Friday, September 10, 2010

Is College Overrated for Some (Most) Kids?

There's an intrigue piece in today's Washington Post with the seductive title "Is College Overrated?" To check it out, click here. I read it with great interest, because, around here with Sisi already a freshman in high school this Fall, the topic of college is becoming more and more relevant.

Given that I'm fairly (over)educated myself, it may surprise you to know that, not only do I fully agree with the article, but we have pretty much already decided: Sisi will not jump directly to college from high school. It's not that she's not smart, nor do we believe college is unnecessary. It's a question of focus and maturity.

Rare is the high school senior who knows exactly what she wants to do with the rest of her life from the moment she crosses the graduation stage. I'll never forget in my own freshman year of college, my English teacher (who bore the ominous nickname 'Bloody Mary') told us our first day point-blank: "Most of you don't belong here. You're just not ready for serious study." Of course, she was right: most of the class was more interested in pledging a sorority or fraternity and exploring their newfound independence than writing analyses of the works of Dead American Poets. And while there's nothing wrong with sororities and fraternities and nothing wrong with exploring newfound independence, I'm sure their parents didn't appreciate paying what would amount to $15,000 to $50,000 a year for that privilege.

I know I don't want to pay that. Exporation and independence, life experience and focus can be had for a whole lot less than tens of thousands of dollars. In fact, kids and earn money while acquiring it.

Obviously, for some (few) kids, college is the next best step. But we've already discussed what will happen when Sisi graduates. She'll have an allotment of money to spend on travel, or on a car, or, if she's got a plan, a business idea. If she chooses the car, she'll take a few classes at the local junior college and get a job. She'll pay rent if she decides to live here with us (nothing major, more on principle) and be allowed to explore her independence while earning money, sticking a toe in the academic waters and figuring out what her passions in life are.

She's mentioned getting work on a cruise ship and I think that would be a tremendous life experience and opportunity. Later, if she really liked it, a degree in business, management, or hospitality would make sense. A three-month contract on a cruise ship would be enough to figure out if the industry was something she really wanted to pursue... and she'll get to travel as well as make some money.

She's mentioned veterinary medicine. Why not work with a volunteer shelter organization for six months or a year? Do you still like animals? If so, let's go to school, knowing what your career will really look like.

She made the prestigious Treble Choir at her high school. Want to try the music industry? Use your money to live on and get an internship with a record label. Find out what it's like. Want to sing? Use your money to form a band, tour and produce music. When you realize you need more education, go get it.

Experience is the best teacher here and it seems some of us might be doing this backwards by sending kids to college straight out of high school, enabling them to prolong the realizations about their true interests at our expense. We're going to try to do it the other way: experiences first, education after.

Perhaps because of my own (dubious) experiences with higher education, I've long believed that a little time off is helpful for kids. Sisi knows she has that time to explore. Then, and only then, will we make a plan for her higher education-- in the hopes that when she goes to college, she won't be just another unfocused student on the parentally-subsidized party train.

What are your thoughts? Is college overrated? Love to hear from you.


  1. OMG! Or wait... that should read PTL! :-)
    What a Blessing your post is and might I add, I COMPLETELY agree with you. I hate to think that I wasted a MAJORITY of my $100,000 college education figuring out that I DID NOT want to be a marine biologist! And although, in my single-working-mom household, I did not have the option to "find out" what I wanted... still learning to take care of myself correctly would have saved me thousands of dollars in debt and possibly helped me avoid bankruptcy! Oh, the places I could have gone...but now that I have a good view of where I want to be (in my early 30s) I'm heading that way! I'm so glad that Drew Berrymore's recent movie showed us that even folks in their 30s can go to grad school and not have that be weird. I just think, knowing what I know now about myself back then would have saved everyone a lot of money!

  2. It may very well just depend on the child. For me there wasn’t ever a question that I was going to college, it was just a matter of where. I also knew that I wanted to study business.

