Thursday, June 30, 2011
Jumping through Hoops: Why go to College?
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.
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:
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 is...to 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.