MIT economist David Autor stated in a recent New York Times article  about the challenging labor market, “Sending more young Americans to college is not a panacea,” but “not sending them to college would be a disaster.” College degrees guarantee a significant increase in income and a decrease in unemployment for young people. Full time workers with undergraduate degrees make 83% more than workers with only a high school diploma.
For the last week I’ve been driving three teenagers around the country on a college tour. Two of them, my son Nick and his friend Micahl, do not plan on attending college after they finish high school next year. They want to move to Chicago for a ‘gap year ,’ get jobs, start a band and become rock-n-roll stars. They did not ask for this college tour. I forced them to go on it.
Our car was packed to the roof with two guitars and my daughter Katie's trombone. Katie is entering her junior year of high school. She plans on attending college more definitively than her brother, although she is suggesting that a gap year after high school may be desirable for her too. In many ways this college tour was for her, but I think it left an appropriate imprint on the two boys.
At Florida State University the admissions counselor informed a crowded room of parents and students that to be admitted they would need to have GPA averages around 3.7 and “No D’s or F’s on your transcript.” Nick, who has relatively high SAT scores but several D’s and F’s, was quick to comment to me on how he plans to replace his low grades by retaking courses online this summer. (Florida’s Virtual School allows you to retake courses below D with an online instructor.)
I realize that describing a child of two college educators rejecting high grades in school is a bit of a stereotype. I keep hoping that my children will get through their Freudian desires to ‘replace’ their parents’ goals for their education with their own desires, and not fail too many classes out of teenage spite. I think it is probably a good thing that they have their existential educational crises now, while in public high school--rather than experiencing an academic breakdown after Mom and Dad have invested thousands into their college years.
My children are not alone in their doubts about the value of a bachelor’s degree. Much has been written about the new study, “Academically Adrift ,” which concluded from scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) that students spend few hours studying alone, rarely speak with faculty outside of class and are more socially engaged than academically driven by university life. Richard Arum, one of the study’s writers, stated in a Salon  interview, “Full-time college students spend 50 percent less time studying than they did several decades ago.”
The study should come as no surprise to many college educators. The rising costs of education have led to larger classrooms, enormous amounts of grading, and students who work two or three part-time jobs to afford tuition. As costs rise, so do expectations about GPAs and tensions about workload (from students and faculty). Combine these pressures with faculty evaluations that are linked to student course ratings and you have today’s “academically adrift” situation.
No wonder my children are thinking twice before rushing into college. These educational overload pressures have started for them in high school. As I try to convince my teenagers to look forward to more education, I find myself making comments, such as, “I had so much fun in college...” or “You will find one or two teachers who will change your life.” And then I think—‘I hope so…’
I do not have a big problem with accepting that my children may be gaining as much socially as they do academically in college. Achieving a balance between studying, working, cooking and living alone while still having fun, serving the community, and maintaining a family life are activities that complete the goals of parenting. Studying is just a part of this process, although academic training should certainly provide the grounding for adult decision-making in these other areas.
We need to make sure our kids know why college is still 'worth' it...