I usually stay away from the mainstream media’s coverage of higher education, at least by directly seeking it out. I rely on my professional network (read: my tweeps) to keep my up-to-date on, recommending what I should (and should not) read. I broke my own rule on Saturday night when I headed over to the New York Times and clicked on the article Saying No To College  (which, tellingly, is in the Style section, not Education).
I tweeted the article out, basically calling out the writer and the NYT for ignoring the privilege of the people in the piece; sure, dropping out of Princeton is a badge of honor, but what about those who drop out of regional State university or community college? Or, how it is a select group of students who can afford financially to take a gap year “volunteering” abroad. What about how increasingly people are calling for student-athletes to be required to get a degree before they turn pro?
(Sunday morning, much of my timeline was as indignant as I was the night before. So, clearly, I wasn’t alone.)
There were some backlash tweets: learning can take place anywhere (a la Khan Academy); learning doesn’t actually take place in college (a la Academically Adrift). But here’s the thing: most students who drop out of school will not become millionaires or appear on Oprah. And to suggest that the road to fame and fortune is to drop out is a dangerous message to send.
My students do not come from economically privileged backgrounds. They are computer science majors who have never owned a computer. They are International Studies minors who have never had a passport and who have to take out private loans to afford a study abroad experience. They are the first in their families to attend college. They are on Pell Grants and working 20-40 hours a week to support themselves and often their families. We can debate the economics of higher education on another day, but in this moment, this is the reality for my students.
These are students who could forgo college and make a lot of money working in coal mines. But they watched their parents or members of their communities work in the mines and decided that it wasn’t the life for them. These are also students whose parents ran successful businesses that went under during the economic collapse and now are struggling to make ends meet. These are students who want to become teachers, social workers, nurses, physical therapists not because they want guaranteed employment, but because they want to help people in their communities. Certainly they aren’t in it for the money.
Our small town is also filled with college drop-out or college avoidance success stories. The bakery that just opened is run by two non-degree holding bakers who nonetheless took culinary classes and “interned” at some pretty prestigious restaurants before coming “home” and opening a bakery. But it also runs in the family; their mother and aunt have been running a successful local restaurant next door for years and years. My daughter’s ballet teacher is a drop out; she did some years towards a degree in education, but her passion lay in teaching dance, so instead she took high-level dance instruction courses (not from the university) and opened her own studio. But, she also has a husband who works full-time and has a job with benefits, allowing her to pursue her dream and her passion.
College isn’t the only form of job training available to young people, but often it is an important component for many jobs that my students aspire to have. Is deep learning secondary? Sure, but those students who are left unsatisfied with an education focused on career-readiness will seek out those courses and opportunities to learn. Does this mean they should forgo college?
The question is, what can they do and what are they going to do instead?