Friday, February 25, 2011

The College Myth: Why College Isn't Worth The Cost For Many 21st Century Students

I wrote this piece for the Huffington Post. If you’d rather read it there, click here

If you are a kid or have a kid in school today, you know that preparing kids for college is just a way of life in schools. Forget the fact that some people have discovered it is a “Race to Nowhere” that leaves many children riddled with stress, anxiety, headaches, stomach pains, and in for some even suicide attempts.  Nevermind the dirty secret that a bachelor’s degree is beyond the reach of many students - Charles Murray, New York Times (2008) or that “The four-year college degree has come to cost too much and prove too little. In fact, it's now a bad deal for the average student, family, employer, professor and taxpayer” - Jack Hugh, Smart Money (2009). It’s what Forbes Magazine calls “The College Hoax,” which clearly outlines the faulty stats that mislead Americans to believe that a degree will result in higher earnings later on.  In the article Kathy Kristof reveals that higher education can be a financial disaster. Especially with the return on degrees down and student loan sharks on the prowl. 

While it is becoming more evident to disillusioned college grads who are victims of an unfolding education hoax on the middle class that's just as insidious, and nearly as sweeping, as the housing debacle, there is little thought given to the fact that we place kids in schools with a promise that if they do well in school and then in college, they’ll be rewarded with a life time of success and opportunity not otherwise available to them.  We need to start rethinking what we’re taking as a given in school today, because the reality is, we’re lying.  Our new crop of college grads, known today as generation debt because of the huge pile of debt attached to their diploma, have no real guarantee of a job.   In fact, what was true for the parents of today’s kids, isn’t true for them.  As a result, more and more often smart students and their parents are also beginning to understand that a college education is not what it’s cracked up to be.

The problem with college being the goal of school, is that we are assuming a degree is necessary for everyone regardless of their interests, talents, and passions and we rarely even bother helping students figure out what their passion is.  If we did, we might very well find college isn’t necessary to pursue their dreams.  You can be a famous chef with your own cooking show without college (Rachel Ray).  You can become a successful photographer to the rich and famous without college (My friend Amy).  You can be a dog whisperer with your own TV show and books (Caesar Millan).  You can work as a motion picture film editor without college (speak to Marco Torres). Some of the most successful business entrepreneurs never bothered getting college degrees. Multi-million/billionaires  Steve Jobs, Mary Kay Ash, Mark Zuckerberg, Ted Turner, Coco Chanel, Richard Branson, Debbie Fields, and David Geffen have no college diplomas to frame.  Shakespeare and Orwell are required reading for entering college, yet guess what? They didn’t get college degrees.  J.K. Rowling, the successful writer from the Harry Potter series didn’t bother with college either.  Florence Nightingale never attended school.  Perhaps most interesting is that revered diplomats like Prime Minister of Britain Winston Churchill also have no college degree.  Here in the U.S. we have at least four presidents who lead our country without having had the “college experience.”  

When I share this with others, I’m often met with the reaction that I’m taking extreme and unusual cases. 
The fact is they are not.  There are endless examples of successful people who let passion, not college lead them to success.  In fact on a more personal note, when I ask those of my generation (I was born in 1968) to think of their parents and grandparents, and other family and friends of the generation prior, they often realize many of them worked in successful careers without college.  This is the case for me.  My father become a successful Director of Photography popular sit coms and game shows  like “Who’s The Boss,” “Different Strokes,” “The Gong Show,” “The Dating Game,” and “The Newlywed Game.”  He often worked with my other father, a man passionate about music, who loved his career as a sound engineer on these shows as well as big shows like the “Academy Awards” and the “Grammys.”  My mother is passionate about her career as an entertainment business manager.  My best friend growing up had a father who was a big casting director for a major network.  All of them have no college degrees, no college debt, and achieved great success.

Sadly, we’re bringing up a generation of stressed out, over scheduled kids, who spend their days in school and nights in activities and doing homework with little to no time for themselves.  We’re telling them they’re doing all of this so they can attend a good college that’s worth all this investment in time now and debt later but they don’t even really know why they’re there.  Sure we say this will open doors and opportunities, but when they haven’t had a chance to determine what door they want to go through, it doesn’t really matter if it’s open.  And, unfortunately, many kids who picked a major unsure of what they really wanted, end up just being shoved through a door because they saw it open and were never even given time to explore the opportunities behind the other doors.  