    I also think that once you’re out of school it’s a whole lot harder to get back into school mode, hence why I’ve shrugged off graduate school, LOL! I believe that the transition from high school to college can be a bit easier than transitioning from work/career back into broke student mode. There is also something to be said for the college experience, it’s a whole lot more than what you’ll learn in the classroom: group work, learning to manage and work with different people and personalities, time management, money management, discipline, additional opportunities to study and travel abroad, the friendships and networks you’ll build in those fraternities and sororities , etc.

    I also have to acknowledge that the rules of the game are changing. The model that worked 30-50 years ago isn’t working now, so we really do have to look at things individually and re-think some assumptions- that includes higher education.

  3. Yes, college is often overrated. In my years as a teaching assistant and faculty member, I've seen a whole lot of kids who don't belong there. They're not interested in learning for learning's sake, and they're bored by the topics. I'm certain that they'd be happier in a professional program at a community college or just getting on with their lives somewhere else. Unfortunately, the BA has become the new high school diploma, so these poor kids are made to stick it out for 4-8 years doing what they don't love just so that they can do what they love.

  4. From my own experiences: I did a year of architectural design school right out of high school, dropped out for a year to go sailing. I returned from the sea, went back to school and discovered it wasn't for me after all. I quit design school and went to work for a property development company doing maintenance and repairs while taking some night classes at a local engineering school. Got laid-off from that company decided it was time to get serious, packed up, moved to Florida, went back to school for construction management. Went to school full time, while working full time and beach-bumming part-time. Gave up working full time and kind of flaked out. Did Rennaisance fairs for a while, traveling around the country during the spring/summer months while managing to keep up with my classes. Finished my BA (in Sociology), moved to Chicago, thought about Law. Did well enough on the LSATs, I just didn't want to go back to school again. Wasn't for me. So, what do I do for a living? Ha! Plumber! I did a 5-year apprenticeship, got my license, my journeyman's card and have LOVED doing the job! Built hotels, High-end luxury Condos and a few high-rises (Trump Tower Chicago among a them) I have been challenged, intellectually, mentally, physically, and spiritually in my trade. It's been great for me. College? Sure. It was great for me as well; I have no regrets about any of the roads I've gone down. I made all my own choices and paid for all my own schooling; only fair, right?

    I think the focus should be on the journey and less about the end-goals. Everyone makes it to the end eventually, but not everyone makes the Journey. Like the old hack: "Not all who wander are lost..."

  5. @ Jenny-- I don't think it's ever to late to change your mind about your career direction and decide to go to school. Good for you!

    @ Zabeth--yes, I agree: it's harder to go back later than it is to go straight from high school. But I've always thought the "m-factor" outweighed almost any other consideration. "MOTIVATION". Some kids are motivated right out of high school but as Jenny rightly points out MOST ARE NOT.

    @John-- I love your story. I've always thought of you as something of a philospher... and your life path reflects that harmony of ideas and action! I could want nothing better for Sisi (and Lil Bit) than that!

  6. I have a friend who is currently in grad school with a guy who has an MBA and a JD from Yale and is now working on his PhD because he got laid off and is trying to change skillsets. I read this article and totally agreed. Many Europeans, Australians and New Zealanders take a "gap" year before starting university. What this article didn't mention is we need to also encourage kids to consider trades. Plumber, electrician. I've never met a plumber looking for a job.

  7. I still see getting a college degree as important. My parents came here from Nigeria and both got their degrees. They've always stressed how important it was for blacks to be educated. I can still hear my father saying "education is key". I see a lot of older adults heading back to school because of the economy.

    I just want to live a comfortable life where I make my own money, and pay my own bills without the governments or my parents help.

    Right now I'm in college working on getting my degree in Financial Planning. Even in this economy, my university has done a good job placing almost all the Financial Planning majors in their desired careers.

    College may be wasteful and overrated for some, but not for me. I'll make sure my future kids graduate from college so they don't have to worry about living and just enjoy life.