Why would you go to college?
This is not an attack; it is a reasonable question that often goes unasked. To put it another way: an undergraduate degree requires an investment of several years and many thousands of dollars; what is the expected return on this significant investment?
American Education: A History
For an answer, we should take a quick look at our history. The United States is a comparatively new country, but our 230 years have been a time of unprecedented change. From our start as a nation of farmers, we transformed first into an industrial power and later assumed international leadership as one of the world’s most technologically advanced societies, all within the span of a few generations. As the economy changed from agricultural to industrial to information-based, the educational needs of its workers changed with it. A subsistence farmer or factory worker might require only a few years of formal education, if any. However, it would require much more education to become a big-city banker or secretary or manager in the early 1900s. By the 1950s, mothers encouraged their children to get college degrees so that they could be hired by nice, big corporations and work there until they retired with nice, big pension plans.
That brings us to today, when 35-year jobs with built-in retirements have been replaced by a constantly shifting job market in which we are all “free agents”–free to change jobs and likely to do so. This sea change has transformed the face of employment, but there has been no corresponding change in education; we still automatically send the kids to college like it’s 1959.
Please understand that I am not questioning the importance of education. I believe that education is more important than ever because, like any free agents, today’s workers should maximize their skills and capabilities. However, I do not think that we can simply slap bachelor’s degrees on all high school graduates and send them out to make their fortunes. Between foreign competition for jobs and the fact that even drunken frat boys finish their four-year college party with a diploma, simply having a college education is not enough to guarantee a good job.
College should not be a foregone conclusion. Instead, I suggest that one should use the following test:
“Is College Right for Me?” – The Quiz
- “Do I have a plan?” Have you chosen a degree? Have you chosen a career? Will the degree you seek demonstrably enhance the career you have chosen?
- “Am I being realistic?” Sure, it is fun to learn, but what are the chances that you will actually use that sociology degree?
- “Is this a field I love?” Why rack up $20,000 in student loans on that psychology degree if what you actually want is to be a full-time mother?
- “Why do I want to go to college?”the question that started this article. Popular answers include: a) to get a diploma, b) to have the college experience, c) to find out what I want to do, d) to learn about my chosen field, e) to make more money.
- “Is this a good investment?” If you answered a, b, or c above, is it worth thousands of dollars in student debt and lost income and years of your life for the chance to possibly achieve these goals? If you answered d or e, have you chosen a career for which a degree is necessary or that will significantly improve your career prospects and future earnings?
What Else Can I Do?
What if you are not sure that college is your best option? Are there even any other options? Here are some ideas:
- Apprenticeship has been employed through the centuries by master craftsmen to teach their trades to others. It is based upon the premise that a novice will barter his labor for a specified period (generally several years) to the master in exchange for training in the craft. Both parties benefit: the novice learns the craft, while the master has an increasingly skilled worker for the balance of the apprenticeship period. Apprenticeship is rarely used today in this country, with a notable exception being the field of medicine; after finishing extensive academic training, young doctors are required to spend several years as residents as they develop hands-on experience in real-life situations under the eye of experienced doctors.
- Internships are widely used today and vary greatly, but they are usually a year or less in length. Interns are often unpaid, with the main benefit to the intern being an attractive resume item, a valuable, close-up look at a possible future field or employer, hands-on training, or some combination of these. Employers may use internships as no-strings-attached opportunities to get to know potential employees, as a cost-effective way to use the talents of interns who are already studying in their field, or as a way to exchange training for labor.
If you think about apprenticeship and internship creatively, you may be able to use them to get past some of the hurdles you noticed while asking yourself those quiz questions. For instance, if you think you might want to be a lawyer, do not spend four years getting your undergraduate degree only to realize in the first year of law school that you cannot stand law. Instead, spend a summer making copies and answering phones in a lawyer’s office for the chance to see a real lawyer in action. Even if they do not advertise internships, there are a lot of doctors, architects, and other professionals who would love to have help around the office and would maybe even take an eager student under their wing.
Some fields may require less formal training, and you may be able to use an apprenticeship to complete your education and get started in the field. I started my career at age 17 as a software developer and entrepreneur with an apprenticeship, and by 21 I was the president and part-owner of the business I had helped to build. Computer-related fields like software development and web design change rapidly and are perfect for on-the-job training. I believe that a good internship could teach those with the right inclination enough to be employable or even to start businesses of their own.
So, why would you go to college? I have three words: Think about it. Be honest about what you want from a college degree and about whether that payoff is worth the price, and get creative in looking for other options. For many, a university education may be the best way to start their career paths and the only way to gain the knowledge and credentials they need.
But for some of us, the road less traveled is the only way to go.
Peter Lambert is a 1995 home school graduate and former apprentice who now owns his own technology firm. His experience as a youth leader (and as a former youth himself) has led to his work, with his lovely wife Rita, directing the Teen Staff Program at the THSC State Convention and Family Conference. Peter’s company is currently offering two six-month summer/fall internships, with emphasis on programming, web development, and/or entrepreneurship (www.sbcotton.com/intern). Peter can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, and feedback on this article is welcome.