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 details 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. And 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 traditional “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 the parents 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 that price can be more of a liability than the asset generated by the degree itself.

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, guaranteed 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 your child will carry around for years … and years.

Imagine yourself as your child, an eighteen year old about ready to graduate from high school. Let’s assume there are no parents in the picture, no grandparents either. And even better yet, no societal expectations pressuring you about what you should, and what you shouldn’t do. The only thing that matters is you – your wellbeing, and your future.

Let’s break convention, and consider alternatives to four-year college bound route to the traditional American Dream.

  • Don’t go to college. Or if you do, wait a few years until you have some experience in the real world. Not all careers require a college degree. And contrary to popular belief, a lot of the opportunities in the fast growing tech sector are among them. These companies need a lot more than engineers and degreed computer scientists. 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 and became an Apple Genius. Now at twenty-five, she’s part of Saucey, a tech start-up in Los Angeles, handling logistics. Being a voracious learner, she is alway in a ‘school’ of her own direction. This ‘life-long learner’ attitude and the experience she received at Apple has been an invaluable way for her to spend her formative years. And the financial obligations of traditional college … she has none.
  • Go to school, but wait a year. Get your feet wet. Find the path you want to take. College 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. The first year or two in college is for many just an extension of high school, a postponement of reality (and an expensive one at that).
  • 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. 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.

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

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 debt is only one part of the equation. The age a student spends in college is between eighteen and twenty-two (if you can get out in four years). This is the prime time for learning. Kids (and I use that term with endearment) are sponges. How they spend this time and what they are exposed to will make a major impact on their lives for years to come. To waste it away in classes that may or may be relevant to their future is unfortunate, if not tragic. If a student is hard and fast on what they want to commit their professional life doing, then allocating these formative years is fine. If not … then it’s not. 

Now there’s certain professions where you must have a degree, and for several, an advanced one is mandatory. 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. Hope is the operative word here, especially with the unfortunate de-evolution of several of these vaunted professions. If you want to go into business or become entrepreneur … it’s a questionable decision to go down the traditional four year college route.

The world of the Millennial generation is not the one of their parents. These young people don’t have the professional security awarded their parents. Unions are in shamble. Careers based on working with one company, or even in one industry are gone. Professions, traditionally bastions of prosperity and prestige such as law – are anything but that now. To impose the rules and norms of ‘work’ relevant decades ago is doing a great disservice to those we entrust the future of our country with. And we will all suffer because of it.

Several months I wrote about the ‘Nomad Movement’ taking hold amongst Millennials. By being nomads, these young people (and others) are forging their own version of the ‘American Dream.’ They do contract work with Uber, Lyft and others on their way to carving out their own niche in the world. Often this is done through creative and entrepreneurial means. Such behavior twenty-years ago would have been looked at with disdain and shame by parents. Now it really doesn’t matter. It’s survival.

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