Is College Worth it?
“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” –Charles Darwin
Most students are driven in pursuit of the almighty “college experience.” In our linear, outcome oriented model, college represents the culmination of all prior education. Student’s whole lives seem to be leading up to this experience. Since elementary they’ve been told stories about college tradition and indoctrinated in the belief that your youth is only successful if you get into a good university. College sets you up for career success and offers the “best four years of your life!” The decision to leave for college is exciting, empowering, and, for most, an ill-timed, giant waste of money.
We live in an age where information is free and limitlessly abundant, yet we’re governed by education systems created in a bygone era. The predominant post-secondary educational model conditioned into society as the only path for “successful” youth, is a deeply flawed model ripe with possibilities for improvement. What we need is a different approach to self-development after high-school- one that objectively analyzes the possible options. The college route must be knocked from its deified status to be one of many possible paths for career success and one that might likely be enjoyed better in the mid to late 20’s.
College was once very affordable and virtually guaranteed many options for great employment. The cost-benefit was very high. Today, college is outrageously expensive. As of 2014 U.S. student loan debt was at $1.1. trillion, dwarfing our staggeringly high credit card debt of $649 billion. According to Business Insider, annual college tuition from 1980 to 2014 grew at 260% compared with a 120% increase in all other consumer items. That is an increase in the average price of tuition, room, board, and fees from $9438 per year in 1980, to $23,872 in 2015. Despite the developments making information more readily available than ever, we pay staggeringly high fees to sit in lecture halls listening to lessons cheaply available in the Great Courses audio lectures, Khan Academy, podcasts, books, apprenticeships, real work experience, or many other sources.
Counterintuitively, as the number of opportunities for learning proliferated, the stranglehold universities held on post-secondary education only strengthened. U.S. college enrollment has exploded to 20.4 million students- up 5.1 million since just 2000! The undergraduate degree was once uncommon. It guaranteed a desirability to employers who offered stable, long term jobs. Now college graduates are a dime a dozen. The diploma guarantees you nothing, but costs you dearly.
The modern job market is, and will continue to be, far more dynamic, with far shorter employment. The future will be characterized by earning multiple projects as independent contractors. Work will become increasingly performance-based and far less characterized by showing up in a workspace for a number of hours. As the job market grows more flexible and unpredictable, the higher education system must adapt to meet these needs. How impractical to start your independent life by accruing massive debt that restricts options and immediately engulfs you into a reactive necessity to earn significantly high funds immediately. No wonder, 85% of college grads now move home after graduation. Life, exploration, and maturation are then further delayed for the comfort and certainty of mom and dad’s safety net.
Exacerbating these issues, colleges have prioritized making money over providing value and positive impact. Universities operate like businesses, governed by the same dollars-over-value mentality as big pharma or Coca-Cola. In fact, many professors have reported to me that their universities only incentivize faculty to chase grants, write books, and speak at prestigious lectures that help bring in money to the university. Educating students, from the perspective of campus leadership, is as a necessary annoyance to continue collecting enrollment and fees. Professor Jordan Peterson, formerly of Harvard and the University of Toronto explains the modern dynamic between universities and students:
You can go to universities to not be something.… It’s pleasure island. And the price you pay for it, especially in the U.S., is debt. You’re enticed into it because the administrators can pick your pocket. They rob your future self while allowing you to pretend you have an identity, so tuition fees have shot way out of control. And part of the reasons universities don’t make more demands on their students and let them get away with all the things they let them get away with is because… why the hell would you chase them out? They’re $100,000… or more.
A predominant norm sweeping through university culture is to inflate grades in an attempt to make more money through greater enrollment. After convincing the world they must have a diploma, colleges made this piece of paper more accessible, and thus less valuable, by lowering standards. Senator Ben Sasse notes in his book, The Vanishing American Adult, that “four-year universities, despite having lowered standards for freshmen-year performance, now place one-third of their incoming students in remedial reading and mathematics courses. About half the students entering two-year colleges require some degree of remediation.” Remedial work doesn’t create more capable college graduates, it simply allows more people to pay more money. According to a 2016 study, college remediation expenses cost families $1.5 billion annually.
