“Don’t let schooling get in the way of your education.” Mark Twain
The money and time you spend on college matters. College education is so universally viewed as such a great investment that the cost and its return on investment get too little scrutiny. The statistics that trumpet the value of college are generalized in ways that tend to obscure the reality. A typical statistic cited is “the expected life time earnings of a bachelor’s college graduate are $2.1 million and the expected lifetime earnings of a high-school (only) graduate are $1.2 million (Day and Newburger, 2002)”. This statistic, while impressive, ignores many other factors.When a student borrows large amounts of money to finance a poorly planned education, he or she can be put at a big disadvantage for many years to come.
We acknowledge that the benefits of college go beyond creating improved career choices. But so are the benefits of hard work at a “real-world” job or trying to get a new business venture up and going. Unfortunately, college can also provide a socially acceptable, convenient alternative to growing up, making a living, and becoming independent. And why is a wasteful education investment any less serious than wasting our natural resources or your retirement savings?
Before we get any farther though, we need to state that there are no easy answers for students preparing to be teachers. Teachers fall into a special category and play a critical role in society. Good teachers are always in desperately short supply, and yet we continue to pay elementary and high school teachers poorly. So we will simply give teaching a special “pass” without advocating any changes. This profession is a form of semi-volunteerism. We recognize that those who work hard and long to prepare for a teaching career are usually aware of the economic implications, and are likely driven by other factors. If you are preparing to be an elementary or secondary teacher we applaud you.
We also have no desire to live in a world without literature, theatre, and music - but this does not contradict our arguments. Most of the music and entertainment we enjoy is written and performed by artists who never studied music in college (and in many cases had little formal study at all). College study is unlikely to help one to play the guitar like Eric Clapton, sing like Frank Sinatra, or compose like Elton John. Exposure to college Art Appreciation classes may enhance one’s ability to better understand and regard the influence of Andy Warhol, the photographic talents of Ansel Adams, or the genius of Michelangelo, but it will generally do little for commercializing a similar talent within the student.
One of America’s greatest actresses, Meryl Streep, received a degree in drama from Vassar. We believe that this talented woman would likely have achieved great success in the entertainment world even without that degree, although there is no way to know this for sure. At the same time, thousands of others who love acting, have a strong desire, and work towards a similar education will not be nearly as successful.
“People born to be ballet dancers, baseball players, violinists, composers, poets, novelists, painters, and singers – all those whose work comes out of a special talent of mind or body – are far better off practicing those arts, with or without a private tutor, than they are sitting in a classroom – and most of them know it.” The Case Against College Caroline Bird, David McKay Company 1975
Without demeaning those who wish to pursue their artistic dreams at college, we will nonetheless pour cold water on future aspirants by asking the hard questions:
How much will it cost?
Who will pay for it?
If you are going to borrow money how do you plan to pay it back?
How will you pay it back if you end up waiting tables?
How much thought have you given to the job prospects out there for college graduates with degrees in Philosophy, History, Sociology, Anthropology, Sociology, or Feminist Studies? If you believe the job prospects look good, then you should also consider a vow of poverty.
Some graduating high school seniors have a passion for a certain career path or an area of interest. But many are just not sure what they want to do. Our message is this: When in doubt, pursue a practical education or an alternative to college. If you are considering borrowing a bucket-full of money in order to attend college, be even more practical!
The availability of student loans, grants, and other financial aid has made college education possible for many more people than ever before. However, the availability of this money has created a large group of people who borrow carelessly with little or no planning, and without setting realistic goals or objectives. We believe that students, parents, guidance counselors – everyone involved in career planning needs to conduct a thorough analysis of the costs and benefits of pursuing a specific college degree.
Allow me to personalize the message here: I have a passion for drinking beer and watching professional football on television but I have yet to find a way to earn a living at it. When it came to college, however, I studied Mathematics, Computer Science, and Business – hoping to be able to utilize my degree to launch me on a satisfying and profitable career in business , thus affording me the free time and resources to occasionally drink beer and watch sports on television.