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The case against college is old and flawed (essay)

Parsing the Case Against College
January 11, 2013

Maybe going to college is not such a great idea. Two years ago the entrepreneur Peter Thiel put up money that paid outstanding high school students to pursue paths and projects away from a college campus. Now, a flurry of articles report about bright, enthusiastic high school students who consciously reject going to college. The latest example is Alex Williams’s “The Old College Try? No Way!” in The New York Times that includes a caption proclaiming that for high achievers, “College is for suckers!” This “case against college” may be heretical to our higher education orthodoxy.  But it is not new.

From 1870 to 1890, enrollments at most colleges declined even though the national population grew.  College presidents were perplexed about the loss of appeal “going to college” held for young Americans. The School of Hard Knocks trumped the College of Liberal Arts if you were an inventor or an investor. Ambitious young Americans wanted to get on with their pursuits and profits. They saw four years of college as lost time and wasted opportunity.

Even the learned professions of medicine and law seldom required a college education – or even a high school diploma. And, for most 18-year-olds whose parents were farmers or shopkeepers, you had to stay home to help with the family business. Tuition was not an obstacle because it was incredibly cheap – seldom more than $100 per year. When college presidents made desperate offers to attract students by lowering tuition and waiving entrance examinations, there were few takers and lots of empty classroom seats. College officials failed to understand that for most American families the loss of a child’s earnings was a more important consideration than even no tuition charge in making a decisive case against college.

But that was then and this is now. The current advocates for the case against college may be correct in pointing out that a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs did not need a college degree to be successful.  What this ignores is that the overall strength of American higher education in the 20th century has been less spectacular yet important -- namely, to educate for civil society and expertise.

It was true not only for preparing young people for law and medicine, but also pharmacy, engineering, physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, teaching, social work, clergy, nursing, accounting, forestry, public health and other professionals – and at the same time helping to educate them to be concerned, informed citizens -- that would lead and staff new organizations in the public and private sector and as concerned, informed citizens.

Let’s reconsider Steven Jobs’s memorable 2005 Stanford commencement speech as Exhibit A in the case against college. First, Jobs did not opt not to go to college. He went to Reed College and dropped out – a very different life choice than not going to college at all. Second, even after dropping out, he stayed close to the Reed College campus – its students, faculty, resources and opportunities – all to his educational and vocational gain. Third, his explanation for dropping out – disorientation and uncertainty – probably were signs that a liberal education was prompting him to consider and confront complex questions of purpose and place. Perhaps Reed College was “doing its job” for Jobs? 

Above all, doesn’t it seem strange and conveniently safe that Steven Jobs gave his inspirational talk to Stanford graduates who momentarily would receive their coveted Stanford degrees?  I wager that most in that audience were delighted with Jobs’s message urging them to pursue their dreams – and equally delighted that they were buoyed by the experience, friendships, faculty and learning  -- and degree -- on all counts that going to college had made opportune. The Steven Jobs inspirational talk would have been more compelling as a “case against college” had he chosen to deliver it to 16-year-olds at, e.g., Oakland Tech. But he didn’t – and for good reason.

Whether in 1880 or 2012, the historical message is that there are good reasons to go -- or not to go -- to college.  And, given the diversity of American higher education, the choices are complicated by the options of where to go – such as two-year vocational vs. four-year liberal arts college or small campus versus large flagship state university --  and what to study, and for what end – an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, or perhaps prelude to an advanced degree. We also have in the United States a long tradition of some professions such as performing arts and major league baseball where one need not first have a college education. The spate of current articles do not make the case against college – they make a case, or several cases, depending on an individual’s situation and goals. A maxim of societal behavior is that strident advocacy makes a point and at the same time fosters alternative and counter points. 

In sum, the fervent articles denigrating college unwittingly make indirect and direct cases of numerous good reasons to go to college. Why, of course, the exceptional genius does not need the delay of required courses. Partying by 20-year-olds is going to take place at sports bars quite apart from being enrolled in college. In fact, most accounts of Silicon Valley successful entrepreneurs suggests that unabashed partying is par for their course.  So, why begrudge that or dismiss that as a nuisance and distraction linked exclusively to undergraduate life?

But even an icon such as Mark Zuckerberg did gain from going to Harvard by finding the name and inspiration for “Facebook” – not from Philosophy 101 but from the booklets distributed during freshman orientation week. How to calculate the net worth of that informal collegiate experience? And for the multitude of bright, talented committed high school graduates who were not selected for Peter Thiel’s highly selective program, might not there be a thoughtful choice about college that just might provide some good learning and opportunities? 

The net result is that we do not have “The Case” against college – but the more subtle, provocative question of many cases for and against going to college as befits a complex, diverse and credentialed American society.  Maybe going to college is not such a great idea.  Maybe not going to college is not such a great idea.

Bio

John Thelin is a professor of educational policy studies at the University of Kentucky.  He is author of A History of American Higher Education, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

 

 

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