There’s been a lot of talk in recent years of the futility of College, that Higher Education is a bubble and that students are better off doingsomething else. There is good reason for it. College is expensive, and unreasonably so.
In discussing with a friend some ideas in education, I asked him what was the biggest problem in education, and his response was: “A College degree is worthless.” This business owner doesn’t pay any more for new hires with a College education than those without. He expects them to do and know certain things and have skills but, guess what, College almost never gives them those specific skills. Oops. He trains them up, degree or no.
For some students, College has become a bad financial deal, a nightmare of large debts for an education that doesn’t give them the golden ticket to the good job and the good life they expected. In the extreme case, you can spend $200,000 for an elite private Liberals Arts College degree and end up working for Starbucks. That’s not an urban legend, but an anecdote from the New York Times.
So when James Altucher says Don’t Send Your Kids to College, bucking a few generations of American Dream conventional wisdom, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. He makes the financial pitch: $100,000 to $200,000 and four years on College is a big sink of money and time, isn’t it possible to use that in a more financially reward way? Invest it in the stock market and you will get a better return than the income differential would give you.
Yet my own daughter is busy taking College prep courses, doing AP tests and getting ready for a College experience. I can’t say no or discourage that, nor can millions of other parents with aspiring College-bound children. We don’t want to deny our children that educational experience that will be with them for life, nor risk that missing out on that credential will hurt them down the road. In my case, with my EE degree in the early 1980s, I went from a summer job making $5 and hour to making $33,000 a year straight out of College. It was definitely a good deal for me at the time, and led to a good career you cannot get otherwise. That path to a professional career is a key reason why we went to College in previous generations, and a reason why many next generation students will still need College, even if its reformulated for the 21st century.
Now it’s true that many people will argue for going to College for the simple reason that it ‘worked’ for them. Well, most of us older than 35 were educated before the WorldWideWeb busted open vaults of knowledge. There is more knowledge available just a google search away, then existed in the best University libraries two decades ago (or even today).
The reality check is that a lot of what worked in the past is not working, and a lot of past impossible alternatives to traditional College are now possible. A lot more students are going to College now, and undoubtably some don’t belong there. There are several problems. One are those who are simply not academically prepared or rigorous enough.
and second, those students who lack the motivation to get much out of their college education. If those students don’t get prepared for a specific career path, they may end up in the nightmare category with an expensive degree and nothing to show for it. Second, many students aren’t properly aware of the ‘real world’ and haven’t figured out what they want to do in life, or even if they do have some idea, it’s often based on idealism versus reality.
Preparation, motivation and direction are all needed to succeed in College. If you are not ready, don’t go.
Why go to College? In basic terms: To Learn, and to get a credential to prove that you learned.
There is one key thing any student needs to learn. It’s more important than grammar, Calculus, the history of England, how to develop a business marketing strategy, or quantum states of high energy particles. It’s how to learn. Once you know how to be a self-learner, you are a scholar. You can go places knowledge-wise, and extend your capabilities
in research and knowledge that will be with you for life. Anyone who stops learning in life, is set for a diminished and boring future, professionally and personally.
For some technical areas, it goes beyond merely learning to learn, but a specific set of knowledge and skills. The degree and department is as important as where you go to school. It really doesn’t matter where you got your English lit or sociology degree, it won’t get you a petroleum engineering or chemist job. Conversely, any specialized degree will be valuable if and only if it’s a solid credential, based on school and GPA.
What if you could get a credential that showed: “Here’s a Self Learner. Here’s a Scholar. Here’s someone who knows how the world works, knows how to think, is diligent and can get things done.” Sooner or later, HR folks in businesses will look at that and realize they’ve got an employable candidate, and that credential would be as good as any generic liberal arts BA.
So do you need to go to College to prove that? Ah, there’s the rub. You probably COULD find alternative ways to show and prove this out, and some of those alternatives would be probably more interesting, fun, challenging and real. Like becoming a 3rd world missionary, starting a business, spending four years working on the ground floor of your chosen profession, travelling, etc. Or learning in non-traditional ways. Don’t study Chinese, live in China for 9 months and learn it there. Becoming a “Road Scholar” gives you the kind of education you can’t get in a classrom, but doesn’t give you credits and credentials that are easily digestable by HR. But then, if you are doing all those interesting things for a job interview and not for life, maybe you are doing it for the wrong reasons.