When I speak with students, I often find they’re like Amy, Carlie,  Jessica and Maria blindly doing as they’re told so they can get into college, but they really have no idea what it is they’re interested in.  Some will say that’s what college is for, isn’t it? It’s a place to figure out what you’re interested in. That’s sure an expensive way to spend time for kids who don’t know what they’re interested in. Furthermore, why would we wait to college to start doing that? There are usually 17 or more years of learning prior to college.  Why not devote more time in those years allowing passion, not just data, to drive learning.  

The goal of school should not be college readiness. It should be supporting students in determining the lives they want to live when they leave school. Why aren’t they discovering what it is they want to be ready for and then if that requires college, sure, pursue a path that gets you ready for the area of study you are interested in.  This is not the same as everyone gets 3 years of math, science, English, and social studies in high school and all have to take the same test because it shouldn’t be one size fits all and it’s okay to pursue lives that never involve each of those subjects.  

Recently I was told we have to force kids to learn Algebra, trigonometry, and geometry because they will need it for college.  Really? Why would a lit, theater, or women’s studies major need that for college? Others have said if we don’t force kids to learn these subjects in high school they’ll never know what they’re interested in.  Okay, but by the time a kid reaches high school they’ve spent 8 years studying math, science, English, and social studies.  Students know what they’re interested in.  Ask them.  I HATE MATH. SOCIAL STUDIES IS MY FAVORITE SUBJECT.  I LOVE READING.  I WISH I HAD MORE TIME FOR ART (or dance, or photography, or music etc. etc.). Why not give students ownership over their learning and let high school be a time to discover and/or pursue passions?

It is not acceptable for children to spend 12 years of school graduating high school with little to no emphasis placed on knowing what you love and then matching what you love to what you do next.  Most students today have little time devoted toward exploring, discovering and developing their passions, talents, and interests.  They often get to college and have no idea what they should be pursuing.  Many students are like me who took a few classes then majored in the subject of the teacher I hit it off with only to learn upon graduation, this really had no connection to the career I ultimately pursued. In fact, if you look around and ask people what they went to college for, and the career they are in now, you’ll quickly realize that the degrees we pursued were unnecessary for many of us.  Even those who pursed the profession they attended college for often admit is was not the best preparation for their career.

The college business is big business. We need to begin questioning why it is we were really led to believe this is the goal and measure of success for high schools and they’re students.  Instead, I’d challenge schools to be measured by how well they spent the 12 years of K - 12 schooling helping children determine what they’re passions and dreams are and think about a plan to achieve it.  Some people will say, they can’t do this in K-12.  They’re too young to know what they want.  Really? How would we know when we don’t give them the chance.  The schools that do incorporate discovering passions know that children are ready, right from the start to begin discovering their passions and also that it doesn’t mean force feeding them a curriculum but rather letting them go far beyond the curriculum.  When you do, you get a school full of students like Armond McFadden. His school followed the Schoolwide Enrichment model from K - 8 which honors students talents, passions, and interests.  As a result he had a clear idea about the direction his life may be headed by the time he was in middle school.  He was also armed with the knowledge to pursue whatever passion he may desire.  

We tend to infantilize youth today.  Some will say it’s to keep younger people out of the workforce.  Some might say it’s because college is big business.  Some might say because today’s youth aren’t ready for the real world until they’re much old than prior generations. The reality is kids shouldn’t have to wait to adulthood to have the opportunity to do great real things and discover and develop passions. In this data driven age of schooling children, rarely have the chance to learn independently about things they choose. Historically people were empowered to explore their passions at the same ages today's students are disempowered to prep for the test.  

Here are some examples of what prior generations accomplished by age 13.

