Thursday, June 30, 2011

Jumping through Hoops: Why go to College?

In the new flick "Larry Crowne," which I viewed a couple nights ago, the lead character (Tom Hanks) gets downsized from his do-everything clerk job at a big box store--despite multiple "employee of the month" honors and pride in his work--simply because he never went to college.  Later in the film, we see his colleague dismissed because he only completed three years post-high school education.

Besides the development of a sparkless connection with a speech teacher (Julia Roberts) when he enrolls at a community college, the take-away from "Larry Crowne" is that being enthusiastic and competent counts far less for advancement than some arguably meaningless hours in a classroom.

Coincidentally, my fave radio host just spent an hour interviewing John Stossel about whether or not college is worthwhile.  Stossel, on the show to promote a TV special on the topic, emphatically championed "not."

But "worthwhile" was only defined as college's import or impact on the careers of its graduates.  Are most jobs that require a college degree really performed better because their holders possess a sheepskin?  Probably not, if the employee has enough smarts to otherwise pick up the skill set.  Are graduate degrees worth the thousands of dollars of debt they usually incur?  That's getting to be a tossup, with many occupations now overloaded with applicants.  Get a juris doctor from a good though not top school, and you're no longer guaranteed a position in a law firm when you finish.

Vocational schools do an admirable job preparing students for real-world wage-earning.  I hired a young woman to baby sit my children partially because she had a certificate from a "nanny school."  Years ago, when earning my counseling credentials in Los Angeles (yes, at a university--more on that later), I toured and admired a regional vocational center, where high school students took courses on real-life skills, like how to plate meals at restaurants, how to repair a Ford carburetor, how to manage a hotel, and how to organize an office.  The graduates of these programs were immediately employable--if they'd been subsidized by Obama's stimulus, they'd be called "shovel-ready," though these folk won't need to wield a shovel to earn a paycheck.

There are plenty of very clever entrepreneurs who didn't need college classes to put their creativity and industriousness to lucrative work.  Everyone points to Harvard dropout Bill Gates as a premier example.  But lots of dot-com and smartphone app-designers learn how to write code and instantly launch businesses that answer a need or desire, with no need for pre-requisities.  If you're smart, you'll succeed with--or without--a college degree.

If you're not at the IQ or achievement apex, though, college has some benefits--for you and your future employer.  Possessing a four-year degree shows tenacity, the ability to play by the rules successfully to conclusion of task.  Dropping out suggests failure, no way around it; extenuating circumstances must be explained.  Nowadays, those who don't even attempt college are assumed unintelligent or incapable or disadvantaged.  None of those terms describe highly-desired employees.  College completion is a gate-keeper, a screening device simplifying the employee selection process.  Earning a professional degree is similarly the red rope allowing the plucky few through to highest-paid echelons.

So it's true that education is the key to success.  The more educated, the more income and less unemployment.  Here are the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Earning a degree is an achievement. Admittedly it's a very narrow type of achievement, showing short-term mastery of material, compliance with requirements, and the ability to show up at lectures or share notes with someone who has.  With "distance learning" the new trend, now even face-time on campus is optional.

Higher education is also an industry.  Confession: I have a master's degree in...believe it or not, Higher Education. It's an actual major in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA, and I earned an MA in it.  In fact, I was a happy customer for the industry of college for eleven years.  Because what one is prepared for when one completes high school go to school.  For me, and many others, college is an extension of high school where you get to decide when to come to class.

Throughout my college years, I was self-supporting through a variety of lower-paying jobs, and had no help from parents.  And I finally did have to decide what I wanted to do, and it did require the ultimate degree I earned.  But being in college gave me lots of time to figure that out, as my professors urged me to go on to higher levels, to stick around sitting in the front row taking copious notes and memorizing the words that came from their mouths.

College has plenty of perquisites, including fun. Not just in the getting drunk kind of way (wasn't my thing) but in the pleasure of learning stuff and then spewing it back, with the reward of credits, and ultimately, a degree.  And respect.  I didn't really understand why simply continuing to be a subordinate, an older child, earned such kudos, but I also didn't care. The process was excellent.  The campus was beautiful, with exotic botanics punctuating every season, lunchtimes on broad expanses of lawn eating unreasonably cheap meals, a built-in friendship network and exciting events publicized in a free daily newspaper.

Tip to youth: When you don't really want to grow up, collect graduate degrees.

