Jump Into The Gap: Why Skipping College Shouldn’t Be So Unpopular

A 2012 commercial for the Gerber Life College Plan should alarm Millennials and the generations that succeed them. In this ad, new parents discuss saving money for their babies’ college funds. Although the dialogue includes a reasonable option for insuring a solid financial base for their children upon young adulthood, the insistent last line of the commercial reinforces a dissonance that has negatively impacted young professionals for at least the past decade:

You’re going to college,” says a father to his toddler, who has no idea what he’s talking about.

Goingtocollege
TIME’S UP: That blind push into college isn’t returning what it used to.

Although the rest of the group shares a polite laugh in response to the man’s statement, Millennials already know how unfunny such a decree is, especially considering how fruitless college educations have proven with respect to gainful employment thereafter. Even if the child to whom the father was speaking were a teenager, that child could make a strong case that going to college is not the path to parental relief that their parents’ parents originally insisted.

Understandably, Baby Boomers’ believed that college was a no-brainer with respect to the American Dream. After all, many of their parents didn’t go to college and it sucked being poor. But since then, the shift in the socioeconomic landscape has rendered the ‘college=success’ paradigm dubious, especially because Baby Boomers raised their children with the belief that they could be anything they wanted to be when they grew up, a maxim ironically stripped of meaning by the path to higher education. Instead, many Millennials look back at such an assurance and recognize it as more of a parental victory lap by proxy than informed advice.

As grandchildren of the Great Depression, the logical conclusion—based on the prosperity that ensued—that Millennials had an unprecedented opportunity to do great things made enough sense to cultivate a movement endowing Baby Boomers with a sense of vicarious exceptionalism, deeming Generation Y the pat-on-the-back incarnate that represented the American Dream carried forward. Alas, the shift from an industrial economy to a service economy had no interest in the parental need to create its own rubric for accomplishment as it related to the next generation. Yet this amendment to the laws of socioeconomic survival have yet to catch up to the sensibilities of new parents concerned for the lives they bring into the world.

As the next 20 years will likely demonstrate yet another shift in best practices for success, aligning expectations with reality in a more sensible way has never been more important. Children of Millennials may find their reality more like that of their great grandparents, who worked tirelessly just to feed their families in hopes that their children could surpass them using a then new formula for achievement. As of now, Millennials are hardly neck and neck with Baby Boomers in terms of socioeconomic prosperity, much to the chagrin of both generations. But perhaps the technological advances that younger generations have already mastered will usher in a wave of prosperity independent of any parental misguidance. Either way, Millennials would be remiss to not consider ways to recalibrate the framework under which a stable future is defined.

And the perception of a college education may play a major role in that recalibration. Although there are many college-educated Gen Y-ers, whose career paths have mirrored that of earlier generations, Millennials’ negative experiences during and after college can also inform how to properly navigate the shift to gainfully employed adulthood, despite various pitfalls for which their parents may not have prepared them. So everyone out there worried about what the future may hold with respect to college as an assumed milestone, these guidelines are for you:

Develop a Liberal (Arts College) Bias

Liberal arts colleges, the safe haven for the undecided. These beacons of deferred hope have been the destination of millions of students, whose belief in becoming whatever they wanted to be often became a paralysis of overchoice. To ‘sky is the limit’ Millennials that did not grow up with a singularity of purpose, liberal arts colleges promise that, at the very least, a 4-year investment will return a credential making them more employable than if they had found a low-to-no-pay job in a field about which they might be passionate.

The growing sentiment is that these Bachelor’s degrees from liberal arts schools aren’t worth the price tag at which they often come. Not including the realization that most liberal arts educations essentially demand a graduate degree to mean anything, the cost-benefit analysis of striving to attend a U.S. News and World Report-ranked liberal arts college debunks the very status associated with the rankings. What has resulted is a legion of debt-bound disenchanted Gen Y-ers working jobs they lucked into (but hate), only so that they can pay for the education that was supposed to get them closer to the discovery of a desired career path.

