The Real Problem with Higher Education

This week President Obama unveiled his Higher Education student loan relief program. The program has nice sound bites. Lower interest rates, an extension here and there and so on. I’m not going to get into it here. I’m sure you can find more than enough on the subject elsewhere.

In my humble opinion, it’s like bringing a box of band aids to the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The problem is fundamental and rooted in behavior – no band-aid is going to stop the bleeding. The problem and solution lie well beyond the pearly gates of our esteemed institutions of higher learning.

The problem lies at home … with us.

A big part of the “American Dream” is going to college – and even more so having your children go to college, especially if you didn’t. Every parent envisions standing in the audience, watching their child walk across that stage receiving their college diploma in full cap and gown. After all, what parent wouldn’t want that experience. And plus it gives them standing with their friends. “The better the college my kid went to (i.e. most expensive), the better the parent I must be.”

That’s the problem. It’s their dream as much, if not more than their offspring’s. It’s a dream that is rooted in tradition. How could someone not want a college degree. Unfortunately, that revered degree comes with a price … and often that price is more a liability than the asset generated by the degree itself.

The “ball and chain”

The cost of a college has become exorbitant at best, and some cases outright crippling. Stories of graduates coming out of school $100,000 in debt are not uncommon. And with this debt – there is no guarantee of a job to pay it off. And on top of it, school debt is one thing that cannot be dismissed in a bankruptcy. In other words, there is no key to unlock that ball and chain you will care around for years, and years.

Now let’s assume there are no parents in the picture, no grandparents either. No societal preconceptions on what you should, and what you shouldn’t do. The only thing that matters is you, the prospective student – your well-being, and your future.

Let’s break convention, and let me give you some alternatives.

  • Don’t go to college. Or if you do, wait a few years until you have some experience in the real world. Contrary to popular belief, not all careers require a college degree. This is the route my daughter took. Well able to get into, and do well in college, she chose to take a job with Apple out of high school. Now, just turned twenty-two, she is about to become certified – which will pretty much punch her ticket to wherever she wishes to go. Being a voracious writer, I’m sure she’ll go to college sometime. But now she better, and productive ways to spend her time. We also have to take into the financial obligations, of which she has none.
  • Go, but wait a year. Get your feet wet. Find the path you want to take. High school is not the real world. Only the real world is, well … the real world. Too often we enter college with no idea why we’re there in the first place. Maybe we listened to some, average at best, high school guidance counselor  – but that’s about it.
  • But if you’re hell-bent on going to school, go to a community college for the first two years. The first two years of college, especially in a major university, consists of taking entry-level classes with three hundred of your not so closest friends taught by a teacher’s assistant not much older than you are. With a community college you get smaller classes taught by a real professor, probably one with real world experience (unlike most universities). With any other purchase, getting more and paying significantly less – pulling the trigger would be a no brainer. But with higher education, ironically we lose our minds.

None of these options will saddle you with tens of thousands in debt, at least not before you can actually start paying it off. Obama’s trying to help you, but his efforts are misguided. Debt, restructured or not, limits your options. It limits your mobility – mobility that very well take you to the opportunity, that great opportunity that you went to college for in the first place.

But with the ball and chain … you go nowhere, literally and figuratively.

Now there’s certain professions where you must have a degree, and for several an advanced one. In these cases, medicine, law, engineering, etc., you’re just going to hunker down take initial financial hit and hope it comes around in the long-term. If you want to go into business or become entrepreneur … you’re an idiot if you go down the traditional route.

Now everyone has their own “Perfect World” and their path will be different than the person sitting next to them. But the education taken should be the education appropriate for that path. But understand there are options … the four-year university degree is not the only avenue to success. In fact it very well could your barrier to success.

The “American Dream” of a college degree and a white picket fence may have been right for your parents … but is it right for you.


I can be found on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+


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4 thoughts on “The Real Problem with Higher Education

  1. Hey Clay,
    One issue I hear coming up more and more frequently in various forms is the growing divergence between the signalling value of a degree and the practical value of the degree. As admissions continues to get more competitive, the signalling value of a Harvard degree or a Stanford degree continues to increase. At the same time, the practical value of the education, particularly for many of the “softer” subject areas, continues to diminish.

    So in a sense, both sides of this argument have a legitimate argument. The signal provided by higher education is increasing in value while the education itself is diminishing in value. I think that parallels your discussion of the american dream and parental expectations. Parents want that validation that they have done their job (parenting) successfully, and they want the confidence that they have given their children a springboard. I agree with you though that the “springboard” is now illusory for many people.

    What I think we will see going forward is the emergence of more alternative programs that offer both signalling value and practical value. We are already seeing that in certain leading/innovative niches. The start-up incubator format is a great example. Acceptance into the top incubators carries more cache in the tech world than a Stanford degree while also providing a dramatically more practical and cost effective education. If similar programs proliferate in other industries they will gradually eat away at the high end of education.

    The other challenge is that many kids simply don’t know what they want to do at 18, and college is the default option. That attitude may shift as the internet increasingly allows teenagers to meaningfully interact with the real world at younger ages. When I was in high school I had no idea what I wanted to do because I had never done anything in the real world. Traditional extracurriculars put students in kiddy versions of real world institutions. Many schools even use the term “mock” in the names of their student clubs – “mock U.N.” or “mock debate”. Kind of insulting, no?

    It’s no coincidence that the software industry – wherein a 15 y/o kid can make meaningful contributions to real projects – is leading the charge in terms of rethinking education. As the internet empowers more kids to create and distribute respectable work in other domains, that ethos spread. And as that ethos spreads, fewer kids will find themselves absolutely clueless about real careers as they approach age 18. The 18 year old artist who has been managing an Etsy storefront for four years will be able to make a much more informed decision than the stereotypical kid who goes to college to “find himself”.

  2. I definitely agree with this article! I was the first person in my immediate family to graduate from high school, so it was an accomplishment for me to go to college. However, looking back on it, I wish I knew what I did now while I was in school.

    College is the ULTIMATE networking ground, especially if you’re a budding entrepreneur. I would of created a startup while I was in school that was targeted towards student’s needs (which I’m doing now with my organization), to leverage against the debt I was incurring by taking student loans.

    As stated in the article, I feel college is only necessary for those with specialized professions. I think a real need for high school graduates is a type of incubator program that can help them find what their passion is and assist them with either joining a company or creating their own. It’s the type of complimentary education our society needs that fills the gap left in traditional education.

  3. The view of “higher education” has become somewhat tainted – by those furthest away from it; meaning potential students and current students viewpoints have been influenced by others “outside the bubble”. Now, receiving input from “outside the bubble” may be positive, but it isn’t always productive.

    Case in point, many articles and statistics have been written / reported over the past several years: Example (excerpt from The Economist “ The Project on Student Debt reports that nationally, the average debt for those graduating seniors who have taken out loans was $23,200 in 2008.” See that figure? Now, tell me how much (in loans) is spent for a CAR?

    I believe it all boils down to financial education – understanding the true value of expenditures that one makes during a lifetime – and not “buying into the hype” that a higher student loan balance is a reflection of a “higher education”.

    As I learned, and tell my college students, the day I walked across the stage (for an Undergraduate Degree) was the day I realized: “The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.” So… to boil this down, it’s simply a lack of understanding about how and where we learn – learning does NOT occur within the walls of a building, but within a community (physically and virtually) each and every day.

    Now the question remains, when YOU want to move from point A to point B, what car (vehicle) will you chose to transport you and transform your life?

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