Sunday, December 02, 2012

Go to college? No. Yes. Maybe.

by Leigh Pomeroy

College is too often touted as the end-all, be-all of getting ahead in America. This may be true on a grand scale or on average, but people aren't average. Everyone is unique. There are always exceptions.

For example, three individuals who have had among them perhaps the greatest influence on our popular culture are Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Steven Spielberg. None finished college.

On the other hand, some of the individuals who triggered the 2008 financial collapse were highly educated PhD quants and MBA products of our elite business schools. Oh yeah, they made a lot of money for themselves and a few others, but their decision making and wild west style of financial wheeling and dealing caused undeserved economic hardship for millions of others regardless of whether they held PhDs, BAs, high school diplomas or nary a speck of paper at all.

From teaching college at a 14,000-student Minnesota university I have learned a few things about college students:
  1. About a third shouldn't be there. They should be doing something else: Working in a dead-end job; doing something with their hands (this goes mainly for guys); exploring the world; working in a community service program like AmeriCorps. Or they should be enrolled in a community or technical college where they can learn everything from basic work skills to highly technical trades that would qualify them for relatively well-paid jobs. The community colleges also provide students with basic general education and a chance to catch up from a perhaps less-than-adequate high school experience before entering a four-year university with a direction in mind.
  2. Perhaps half have no idea how to write a paper. They have little concept of grammar and spelling, think copying from the internet is just fine, and/or have no idea of the differences between generalities and specifics. This is because this same number has not read anything besides what's been assigned in their high school classes (maybe) or what shows up on their Facebook pages or cell phone screens.
  3. Over three-quarters choose majors that will result in lower-paying jobs ... if they can get jobs in their fields at all. (See this article from Kiplinger and this one from I'm not advocating that wealth equals happiness. I've known too many filthy rich people who have died from alcoholism. And indeed many students who pursue majors in social work or education are quite aware that they will never be rich. Fortunately, at least in Minnesota, these professions can pay good middle-class salaries, provide for health care and a reasonable retirement, and aren't scorned by other members of society. But mass communications, English, art, sports management and general business majors, to name some of the most popular, don't lead to a whole lot of well-paying positions, at least right out of the academic gate.
At my university we have precious few students going into the hard sciences, and many of those are imports from foreign countries. A few more go into nursing, which is a highly competitive major that attracts some of the best and brightest. But they are limited because of a shortage of teaching faculty and a lack of practical internship opportunities (required for graduation) in our area.

I have twin sons who graduated from college in 2010. One has a science degree from a large Midwestern university; he is now paid a reasonable salary (for a single kid a few years out of college) to be an editor/writer for an online science blog. He also contributes to the online editions of Science Magazine and Scientific American.

His brother, who majored in the nebulous fields of American studies and religion at a well-regarded eastern university, recently left a well-paying job with a major retailer to be an entrepreneur and concentrate on his own business. No, he's not making any money yet, but both he and his brother are doing what they want while pursuing activities that benefit their community and their country.

Of course, it helps that they had little college debt due to working while going to school, scholarships and family help, and that they keep their living expenses low. And they also benefit from the Obamacare provision allowing children up to 26 to stay on a parent's health care insurance plan. I argue that two of the greatest impediments to entrepreneurialism in this country are college debt and not having guaranteed, federally financed womb-to-grave health care insurance — but that's another story.

In sum, going to college is a crapshoot. Some majors like engineering, biochemistry, computer science and geology for the most part guarantee well-paying jobs. Others may guarantee a few years in food service or retail before something more meaningful and better paying shows up. Unfortunately, too many universities are diploma mills, too often churning out students with the requisite pieces of paper but few practical skills like, for example, how to do income taxes, manage personal finance or buy a home, let alone get a meaningful job.

So let's get rid of this fallacy that the four-year college degree is the answer to getting ahead. Yes, it helps but it doesn't guarantee. Instead, let's refocus higher education on practical coursework and education for the future. This is not to belittle the liberal arts, of which I am a strong proponent, and other less career-focused courses, all of which should be part of the college experience. But let's put them in the context of creating a richer, more meaningful life, not a springboard to a well-paying career.


Blogger Patrick Dempsey said...

awesome letter, Leigh! Enjoyed it very much. I agree with you almost 100%, especially about your three bullet points. I am one of the few who went to college in the sciences - BA in math and physics and I went to grad school at mankato in math. I used to teach college-level math and physics at a community college in another state. Sadly, most of what i taught was remedial 8th grade level math and I rarely had a student that didn't require a lot of help. It was difficult work and I thought a lot of the same thing 'what the hell are these kids doing here?'

I no longer teach and have found a wonderful niche for myself in software engineering and consulting working for some of the largest firms in the world. You're right about one thing - not everyone should go to college. It would be nice if colleges and universities were more stringent in their entrance standards leaving those not quite qualified to head to tech/community college. But, there's too much money at stake to turn away students for a lot of the 4-year institutions.

1:54 PM  

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