In defense of liberal arts colleges, however, they do teach students about themselves via teaching how to think critically, which in turn helps graduates realize that the life they were offered before college is not achieved by the same recipe as previously laid out. Four years spent anywhere is enough to learn more about where one’s passions lie. But liberal arts education creates a 2-pronged crossroads that most Millennials did not expect:

Prong 1) defer the 4 years of debt staying in school and amassing more debt in hopes of increasing my chances to earn a lot of money in a practical field to which I can surrender

Prong 2) take my chances with the degree that I have, try to find anything that will pay enough to live AND repay loan debt, and hopefully have time and energy to chase a dream that mattered more all along but was scared away from by practical advice

But there is a third option available before becoming a slave to the banks or academia. It is an unpopular societal choice, primarily because it takes more work and accepts hardship as an immediate reality, but the rewards may prove greater than any cum laude a student might earn.

Cultivate the Dream

In pursuits that veer from the path of practicality, support can be the difference maker in fulfilling those ‘out there’ dreams. And college may not always be the place to build the foundation necessary to achieve them. Whether an aspiring artist, craftsperson, entrepreneur, or podcaster (or all at the same time), knowing more about your children’s interests and taking an active role in the pursuit may be more work than shipping them off to college might be, but it seems worth it for your child, aka “the most important thing [you’ve] done in [your] life,” right?

Too seldom does this dialogue take place between parents and their adolescent children:

Parent: What is it you’d be happy doing for the rest of your life that you think would make the world a better place?

Child: [honest but ultimately less-than-practical response]

Parent: Okay, well, let’s see what we can do together to put you in a position to do that or something close.

Why depend on a guidance counselor with a caseload of hundreds to have that conversation, a stranger who wouldn’t know your child from the 5th place finisher of The Bachelor? Although it is challenging to break through to your own offspring at that age, teenagers essentially want to feel validated just like the next human, and the last place they need to feel like their ideas are stupid or unreasonable is at home. They get plenty of that in school from people their own age.

The abrupt disconnect in telling children they are special until they turn 18, at which point they go off to college and shoulder the burden of familial disappointment, is clear. And if an entire family stands to feel that disappointment, then why in the hell shouldn’t they celebrate success down a road less taken, a road traveled together?

Leave Your Ego Outside

Yes, the Millennial period will go down in history as the Age of Entitlement. And yes, children of Baby Boomers grew up feeling special simply for existing. And yes, those same children have been put on their asses learning how flimsy that endowment was.

But parents are just as confounded as their children are in this brutal realization. And in most cases, there is nothing parents can do to honor their implicit promises of whatever their children so desired.

This collective ‘WTF’ moment demonstrates that relying on college as a marker for success could be a huge mistake. The relentless worry that parents carry, with respect to their children, is at the root of their pressure to send their children to college. And while this act of concern is understandable, it often undermines the true potential of their children in return for social capital among peers. Via Facebook, everyone has joined the social trend that says, ‘Look what’s going on in my life; VALIDATE IT!’ But parents invented the pastime long ago, using their children’s achievements to indicate their own self-worth.

If children grew up thinking it was all about them, why on Earth don’t parents expect a conflict of interest once they make it about themselves? For parents who never cared what their children’s dreams were, this advice does not apply. But for those who at least paid lip service to their children changing the world, remember that your insecurity will prompt you to change the rules on your children and to expect them to live up to standards that seem to come out of nowhere. So when you’re wondering why your grown-up children don’t visit as much as they used to, it might be because you stopped making sense…and/or they’re just too poor to afford the ticket home. COLLEGE!!!

Before the bell rings…

It is important that readers understand that this article is not anti-college. Rather, it is anti-college-for-everyone. Admittedly, there are professions that require college degrees, and no one will deny that the world is a better place for the existence of institutions that provide these educations. But the parental belief that college is the only way for their children to be happy and successful is debilitating in its inaccuracy.

Before parents begin taking their children on those college tours, know what’s at stake:

  • Will your child be squandering potential by changing gears and spending 4 years at a degree mill, where the diploma returns cents on the dollar?
  • Who at this college will help your child reach his or her potential and why?
  • What connections could I be paying for by sending my child here, because after all, everyone still needs to ‘know a guy?’

For those interested in college as a means to make money, it should be treated as a business investment and used as a resource rather than a means to an undefined yet somehow better end. But if your children actually exhibit hints of greatness that you just assumed they might be capable of, think twice before you offer them to the banking gods as tribute or remortgage the house. Have the honest conversations about your children’s futures no matter how much they betray your generational conditioning. And know that the x amount of years of post-secondary education will still be but a fraction of the life you share with them and the lives they will create for their children.