The infrastructure supports it.  Professors want to keep their jobs and, as I implied before, enjoy the ego boost from attentive and interested students. To support their administration and auxiliary services, as well as the faculty, colleges want to attract and matriculate good students. The counselors want clientele; the cafeteria staff wants to keep making delicious soups with free crackers and selling them for two dollars a bowl.  The point is that higher education is an enormous industry that exists to perpetuate itself.  It's invested in its own prestige, and a gullible society buys in.
Because of its historical importance, and the fact that decision makers went there and passed through its gate, and mainly because of higher education's own survival mechanisms, politicians like our president seek to expand the market for colleges and funnel more tax funds their way.  Speaking at the University of Texas, Austin, last August, the President said, "I'm absolutely committed to making sure that here in America, nobody is denied a college education, nobody is denied a chance to pursue their dreams, nobody is denied a chance to make the most of their lives just because they can’t afford it. We are a better country than that, and we need to act like we’re a better country than that."

So, in his view, a "better" country channels everyone into college, in stark denial of the realities of the marketplace.  The new workforce can now design websites from home. It can telecommute and use flat-screen TVs for group meetings.  It can outsource manual manufacturing to China from computers by the pool.  Did Bill Gates need college?

Does America?  If, as Pres. Obama envisions, ours becomes a country where everyone is college educated, who will serve your Starbucks?  Who will deliver the replacement windows that are energy-efficient?  Who will staff the restaurant where you have your raw food salad?  (Answer: the barista, delivery truck driver and waiter with BAs in sociology, psychology and history.)  Truth is, not everyone is academically inclined, and our country would be in trouble if everyone were.

I have three children, two with bachelor's degrees, but my third child is poised to start college this fall.  Would I advise him not to--rather to create another iPhone app? He's computer capable but not code-savvy, not mathematical, not even really academically enthused.  But he knows without my saying it that he will attend and graduate a 4-year college, because in present cultured society it's the minimum acceptable, the first rung on the success ladder.

A college degree is what a high school diploma was perhaps forty years ago.  Adolescence has expanded, and my son knows, having grown up in this overly-diploma'd family, what's honored and expected.  But were he to start his own company, and were it to grow and succeed, and, were he to then come to me and say he wanted to drop out of college to pursue his business...I'm not sure what I'd say.  Probably something like, "Keep working on your enterprise, but you ought to finish what you start."

That's the hoop of college, the jump that requires a smooth execution, not a stumble.  Completion.  I think we ought to drop the stigma for the working person who didn't attend college, but at the same time recognize that we're not returning to the old days when a high school diploma was sufficient.  Success is sufficient. Nobody cares that Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, in fact to the contrary, there's something humanizing about it. I think the big box store unfairly axed the Larry Crowne character, because he showed not only competence but superiority in his work; he was successful in his position.

But when you're 21 and heading out to the world, it's still nice to have enjoyed the perks of college at a time of life when you're unencumbered.  And a diploma is still a symbol to the world that you finish what you start.

There are other issues at play--the left-leaning political bias among college professors that gets transmitted to impressionable students eager to please, the social milieu that promotes drinking and fraternizing, the blossoming of "disciplines" (e.g. Women's studies, "Queer" studies, Environmental Studies) that used to be subsumed under standard departments like history and biology, and plenty more--that complicate college's assessment.  Also, not all colleges are equal.  The benefits of attending an elite college are tangible while those for a non-selective institution may be minimal, especially when the financial toll is figured in.

Perhaps the best solution would be to eliminate federal tax subsidies for students, and for states to restructure.  Some of the least financially viable schools would close; those that attract a clientele would remain.  The remainder would become even more selective, allowing the most academic applicants access, and the rest a reason to explore vocational training or entrepreneurial outlets.  In the end, no matter how urgently the administration presses for universal college attendance, the reality of individual differences will prevail.  And because of that, the broader goal should be to honor honest, dedicated effort--hard work, self-sufficiency--rather than a certain number of hours in a lecture hall or a passing score on a final exam.


  1. Excellent post. My husband and I have been debating and considering this very thing. Our kids are 13 and 16 and mostly home educated (they each take 1 class at the local school). My daughter is planning to go to the local state university branch to study music. However, we've been told that the degree is really less important than the connections and education. My 13 year old son has dyslexia and I'm not sure how he'd do in higher academia. Who knows what route he'll end up taking.

    My husband has an engineering degree and high school teaching certificate and currently tutors while we are in the process of opening a yarn shop. I have two bachelor's degrees and a medical degree, but I can't work in medicine because of chronic headaches. So, right now, my over-educated self is working with my husband to open the yarn shop - at least when my headaches aren't too bad.

    We're trying to give our kids a love for learning and help them become independent learners. We also want to teach them to manage money well and incur little debt from their education. Whatever route they choose, we'll support them as much as we can. (Well, as long as they don't choose to sit home and watch TV and not work. That's not an acceptable option!)

  2. A favorite topic of mine... perhaps I'll write about it...

  3. Really good prolific poses on todays college scene. I enjoyed the read. The best times of my life was attending college with others who shared the same goals I did and my college associates turned out to be the best life-long friends.

    I cherish my college years. I agree, you don't have to go to an expensive program to get a viable degree and marketable career training.