  • Pianist Mendelssohn performed his first original compositions.
  • Mary Leakey saw the famed Cro-Magnon caves in France and became dedicated to anthropology.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven became an assistant organist.
  • Country singer, songwriter and actress Dolly Parton made her first radio appearance.
  • Thomas A. Edison began performing electrical and mechanical experiments in his spare time.
  • Writer and general Carl von Clausewitz ("On War") joined the army at age 12.
  • Albert Einstein taught himself Euclidean geometry. He also dedicated himself to solving the riddle of the "huge world."
  • Filmmaker Steven Spielberg got his first movie camera and spent hours writing scripts, drawing storyboards and making movies of subjects such as head-on miniature train crashes and an exploding pressure cooker full of cherries jubilee.
  • Pablo Picasso was so skilled at drawing that his father handed over his own brushes and paints and gave up painting.
  • Jodie Foster wrote and directed a short movie, "Hands of Time," consisting of a series of shots of hands portraying life from cradle to grave.
  • French painter Renoir worked at a porcelain factory, painting flowers on dishware.
  • Mario Andretti began racing.
Will Richardson who understands that it’s okay if his kids don’t want to got to college, says it this way.  
More and more, all I want from my kids’ school is to help me identify what they love, what their strengths are, and then help them create their own paths to mastery of their passions. Stop spending so much time focusing on subjects or courses that “they need for college” but don’t interest them in the least. Help them become learners who will be able to find and make good use of the knowledge that they need when they need it, whether that means finding an answer online or taking a college course to deepen their understanding. And finally, prepare them to create their own credentials that will powerfully display their capabilities, passions and potentials.
When we allow students to explore their passions in school, upon graduation we may learn that some will choose a future that involves college.  Others may not.  Neither is better or preferable, and the reality today is that the kid who selects a path without college, may very well be better off from a financial and happiness standpoint, then the kid who went to the “good” college.


  1. Fabulous post. I've been saying this for years, much to the consternation of my colleagues. It is only recently they've begun to agree with me a little bit.

  2. It is such a sad waste of money and time for someone to go to college because everyone else is doing it. It breaks my heart to see all the stress around getting in, staying in, and going broke. I've also been saying this for a long time: COLLEGE IS NOT FOR EVERYONE. And it certainly isn't a guarantee of any kind of success later in life. If anything, it only further delays free exploration of non-academic pursuits.

    Keep these posts coming. This craziness has to stop!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Well said. For me, the biggest takeaway is that students will make better college choice decisions if they have better career choice education (including age appropriate interest inventories). Students who are able to connect their interests to their futures are less likely to drop out of high school, more likely to engage in post-secondary education (not necessarily four year college), and are more likely to find a good career fit.

    There are ancillary benefits to good career choice education, as well. Things like better health care for students' kids, lower teen pregnancy rates, etc.

    The Educational, Social, and Economic Value of Informed and Considered Career Decisions

  5. "Why would a lit, theater, or women’s studies major need [algebra, geometry, and trig] for college?"

    I teach physics. I love physics. I also love math. The basic concepts of physics and math come up in all subjects, even literature, theater, and women's studies. You can't write if you don't know your world, and physics defines the world. If you're directing a play (and you don't want to be the type who just yells at someone when something goes wrong), you need to have a basic understanding of how the lights and the stage curtain work, and that's physics. If you want to analyze trends in women's experiences, you need a lot of math (mostly statistics) to refute the claims that women were better off when they had fewer rights.

    Everyone also needs enough science and math so that they can't be led around by the nose by people who think the tides require a creator deity in order to work or the Moon landings were a hoax or the local incidence of cancer is just a matter of bad luck.

    BUT... that doesn't mean everyone needs to take a standardized math course and a standardized physics course. It means that the truly essential science and math will come up in any study that delves deeply into a student's passions, as long as neither the student nor the student's mentors think science and math are foreign concepts that don't apply to real life.

  6. Very much spot on. University has never been a necessary to achieve great things. In some areas it has been a hindrance (look at the industrial revolution) in many, it's fairly helpful if it provides the right environment (many autodidacts certainly suffer from the collective corrective).

    However, the real purpose of the university has never been knowledge. It's always been a place to grow older and make some connections. Now that it's become non-exclusive, the connections are not worth much, and a degree is no longer a sufficient differentiator to have any real value.