2 Comments

  1. I’m likely to be fired for sharing this heretical and brilliant take on college now that I’m the proud owner of the title “College Counselor.” Still, I figured I’d share an apologetic for the status quo in a bald attempt to keep my job and keep the conversation going in the best tradition of Socratic discourse.

    First, let’s all agree that the college ‘industry” is misaligned in regards to the goal of education for life and work. Even more troubling, it’s wholly unsustainable, as much for the so-called 99% of potential students as it is for the institutions themselves. Schools spend hundreds of millions on marquee facilities, bloated administrations, and mission-creep programs in order to attract and cater to the “corporate partners” and dwindling pool of people who actually are able to write full-pay checks.

    Anyone paying a nickel for college over the past 20 years has a right to be deeply pissed. That feeling is what your post taps perfectly. If you’re middle class and attending a “Name” school, you pay $1.75 on the dollar to borrow money until your kid starts college so some 24 year old graduate lecturer (who, at $12k per annum and $4,520,712.42 in debt, is no less boned than you, only 6 years further down the path) can teach you the intro course that the highly-paid “academic celebrity” the school is paying $250k/semester would never debase himself to be a part of. If you’re poor and just looking for a key to success, you’re subjected to relentless marketing by the University of Phoenixes of the world, who get you on the hook for as much government subsidized, non-dischargeable debt they can and then do nothing to deliver. Meanwhile, the banks, the pols, and the educational services laugh all the way to the bank.

    http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/ripping-off-young-america-the-college-loan-scandal-20130815

    Every aspect of the college-industrial complex down to the damn books is designed to bleed you before your adult life even starts, and you’ve done a masterful job of showing that anyone who says college will automatically lead to financial security and professional success is not paying attention. To be honest, within the industry there is a tacit acknowledgement that the college landscape as we know it will be gone within a generation, reverting to a pre-WWII model where only the independently wealthy can access what we currently call “college,” As much havoc as that will cause, we can only hope that disruption will breed innovation and “recalibration” that better serves the American public.

    http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2014/01/there-isnt-enough-money-to-keep-educating-adults-the-way-were-doing-it/

    That being said, I’m enough of a traditionalist to defend the classic liberal arts ideal that is the heart of higher education. You and I are somewhat odd because we had that experience in high school. I have to constantly remind myself that most Americans didn’t learn how to think critically and write competently before college, must less learn how to live in society with people who aren’t your family. College, for all it’s absurdity, represents the only real path for the non-Harkness set to learn to live the “examined life” that is so worth living and work through a community life apprenticeship that theoretically could make them better neighbors. Plus, perhaps a liberal arts education isn’t as worthless as conventional wisdom would have us believe:

    http://roanoke.edu/News_and_Events/News_Archive/The_Liberal_Arts.htm

    Quibbling over pedagogy and Plato aside, the meat and potatoes of your piece is that college shouldn’t be a default use of one’s late teens/early 20s, and that college (especially financed) should only be undertaken in the service of defined career/personal goals. In short, that Gerber Dad was a jackhole for reflexively attaching a potential lead balloon expectation to that baby. Perhaps he is. But insofar as the 17 and 18 year olds I work with, there is really no alternative. Though I can encourage and guide them (especially those from less privileged backgrounds) to make wiser long-term college choices, to suggest that they forego post-secondary education would be a far heavier drag on their future.

    From an economic perspective, skipping college is economic suicide in today’s economy. I apologize for introducing a straw man, but the stereotypical degree-holding baristas who say their degrees are worthless because they can’t land a job aren’t looking beyond what’s in their wallet that day. Sure, they could be working at Starbucks without $75k in debt, but NOT having that degree would virtually guarantee they wouldn’t ever be able to do much else. It also ignores the fact that anyone graduating after 2005 got a raw deal professionally for political and economic, rather than educational, reasons. There were no jobs because there were no jobs, not because college didn’t prepare them. Parents and students may opt for college by default, but even if they examined the choice deeply, they’d see that not going is far more restricting of future success than going.

    http://www.npr.org/2014/02/11/275297408/going-to-college-may-cost-you-but-so-will-skipping-it

    You also reference career satisfaction and the indenture to disagreeable wage-work millennials have to undertake in order to pay back loans. Career dissatisfaction is a trope that is most certainly not limited to our generation.

