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?
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?