SUCCESS WITHOUT COLLEGE: Why Your Child May Not Have to Go to College Right Now—and May Not Have to Go at All. By Linda Lee. (New York: Broadway Books, 2000).
by Claude Whitmyer for AHP Perspectives.
ollege is a class issue. Think about it. What if your child decided not to go to college? How would that make you feel? What are your beliefs about life without a college degree? What would you say? “You won’t be able to get a decent job!” “People with a college degree earn more than those without.” “The more education you have the greater your ‘earning power’.”
As Linda Lee points out in “Success Without College,” most of us see college as a sacred destiny.
Well, you ask, why not want my kid to go to college? What’s wrong with that?
Listen up. Lee gives solid evidence for seeing college in a different light and to make clear decisions about when it is and is not a good idea for our children. College has changed, she tells us. It’s not what it used to be. It won’t turn out for your kids the way it turned out for you. Many of today’s high schoolers simply aren’t ready for college, or worse, they have a host of odd ideas about what’s important. College is not the ticket to a job that our middle-class myth about employability would have us believe.
According to Lee, there’s no real evidence that the higher income level of previous college graduates is due to college at all. Facts, says Lee, show that people from high-status families tend to earn more than people from low-status families, even when they have the same amount of education. Also, people who go straight into business tend to rise to upper levels of management slightly faster than those who go to college first. In fact, 21 percent of all working degree holders earn less than the average high-school grad. If that isn’t enough to make you question the earning-power myth, how about a list of highly successful people? Woody Allen, Bill Gates, Tom Hanks, Steve Jobs, Gary Levinsohn, Anna Winotour, and 58 (15%) of the Forbes 400 business leaders—none of them have a college degree.
Vocational school, technical training in a community college, or on-the-job certifications will all lead to a higher paying job, more reliably, than most liberal arts degrees.
Admittedly, “professionals” (scientist, doctor, therapist, nurse, etc.) have to go to college. (Interestingly, for the highly motivated self starter, in many states you can still become a lawyer or accountant through an apprenticeship.) But, as Lee tells us, college is expensive. An Ivy League degree runs upwards of $200,000. If you invested that $200,000 in a conservative portfolio and let your children support themselves however they chose, they could retire comfortably in 30 years.
As for the vaunted college "learning experience," Lee cites student complaints that most of what they are taught in class they will never use again. Outside of class, the days are long gone when most students and teachers hung out together, discussing art, philosophy, or social action. According to Lee, almost half of all classes are now taught by part-time faculty (almost double the level in the 70s) who have little time to hang out with students (Cheer up, though. Fewer than half of freshman fill the void with weekly binge drinking).
What are a kid’s chances in college today? Even though the emphasis on college has created a desire in middle-class kids, by 1993 the average length of completion for an undergraduate degree had climbed to 6.3 years. Nearly a third of all freshmen drop out after the first year--because they simply aren’t ready for college.
So what should these kids do. Lee gives us a whole host of possibilities, from travel to volunteer work to the military (Get paid to learn a marketable skill.) Lee reviews several interim alternatives to going straight to college. These include Dynamy (www.dynamy.org), a residential internship program in Worcester, Massachusetts, that treats kids like adults, gets them away from home, gets them working, and provides expert advice to keep them on track toward their own goals.
Then there are experiential learning opportunities that offer college credits for work in homeless shelters or children’s theaters. Americorp puts kids between 18 and 24 to work in schools, day-care, or environmental programs. The National Civilian Community Corp focuses on the environment and natural disaster relief. Habitat for Humanity, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Public Allies, and church missions all fit this category of learning. Lee also describes many good ideas for kids stalled by personal challenges, such as learning disabilities, who may want to take time out for remedial education.
Then there's work. High school graduates unsure of a career path can always get a job, any job. As a vocational guide I often encourage my teenage and 20-something career clients to adopt a sampling strategy. Find out what’s meaningful to you, I say, and what you can’t stand. Like to work with people, animals, machines, data? Indoors or out? Rather sit in front of a keyboard or fix a car? I tell them to pick up as many skills and experiences as they can. Whatever they do now will only strengthen their foundation for a long-term commitment to personally meaningful work.
If you are wrestling with whether a high-school age child you know should go to college or if this review has started you thinking about it, then you will learn a lot from Linda Lee’s Success Without College. Bottom line: it is possible to postpone or even forgo college and still make a good living. Lee tells us why and how.
CLAUDE WHITMYER is founder and director of The Center for Good Work (www.meaningfulwork.com), offering career guidance to individuals, businesses, and nonprofits who aspire to right livelihood; CIO of The University of the Future (www.futureu.com); and author of several books on work and community.