Tis also graduation season, and as I see all those pics of proudly smiling grads making the rounds online, I can’t help but wonder, as Carrie Bradshaw might put it, how many of them will still be smiling come fall, when 68.3 of them arrive at college.
A low percentage, you might say, barely over half. Of these, only about half again will actually complete their degree:
Today, especially among low-income students who attend public community colleges as a gateway to a college or university, 27 percent actually graduate in four years, and 48 percent of those pursuing bachelor’s degrees at private schools do so, according to ACT Inc., an organization that provides college testing exams and other services. Most students take at least six years, and even then only 55 percent get their degrees.Moreover, graduate or not, the mere pursuit of the college dream is going to cost all of us, cripple many. Most of the students going to college in the fall will be paying for tuition, books, and housing with loans, banking on a future filled with guarantees of higher incomes their degrees will supposedly facilitate. This dream debt is now at the $1 trillion mark.
What to do? Expert opinions vary. Lowering the cost of higher education is a popular solution. Working to improve the economy to create more jobs for grads is another. I prefer a simpler approach.
Less people need to go to college.
What? Blasphemy! Heartlessness! How dare I!
I dare. You bet I dare. Unlike politicians, economists, and career academics, I’m in the first-year college trenches, I’ve been there for 18 years, and I got nothing to lose by admitting the truth. About one in every three incoming students has no business being in college, much less signing a loan to be there. A whopping 30% of those students taking out loans will never graduate, yet they will give over not just the money they owe for the one, two, three or more years that they struggle to stay enrolled but also the time and self-esteem it costs them to admit they should have never gone to college in the first place.
The pitch high-school graduates are receiving—and have been receiving for years—is preposterous. No time to attend classes because you have two full-time jobs, seven children, and numerous diseases? No problem! Classes start anytime. You can go at night, on the weekends, or online, in your pajamas! No money? No problem! Just sign on the dotted line.
|A must-see on this subject.|
These predatory practices make it seem as if college is easy, as if the only thing you need to get that coveted degree is a convenient schedule and a loan. It’s the perfect pitch for a consumer-driven society: convenience + cost = instant gratification.
Sadly, you can’t order up a college degree at a drive-thru as if it were a Big Mac. Getting a college degree is not a matter of just getting through the door; it’s about being able to succeed once you’re in, and that’s something no one’s talking about anymore. It’s not the piece of paper that gets you the fancy job later—it’s the skills and knowledge that paper represents, and the truth is that’s pretty hard to get even the old-fashioned way, when you used to spend four years doing nothing but studying.
Too many people want to go to college for all the wrong reasons. They don’t really want to go to college, actually. What they want is to get through college, which is not the same thing. They want to get through this obstacle course as quickly and painlessly as possible, so they can cash in on the reward, a higher-paying job than the one they would get without the college ordeal.
College is not a test of endurance. It’s not something you’re meant to “survive,” like being trapped on an island with nothing to eat but tarantulas. You can’t just grin and bear it long enough to be released. It just doesn’t work that way. You don’t get rewarded with a better job at the end of your incarceration; you are rewarded with a better job—if you can find it—because you have learned the skills you need to succeed at it.
Which brings me to my main point. There’s only one reason why you should go to college: Because you are a good student and both desire to learn and are capable of learning more.
It breaks my heart to see people who can barely read try to make it through a college course. If you barely made it through high school, if you had trouble passing your classes and hated being in a classroom, you shouldn’t voluntarily sign up for four more years of torture, especially not if it’s going to cost thousands of dollars. The problem here is that most people don’t feel it’s a voluntary decision at all, and I’m not talking about parents who force their children to go (a most foolish thing). I’m talking about the economic and social imperative, about a society that has come to believe that only doctors and lawyers can be happy and respected citizens, and that everyone—no matter what life and educational messes he or she has lived through—has not just the right but the obligation to become one.
The cost of a college education is not just a matter of dollars. You must have other forms of currency, skills and values you should have picked up in high school. Apart from basic skills like reading, writing, and math, you need to know how to study, how to be responsible for your own education. Moreover, you need to want to be a doctor or a lawyer for some reason other than the paycheck attached to these careers. Otherwise you wind up being one of those proverbial med students who faints at the sight of blood.
The college experience is intimately tied to the careers it leads to. If you’re cringing in your history class, what makes you think you’re going to be a good lawyer, where every decision that you make must be based on historical precedent? If you’re flunking biology, what makes you think you’re going to be a good doctor? Careers that involve acquiring a college degree aren’t like jobs, where you can whine your way through the day for the sake of the paycheck. Careers that involve higher education employ those very skills you’re taught in class. A lawyer never leaves history class, a doctor never leaves biology class. In fact, most of these careers involve a lifetime of education, revalidating licenses, attending seminars, and publishing papers—yes, as in college papers—that keep professionals informed members of their field.
If we’re really going to make good on all those promises of a bright future for high-school graduates, we need to start, among other things, to validate the decision to pursue non-college-track choices, which is where the majority of college dropouts wind up anyway. They lose valuable time they could be gaining real work experience and accrue crippling start-up debt simply because no one is exploring options.
Let me make one point crystal before I give up this dark meditation: I am in no way suggesting that the only problem with higher education in the US is the pursuit of a degree by people who shouldn’t be in college. That’s just one of the problems, albeit a pretty big one. It would take me the rest of my life to go through the multiple and complex issues that have created the current mess. What I have tried to do in this post is to inject some sense into this College or Bust madness—to prepare myself, in a way, for the flipside of the happy June graduations, when I face a class full of students in the fall less than half of whom I’ll be seeing again come spring.