Certainly, you can graduate from your university with a very impressive degree even while your friends skate by learning and growing little. At most institutions, you could take one degree path that challenges you immensely, while most other students pursue any number of watered down degrees. It’s not profitable for kids to flunk out and leave, although, after years of not being held to a standard, they do! Roughly one out of every three college freshmen do not return as sophomores.
While generally less invested in their own learning than ever and students are financially investing way more. Somehow the solution is a push for less accountability, lower standards, and extending the time in standardized education another four years as colleges become an extension of the standardized high school model. This trickles down to and up from the high schools. High schools have made graduation rates their sacred cows and in the process made graduation easier than ever. Bill Clinton famously termed this, “social promotion” and it begs the question: what is the real purpose of education? Is it a checklist or a transformative lifelong process?
To appease the growing number of parents who only care about the diploma, not the lessons or growth, college credit classes are offered in all high schools. But of course, the standards for these are increasingly lowered to a point where most hardly qualify as acceptable high school rigor. Students graduate high school, generally, less prepared than in 1980, but with up to 2 years of college course credit. Through some bizarre magic trick, we’ve accepted that the same or lesser high school education is now deemed worthy of replacing college classes. If this seems contrary to the university’s financial bottom line, it is. The college credit courses are almost always run by the local community colleges who operate on a very different model, but are just as thrilled to get in the door and make sales. At least capitalism is alive and well.
“How can juvenile people be expected to self-govern or to navigate an advertisting-saturated market economy full of propaganda and untruths? How can they determine fact from opinion or what’s been proven from what might be possible?”–Ben Sasse
Our consumerist dogmas have pulled us towards consuming college for material outcome, rather than for the transformative process of education. This harkens back to the scene from The Dead Poet’s Society, where Robin Williams character implores his class to understand:
“We don’t study poetry to get an “A,” to graduate to get a job, to make money, to meet material needs. Rather, we read and write poetry because we are members of the human race and the human race is filled with passion. So, medicine, law, business, engineering… these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love… these are what we stay alive for.”
Our current approach to education has indoctrinated us into a sheep-like insistence to pay for college and study uninspiring topics on the way to a degree. The liberal arts approach to studies is replaced with a cold “tell me what I need to know” perspective on education. The diplomas that were supposed to promise us freedom and security, instead indentures us to debt and to careers which further distance us from any discovery of self or meaning.
Making matters worse, our lawnmower parenting trends only delay the self-discovery that would allow students to have any real idea of what career paths might fulfill them. Too often, college is not utilized for development. Rather, it is a playground to delay maturation and postpone the “real world.” It’s an exorbitantly expensive playground whose classes would undoubtedly be better appreciated and utilized in student’s in their mid to late 20’s after they’ve left home and had invaluable work experience.
However, society promotes a very different standard model. Eighteen-year-olds as autonomous as 14-year-olds a generation ago, create a campus culture dictated far more by entitlement and debauchery than higher learning. Universities build evermore distractions and highlight the opulence youth will enjoy. Living on Ramen noodles and without furniture has been replaced by the demand for luxury student living quarters. In my experience, these are all that are available. Parents could not conceive of their child living with any less. An entire industry develops around the campus, similar to what surrounds sports arenas. Businesses can rely on these students coming in with absurd amounts of disposable income to blow at the local bars and restaurants. Then most graduate and get a degree before gaining employment in a fairly unrelated field that typically provides the job training they’ll truly need.
Certainly, there are exceptions. I loved every second of my college course work and wished I could have gone on taking classes and learning for a lifetime. This exception does not dismiss that most people I went to school with (like most students I see enter college today) had very different expectations and desires for their college experience.
