Saturday, June 14, 2008

Do children still need college?

image At high school graduation, the principal proudly read the statistics about where the graduates were headed after the summer. A third were going on to four year colleges and universities. 14% will attend to two-year colleges; 7% are going to vocational or trade schools. And the remainder, 36%, had chosen "Ministries and missions, military, travel, time-off, or undecided".

It's been a buzz among parents for the last few days: 36% seems remarkably high. I don't know what the trend is, or how it compares to other regions of the US or Western Europe, but I would have expected the number to be less than half of that.

What's happening?

Economics could play a role: college is unbelievably expensive. Four-year expenses at a private university cost a family a quarter-million dollars; state schools run about half that amount. But Woodinville is fairly well-off, and most families use savings or home equity, supplemented by student loans and small scholarships. Someone suggested that, with Microsoft nearby, maybe we were too well-off: the trust fund children didn't need schools or jobs. 'maybe in isolated cases, but not 160 children.

Dori, the commencement speaker, made the observation that a 3.6 grade point average (out of 4.0) is only good enough to get onto the waiting list at the University of Washington, a state school. The level of competition for limited openings is intense, and many kids may just drop out of the race along the way. But then I would have expected the numbers for two-year and vocational schools to be higher.

I think that the answer lies with a qualitative shift in how kids view the value of college. I've heard two arguments against it.

Skills learned in school are not relevant to later careers. Core classes, taken during the first two years, broadly encompass general education requirements. Students struggle with topics that don't interest them, that they aren't good at, or that teach skills that they will never use. It has a double effect, since poor performance may deny them entry to upper-level specialized programs.

The college degree no longer has value. Look at all of the graduates who are taking entry-level jobs that they could have gotten without the four-year investment. Surely it would make more sense to enter the market immediately and to have the experience instead. And the schools themselves have been rebranding as lifestyle choices, softening the academic message in favor of their social communities and scenic locations.

I suspect that parents with marginal economic means or free-market social outlooks will not push back when their child says that they aren't interested or don't feel ready for college.

Whatever the reason, I am concerned about the statistic.

Because, yes, children need college.

Education is still the only path to acquire the skills needed for today's careers. Few careers have entry paths through training and apprenticeship: kids cannot work their way up from unskilled positions into marketing, engineering, or finance roles. Universities further provide a diverse academic environment where interests can be explored and future paths chosen.

Colleges provide a transitional environment bridging home and independent adult life. The social circle gained through dormitory life and campus activities form your first network of diverse and close relationships beyond your home town.

I've watched my kids, and others, struggle to get an economic foothold via a string of entry-level jobs, further trying to make time to grow a social life while living at home and working 50 hours a week.

Paths around continued education are much more difficult to manage, and success is much less assured. I do think that we need to understand why a the third of the graduating class makes the choice to turn away from continued education, and either support an alternative or change the perceptions that motivate it.

Photo credit WWU via


Tee said...

Hi Dave,

I've been reading for several months, always enjoy your photos and stories. I haven't chimed in before, but the subject matter today was too hard to resist commenting on.

I agree that most high-paying jobs require a college education, if only because few organizations are willing to hire someone who doesn't have one (whether it's truly necessary or not). But I don't agree that not having one means relegation to "living with one's parents and working 50 hours a week", nor, more importantly, that high-paying jobs are everyone's key to happiness and success (which is such a subjective term in the first place). I've crossed paths with enough people and experiences over the years turn that logic on its head.

I have, unfortunately, lent many a shoulder/ear for friends who feel trapped in "great careers" that no longer fit them or make them happy, but that they can't walk away from because they can't bring themselves to discard the $50,000-$75,000 investment they made in their (law/accounting/MBA...) education. I used to counter that by saying that life was worth more than what you've spent on it, but I understand their point nonetheless: it's hard put the brakes on and take 6-12 months off to reinvent yourself at 40 or 50, investing another chunk of the same size or more in education for a new career, while you're still paying on old student loans and now only have X number of years left before retirement.

Unfortunately that's been common enough in my personal and professional circles that I would never, ever advise any kid to jump into college, or at least a defined major, straight out of high school. What teenager knows exactly who they are and what they want to do for the rest of their lives? Or in some cases, even 16 or 17, the age some parents push their children into deciding what college and what program so they can begin the application process by the beginning of their senior year.

