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Is College Still a Good Idea?

It’s perhaps blasphemous to say this as a tutor who’s devoted so much energy to getting young people into college, but for most of my students, I don’t believe college was necessarily the best choice, at least not directly after high school. What I’ve seen, over and over, is that young people go off to college and find themselves much more interested in dating, friends, and parties than in learning.

I want to be clear that I see absolutely nothing wrong with that. If partying is what is most interesting to these young people, I think they should pursue it, wholeheartedly. It just seems like a shame (and a waste) that parents pay upwards of $60,000 a year for their kids to drink beer and surf the internet during class. Wouldn’t it be far better for everyone if parents sent their kids to South Florida or San Diego for two years, where they could work part-time, discover their adult selves, and party with basically no distractions? Perhaps after those two years, these young people would be genuinely excited about the chance to be full-time students and would take advantage of the educational opportunities available in college.

Sadly, the fact that so many students care more about kegs than classes is not the biggest problem with college education. What seems to me much more troubling is the question of whether colleges are successfully preparing young adults for the world they are about to enter. In thinking about the value of a college education, I think it’s useful to distinguish between the value of what is actually learned in class and the value of the degree conferred upon graduates. In terms of the former, I’d say that in the opinion of my recent students, the value of what is learned in class is fairly limited. When I recently asked a former student if she felt her college education was helping her perform well at her first job, she told me that the best thing college did for her professionally was keep her out of the job market for four years while she “grew up.”

I think that if we’re honest, the primary reason we want our children to attend college is because we still believe that employers value the degree, and that they especially value a degree from a prestigious educational institution. Obviously, this belief is founded on a great deal of historically-valid truth, but the question I’ve been wondering about is: for how much longer, and in how many parts of our economy, will that be true? I suspect that for those young people wanting to become academics, or investment bankers, the pedigree and the rigor of elite colleges will still matter for some time. But what about for advertising executives or software engineers? Will employers in those fields continue to care about the liberal arts education job applicants received, or will they simply care about who can best do the job in question?

I suspect that the defenders of college education would answer my question in the following way: “Well, having gotten good grades at an elite college is important evidence that one will excel in the workplace. After all, the skills and effort required to succeed in college are quite similar those required for success in the office.” Let’s assume for a moment that the assumption about the similarity of success in school and work is valid. If an employer were picking between a group of recent college graduates with no job experience, it makes sense that she would pick the one with the highest grades from the best school, for exactly the reasons mentioned. But what happens if among those candidates is someone who, instead of going to college, spent four years apprenticing in the industry- developing the EXACT skills required for this job, proving his ability to work well with others, and developing personal connections that will assist him in fulfilling his responsibilities. In that case, whom should the savvy employer choose?

My father, who spent 40 years as an Economics professor at Ivy League schools and European business schools, recently told me that if his 17 year-old son did not get into a top university in England, he would just send the young man to a computer programming boot camp in San Francisco. It shocked me that this man, who reminded me tirelessly about “the importance of an elite education” was now contemplating sending his son to a 12-week programming course instead. It’s unsettling to admit, but I think that he might be making the right call.

February 5, 2015
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