The majority of 18-year-olds, particularly boys, are simply not ready for college. They have no idea who they are, what they believe, or what occupations and studies would be fulfilling long term. My friend was one of these lost, spoiled youngsters. As he put it, his parents let him get away with too much and provided too much. He had to take summer school classes to graduate high-school, yet still had opportunities to go to a 4-year university. On a whim, he joined the Marines instead. It was the best decision he ever made. He was forced to learn discipline, delayed gratification, and how to act on behalf of something bigger than himself. He sailed across the Pacific, worked and lived with people who’d only known extreme poverty, and created bonds that are rare in the self-interested, consumerist environment for which modern developmental institutions are saturated. He graduated a self-actualized man, interested in the world and guided by an ethos of duty. He then jumped into college, passionately interested in his classes, all of which were free. He’s now a teacher and pursuing a Master’s degree- also free of charge.
For most, student and future employers alike, the college experience is largely symbolic, pointing to an ability to follow carefully crafted degree models and work at a baseline level of competency. Sure, I’d factor college into my consideration of a work applicant, but most businesses would and will be better off when conditions favor a more nuanced hiring approach. Talk to anyone in a management position and they’ll express deep frustration for the lessons their college grad hires haven’t learned. Receiving constructive criticism, creative problem solving, resiliency, and teamwork are becoming lost arts.
We’ve convinced everyone they need a college diploma while colleges make themselves more expensive yet far less valuable. Within this sales pitch to the masses we’ve emphasized what college can get you, while de-emphasizing the importance of learning and the less convenient cognitive skills college was supposed to offer. The cultural approach to education switched from transformative skill development to checklists to get what we want. College graduates now begin their work life unprepared, undesirable, and racked with staggering debt they cannot repay. We have all the ingredients for a massive debt bubble and few forward thinkers promoting another way. The future is very hazy, but it is clear that we must be able to adapt far better than this.
“In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.” –Eric Hoffer
I believe education is more valuable and worthier investment than almost anything else. This is really my point. I object to the notion that one canned route is the only path to success. I object to the model that we learn and then earn, rather than develop an inclination toward lifelong learning and growth. I object to a model where receiving the degree trumps any consideration about the value of the lessons.
Education should transform, inspire, and radically shift how we see and act in this world. We need not perpetuate the myth that colleges are the only route for learning. Colleges can be amazing places of learning and inspiration. Much of my outlook is influenced by my father, a college professor, who has taught everything from undergraduate studies, to doctorate-level Philosophy and Medical Ethics. For some, the university route is the best route. But many, if not most, will be better off opting out of this system and exploring the growing options for lifelong learning.
The solution is not more government intervention to make the college model even more entrenched. It is not subsidizing a generation’s entitlement to 4 years of studying and parties. This only ensures that they limp into adulthood with the training wheels still on. The solution is for smart people to stand up and begin promoting other, more attractive options.
Peter Thiel, the billionaire owner of Thiel Capital, has created the Thiel Fellowship, where he finds talented college students and funds their start-up in exchange for them dropping out of college and agreeing to his terms. Author Robert Greene pushed Ryan Holiday to drop out so that he could be Greene’s apprentice. Holiday went on to serve as Director of Marketing for American Apparel, and is now, in my opinion, the best read, most forward-thinking author of my generation. Tim Ferriss tells the story of his “real world MBA,” where rather than spending $120,000 over two years at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, he decided to find a mentor, Mike Maples, and instead use that $120,000 sunk cost towards an experiential education in angel investing. The fact that he did not lose all the money is arbitrary, because he saw the experience and depth of discussion it led to as the goal of this investment. How many of us would be better off spending a fraction of the cost of college to chase real dreams and get real entrepreneurial experience? Most would no doubt fall on their face, but in the process learn immensely and acquire a broad network of mentors.