I loved college, couldn't get enough of it. But I didn't start until I was in my early 20s, and now I look back and realize the decision to wait was one of the best moves I ever made. By the time I was ready for it I was past all the frat party/drunken video stuff and ready to really dig into the guts of what I was studying and really get something tangible and exciting out of it. And while I had student loans just like everybody else - mine only tallied about $15,000 since I had a job by 25 that paid well enough to enable me to pay cash for the last few semesters. I wouldn't have been able to do that at 19 or 20, and my mom, working two jobs already, sure couldn't have afforded it back then.

By the time my career intercepted college a few years later (I had to travel frequently at the time), I was just shy of enough credits for four degrees: journalism, communications, anthropology and marketing. I've still picked away at those here and there over the years and will, within the next year or so (at just under 40 years old), be finished with all four. With anywhere between two and five courses left for each of them, I figure why not?

I'm already well into a great career without them, but now I'm ready to take it even further - and know a whole lot more about who I am and where "further" is than I did back in my 20s - so those credentials will add value even if I didn't need them to get this far. But damn if I'm not glad I didn't rack up the debt so many of my friends and colleagues did, and I'm especially grateful I didn't pigeonhole myself way back then, at an age where I had no business charting my life's course based on something that sounded interesting on paper in a college catalog.

I'm with the "remaining 36%".

Textual Healer said...

love your comments. I came back to f/t education late at the age of 22or so having done my partying and travelling years aready. I studied hard with a sense of commitment.
I don't have a clear cut position on whether university education should be free or not (it was in my time and I am so grateful for that) but I do recognize that charging for it - drives students (and their parents) to the lucrative professions (i.e medicine and law) and will reduce enrolment in the arts and social sciences.

Dave Hampton said...

Tee, welcome and thanks for your comments! It's exactly the sort of insight that I was hoping to get when I wrote the essay.

I'm about half a generation ahead of you, and, in my setting, there was never any question about the value or inevitability of a college education. It was the way to get specialized knowledge and training, a first step out of the house to social independence, and the surest path to a challenging and rewarding career. In my case, it worked out that way: it was a great experience, I picked up the science and engineering knowledge that I couldn't have gotten certified for in any other way, and ended up doing something that I love.

I suspect that leads me to a bit of myopia about alternatives, and clearly my children's generation feels very differently about it than I did. 'Throwing out the question and taking a position gave me a chance to understand my own bias and to listen to other views: it really helps.

On reflection, I agree that college seems most important to large-company jobs where the hiring process requires certifications and where labor competitiveness favors hiring vs. training. Professional positions in engineering, medicine, finance, etc. also need it. It seems less important for small companies, where flexibility and drive matter more, or for jobs depending more on networks and creativity where apprenticeship is a valid entry path. I think that TH's self-employed work is a great example of that. So, it certainly isn't as inevitable or necessary step as it once seemed (to me) to be.

With regard to college as a step towards independence, though, I am less convinced about the alternatives. When we were sorting out the economics around my son's return home, we looked at the likely costs of rent, food, clothes, transportation (bus, not car) and it seems like a person needs to early about $20 per hour in a 40-hour a week job (~40K per year) to make it work. If jobs pay less, you can only make it up through more hours or by cutting expenses (living at home to save on rent). It really seems that entry-level and unskilled jobs don't pay enough to live independently: I think Will was earning $11 / hr at UPS, and could boost that to $15 with overtime. It doesn't seem unique among the parents I talk with, and motivated my remark about 50 hours and living with parents. If I'm missing something, I'd love to be corrected.

Maybe, if I think that a step out of the house towards independence is important, then it would be best to take a portion of the money that I would have spent on college and apply it to 'helping out', temporarily, with the expenses of a first apartment? But I still worry about social isolation unless they have a roommate (or am I just being a concerned parent)?

The broader issue of career unhappiness is, I think, a different issue. Happiness and success come from finding a match between what someone loves and what they do, and I agree that many people fail to achieve or maintain it. Getting shotgunned into college and mis-directed into a career, especially if the driving motivation is financial security is a recipe for unhappiness (and is all too common). But I think that this can happen in any number of ways, including taking jobs through economic necessity or peer pressure. College is not, per se, at fault: The same argument could be made for vocational school or the military.

I don't know that I see people getting trapped by being unwilling to throw the investment in a degree away. People who have worked in a field for a while and have tired of it no longer think in those terms. Rather, they tell me that it's hard to 'start over', giving up salary, status, and security. Or they just don't have the drive or courage to move on. You're right, though: Life is worth more than what someone pays you to stay in something you don't want to do.

Finally, I absolutely agree that few people understand their life's true calling at 18, and that a period of exploration is a great opportunity. You're right that there are many arenas for that to occur. I really like your story and it gives me better appreciation for the ways that things could go for the 36%.

Again, thanks for the thoughtful comments and perspectives!