Since College is 4 years of time plus a lot of money, one has to ask, what about the
opportunity costs? What else can one do that would take you farther and faster? Are there
such alternatives? The good news is there are alternatives to a traditional four-year College degree,
almost all of them provide some value to students. Consider Community College for the first 2 years,
and then transfer to a 4-year school that accepts the credits, for example Texas College ‘core’ credits are transferrable to Texas state schools, like UT, so you can learn the 40+ credit college core on the cheap and then pay only for the remaining 70 or so credits, could be under 3 years. There are low-cost alternatives to an expensive College, if you want a degree on the cheap; for example, Western Governor’s University online program will run you not much more than $10,000 for a degree, and other online degree possibilities are in that range.
Even more radically inexpensive is the next generation of online Higher Ed alternatives, providing College courses and tests for much less, and in some cases free. You now can learn practically anything online, most of it for free; MIT’s MITx, offering many of their courses as open courseware is a trailblazer in this trend. With so much learning on the cheap, the next barrier to fall will be the barrier between non-traditional learning and the traditional credential.
You might compare these alternatives to using different car models for your commute. You can use a basic Honda Civic as a vehicle instead of a Mercedes; they won’t have the prestige or cachet of an elite University, but it still will get you where you need to be, if what you want is a basic degree. Some Colleges will be better than others for certain degrees or paths, such as pre-law, pre-med or engineering. College is just a vehicle, and you can get the high-end or low-end; the only mistake would be to pay high-end prices for an education that is only a low-end credential.
We now have non-College learning alternatives, think of them as scooters, e.g., learning via the cornucopia of information online is one alternative. They too can get you where you need to go.
Learning during your ‘gap year’ is one useful approach. Community College plus free online courses can give you a broad swath of College-level experience and might be especially useful for someone not quite sure or ready to commit to a particular degree or program. if College is like a car, why buy one before you figure out exactly what type of car you need?
If you want to avoid wasting a lot of money on College, then the ground rules for any student going to 4-year College need to be:
1. Preparation: Have taken College prep level courses in High School. Taken AP courses. If you need remedial education, stick to Community College.)
2. Direction: Know what you want to get out of College and why. This means what type of career or job path you want to be on after College. If you don’t know what you want, don’t go. Instead, go out and experience the world for a year and figure it out. (**)
3. Motivation: Be a motivated self-learner, ready to get the most out of every College course.(*)
4. Alternatives: Know that College is better than alternatives, and that the path you are on requires a degree to succeed. If not, try alternatives.
5. Thrift: Learn as much as you can through least expensive means and methods first (including free!).
(*) If you are already a self-learner, and the purpose of College is to teach you to be
a self-learner, why is self-learning a prerequisite for College? Because non-self-learners are wasting their
time in College, will not learn effectively, and the art of being a self-motivated learner doesn’t require
an expensive school. Actually, College shouldn’t teach you to be a self-motivated learner, but should help you to be better skilled at self-learning – research, writing papers, synthesizing what you know into conclusions, etc.
(**) For students who probably could and should advance beyond High School, but havent quite figured out what to do or how, there are many alternatives to a 4-year College, and one approach is to ‘take a break’ and for a year or two explore alternative: Get a job and or learn to start a business. That’s right, an 18 year old could start a business and learn more in one year than even an MBA student about how business works. Or join the military and learn a lot about discipline and our foreign policy. Take alternative education courses, online etc. Travel the world. Attend community college. So don’t go to College, learn about the world and then decide. The best learning is by doing.
How do you know if you have a child ready for College? A simple test is this: Tell your child:
“I will spend $1,000 on your College for each Good Book you read. The more you read, the more I’ll support you.” Then it’s up to them, to read from a list of Great Books, good literature and non-fiction. Think about it. If they read Hume, Adam Smith, Plato, and useful current books such as Malcom Gladwell’s books or other non-fiction, along with some good literature, they would have absorbed some great learning. If they are not up for the diligence and intellectual curiosity it takes to read history, philosophy, biography, etc. then they aren’t up for an expensive traditional College either. If they are, bravo, you’ve just taught them their freshman year.
To make sure the student has the right motivation, make students pay for part of College themselves, as having skin in the game makes the student motivated to not let their investment go to waste. “Most people who wasted their College opportunity had no skin in the game.” It doesn’t hurt to make sure they have a job in the meantime. If it’s a menial job, they will understand the drudgery of life required when you dont have a skilled job. If it’s in the field they want to go into, the job will help them decide and be a path to accelerating them to success.
College is an investment, and like any investment of time and money, you need to look at the ROI and at the alternatives that are available. With the plethora of alternatives, there is no reason at all to waste $200,000 on a College education. Rather, make sure you have the motivation, preparation and direction set to make the most of your College experience, and utilize all the alternatives possible to make that experience the lowest-cost yet most enriching experience possible. It would be a tragedy if your College degree isn’t worth it, but it needn’t be.