going from Venice to Barcelona; suffering a major attack of hypoglycemia one night in Lisbon and, speaking no Portuguese, trying to buy aspirin; meeting a young couple heading home from France to Lisbon for their marriage that weekend.

They needed a wedding photographer — and I became it — wearing a lovely dress I had just bought in Florence a few days earlier. I still remember breakfasts around their mother’s table (yes, I stayed with them as well!) being asked why codfish at 8:00 a.m. wasn’t something I devoured eagerly.

I’m not sure what else I could possibly have done in those months that could possibly have provided such delicious and indelible memories. Such a long solo journey also proved my interest in European affairs and working on my own, skills that won me a life-changing Paris-based journalism fellowship barely five years later. Who knew?

I met a young man a few years ago who wandered, literally, for about seven years after dropping out of college. He worked all over the country doing odd jobs, for a while as a short order cook. His parents, wealthy and focused on material success, were horrified; his Mom, a church friend, made his intriguing peregrinations sound insane and misguided. When I finally met him, he was fun, funny, smart, warm and interesting — and, at 29, finally went back to (and graduated from) Cornell. Whew!

His younger sister had — natch — become a corporate lawyer, just like Dad. Guess who won all that family’s approval?

If you’re about to flee campus for the last time, what plans do you have for the summer — or next few months? Are you planning to do anything fun or quirky or go off traveling? Would your parents be horrified if you did?

Parents, how would you feel? Have any of you had such post-grad adventures?