    But most people don't need to do extraordinary things. They need to do ordinary things. Get a job, get married, get by. Education of any kind is pretty much irrelevant to this other than as a way of certifying a certain rite of passage (obviously skill training is necessary for a particular job but that's only a small subset of education). There is no way to easily reintroduce value to university education other than doing something revolutionary - get an association of employers who say, come work with us, we'll give you a job and get you ready for the next one, too.

  7. Not disagreeing with the idea, but ...

    1) In my observation life time passion usually follows knowledge. Figuratively speaking: high school passion is often puppy-love while college passion is life long.

    2) Many colleges have have simply become an extension of high school. If colleges were doing their job of challenging students to be their creative and intellectual best, much of the argument would no longer apply.

  8. @DaoudaW, you observe that life-time passion follows knowledge because traditional schools make it that way. There are schools practicing passion-driven learning and every student explores their passions, talents, and interests and knows how to develop them. Of course you wouldn't see this looking at traditional school models. When you look at alternative learning models, you see something very different which is students enjoy exploring and developing passions as early as possible.

    I disagree with #2. The fact is college isn't for everyone. Why must it be? Additionally, even if colleges weren't simply an extension of high school, when little time is allocated in the school day to determine what it is you are excited about how do you know what to pursue in college? Most don't but could if there was attention given to this before students arrived.

    Finally, the numbers are in, and college is no longer a better bet financially than skipping school for many careers.

  9. I went to college for music. Sadly, I noticed the music program fading. My piano teacher felt his performances were more important than my lessons and skipped every other assigned lesson (he was eventually fired)I switched my major to behavioral sciences in junior year.
    After I graduated, I went back to my piano teacher from high school. She flogged my back into shape (not whipped me), and eventually, she said I was ready to perform professionally.
    I do.

  10. This is a piece written by someone completely IGNORANT of the issues facing students in this country. The statement, "The goal of school should not be college readiness. It should be supporting students in determining the lives they want to live when they leave school. Why aren’t they discovering what it is they want to be ready for and then if that requires college, sure, pursue a path that gets you ready for the area of study you are interested in," is utter BS because not everyone has the college knowledge, the social and cultural capital, the awareness of what choices they have. Your article speaks only to the White upper-middle class and for that reason it is flawed

  11. Anonymous June 30
    Your biased attack WEAKEN your statement and make your statement which should've been use to show the error of the paragraph become hypocritical humor.
    College doesn't take awareness of your choice. If it takes college for this.......damn. Social and cultural captial, are you making up phrases? Most of the kids in college I known don't even got a single idea of social or cultural things of there own town or country. MOST people don't have college knowledge. Even those who do don't CARE about it much as more than as a test. The paragraph was explaining that the kid should've learn what they want to do before college. You Anonymous needing COLLEGE for every decision in your life is an insult to higher education and in a perfect world, you should've learn about it way before you went to college. (Using your technique, exaggeration and making a baseless claim)
    Oh my goodness, you have to school to be able to learn how to talk. OMG, you need a teacher to teach you college level math like topology. Your college fail to gave result of social or cultural gains. You entire is fraudulent BS x 10. You make things out to be far better than it is. You fail to defend school by not reading about the problems plaguing it and making your entire statement seem like a STRAWMAN statement. You pretty much say that most kids don't the knowledge to think for themselves(Not noting research that the same can be said about kids in college as well),and attacking this article that kids should've learned about it before hand while in high school. Not realizing that you only get 2 or even less(depend on how much credit is earned from Clep or AP test) to determine your MAJOR. Which would lock you off from most of your other choices. So you entire paragraph is shit.Please make a better paragraph that don't use statements like upper middle class White or its equivalence. Don't use phrases like social and cultural capital unless you actually can prove that you actually do gain it in most colleges (in all fields) AND that high school or lower can't teach it while ALSO defending that college is worth the cost. College knowledge is a JOKE. Do you sincerely believe you learn so much from college? Did you learn about the laws that effect our lives? Did you learn about other cultural history of the American people? Your college knowledge is an insult. One that most people never remember.Most college people don't remember A thing that was useful in college. So obviously, your statement is A LIE. You are the ignorant one. You are growing up to be like those yahoo smartass(whether they're smart or not doesn't matter).Lots of comment exaggerating college/army/America without looking at the flaws. (Same as you right?)Grow more before you talk anonymous 6-30-2011