Our kids are missing actual life experience, unfettered by the safety net of their always-patrolling helicopter parents. After 13 years of standardized education, students desperately need the “real world” to create context that might guide future education. Parents must be willing to risk children failing and making mistakes. In fact, they should desire this for their children, because there is no other way towards growth and fulfillment.
“We need a new diversity—not one based on biological characteristics and identity politics but a diversity of opinion and worldviews.”- Ayaan Hirsi Ali
The Overton Window, also known as the window of discourse, refers to what ideas are socially acceptable to speak about. The solutions to most problems lie outside the 10% of considered options. We dogmatically exist within the very limited bounds of popular thought, thereby entrenching the same thought patterns that led us to our current issues. Make no mistake, our youth development approach is facing a massive crisis and our attitudes toward college exacerbate the issues. The problem is much deeper than the exorbitant debt most students are trapped by.
Students are far less prepared, resilient, healthy, and happy than any time in history. They are less equipped for success in relationships, academics, and careers and more likely to face considerable chronic mental and physical anguish. Students today have not been allowed to fail, to struggle, to become autonomous, or to overcome the adversity that creates a strong self-image and ties one to strong purpose. They float aimlessly in search of hollow pleasures and distractions while not experiencing the richness of life that comes only from real and vulnerable experiences.
“Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you.” - Flannery O’Connor
We must ask ourselves what a diploma means Why is it broadly considered a necessity for jobs? How could businesses promote a far more impactful education model for their own employees- an apprenticeship, a few courses offered in-house, a creative exploration of the qualifications most essential to success. Employers should offer the flexibility to hire those of alternative educational routes. For example, becoming a teacher might require two years of content immersion, followed by a year of training from a school district or an education academy that works with multiple school districts. Then, once becoming a teacher, a consistent rank and promotional system contingent on continued depth of education could emerge. Similar to that of the military, this learning would lead to increases in rank and pay. Teachers would have far more incentive to keep learning and growing. It’s imperfect as any government run system would be, but it is a far better option than the laughable online education master’s programs that exist today to sap teacher’s wallets while teaching them nothing.
There are certain occupations that necessarily would require the college and post-grad path. However, a great many would be better off encouraging real experiences and simply requiring apprenticeship, internship, and/or an in-house employee development program. Employers should value life experience, along with technical knowledge. Wisdom and an ability to problem solve occur when people chase their true purpose and passion. How could we foster employment contingent on adaptable life-long learning? How could other entities provide invaluable education without the loopholes and the fluff characteristic of today’s online education and university culture? Couldn’t a couple of brilliant professors branch off and offer tremendously deep, transformative, and broad apprenticeship to a group of five to 10. A year in this program would bring more learning than any four-year university and could be offered at a fraction of the cost. We don’t need opulent dorms and endless luxuries catering to a population more concerned with getting a degree than learning anything of impact. We need inspired education and the understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all model.
We need inspired education that creates learners rather than a mass of people who perceive themselves “learned.” This can be flexible and inexpensive with far more transformative results. The most essential lessons to all humans revolve around self-mastery, understanding of human needs, and learning to create and adapt. These extend from exploration of purpose, values, and the habits of our most fulfilled.
“We live in the age of Alexandria, when every book and every piece of knowledge ever written down is a fingertip away. The means of learning are abundant—it’s the desire to learn that’s scarce.” –Naval Ravikant
It is time that we (parents, youth, educators, and especially employers) question the utility of this standard model of college. In our world, learning has never been more accessible. Why must we incur massive debt to follow a standard model that doesn’t seem to be working. There is no one-size-fits-all path to education. The abilities to learn and embrace challenge are the secret to a great future. A developmental philosophy that does not appreciate this is doomed to fail. Neil DeGrasse Tyson has discussed the “fuzzy thinking” that far too many ascribe to. We must not look for the college educated person who has remembered the answer. Far more important, particularly for our rapidly changing world, is the ability to find the answer through reason. Skills of thought are the path to the future. Now more than ever parents, teachers, and businesses must employ these nuanced and adaptive thinking skills.
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