    C’mon! Office Space was nearly 20 years ago, man, in the best economy of our lifetime!

    As much as any Millennial might like to burn down IniTech and pick up a shovel, it’s not our college degrees that keep us there. It’s the fact that like every generation since the industrial revolution, we have to find a balance between professional freedom and economic security. Every person is going to weight those scales differently, but I don’t see how foregoing college gives one professional freedom, when it limits one to jobs of the wal-mart greeter ilk.

    I’m fortunate that my job is interesting, well-paid, challenging and comes with a degree of autonomy, so Daniel Pink would say that I am blessed with an enviable career. Still, my ideal job isn’t what I do now, nor would it require a degree that US News says is among the “best,” it’s also not something that would be economically feasible, regardless of the $264/month I’ll send to education loans in perpetuity. After a particularly frustrating week, I recently shared with my non-college educated, farmer dad that my dream was to have a small farm and I wasn’t sure that all my education had made me happier. Now, Big Mike is nobody’s “successorizing” boomer parent. He’s never once expressed pride in anything I’ve accomplished other than working hard, marrying right and giving him a grandkid. In response to my idealized, Monday morning quarterbacking of my education, he called bullshit. He was right.

    Another interesting point that is drowned out by the coverage and the anecdotal evidence provided by our social networks is that college isn’t as expensive as we think. While legions of middle class NESCAC grads prepare the pitchforks, please allow me to meekly submit that rare are the people like me and you who come from relatively humble backgrounds and reach for the nations “top” colleges, where spots are coveted by the few people in this country who actually can still afford full tuition. Although the sticker prices are high, and some of us choose to borrow in an attempt to outkick our socioeconomic coverage, the reality is that most people are paying far less:

    http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/04/college-is-cheaper-than-you-think/

    The average college bound kid is taking classes at DelTech or Wilmington University, or maybe a good SUNY, living at home, and working a part-time job their junior and senior year while finishing up at night. Is that as good an education? Who can say? But it’s damn sure cheaper, and is degree enough to become a manager at the local Olive Garden, or qualify for a low-rate small business loan, neither of which are accessible without a college degree.

    This is cold comfort to those of us who deviate from the mean in terms of debt and career aspirations, but it’s no less true.

    Finally, I’m deeply concerned whenever I hear the statement that college is “not for everyone.” In a vacuum, this idea is economically efficient. I’d argue that even farmers could do with some intro to envi-sci and wal-mart checkers could do with a little history of organized labor, but whatever. Let’s grant that Haverford and Georgetown aren’t necessary for success and many people would be better off pursuing technical certifications or professional training that will allow them access to comfortable, fulfilling work without crushing debt and years spent fulfilling core requirements and swilling cheap beer at a frat.

    The problem that remains is that when “College isn’t for everyone” as a principle of economic efficiency is thrown into the messy stew of our society, I don’t see any way that it doesn’t basically mean that poor dumb kids should stay poor and dumb. The fact that I most hear this idea escape the lips of the most privileged folks – people for whom college wasn’t a Sophie’s choice and whose backpacks are full of the connections and cultural power that most Americans can only access with a college education — seems to support my concern.

    All this is to say, though higher education in 2014 is undeniably fraught with oversized egos, with generational discord, with shameful prestige-chasing, with Gilded-age socioeconomics, with financial irresponsibility, and with good old ‘American Dreams’ that are as unrealizable as they are beautiful, I still think that Dad in the Gerber commercial was right to say “you’re going to college.” As a dad, my job is to give Lil’ Wo the best opportunity I can, and for now, college is the most fruitful path.

  2. Great piece Lemar, Mattywo.

    To quote Michael Milken, in response to the link “There isn’t enough money to educate adults the way we are doing it,” “Capital is not the scarce resource.”

    Public financing of higher education in the form of Federal spending and grants to state colleges and universities as well as community colleges or directly to students (targeting that “average college kid”) can address the issue of “there isn’t enough money” and take it off the table.
    “People are the scarce resource. It’s not buildings, it’s not printing presses and it’s not factories that are the scarce resource.”

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