New Thinking for New Times:
Is College Really Necessary?
Except for specialized fields, the answer to the question, "is college necessary for success," is no.
Even so, for decades it has almost been a "given" that when young people graduate from high school they will (if at all possible) go to college. Parents plan ahead for this and often go into debt to see that their children have the "advantage of a college education."
But given certain realities that we'll cover here, this assumption is now being questioned. (We’ll warn you at the outset that at first glance much of this information seems contradictory.)
Let's start with the rise in college tuition and fees, which, as you can see below, has been increasing much faster in the United States than the general cost of living -- or nearly 600% since 1985.
Given the cost of college in the United States, some high school graduates are going to college in Canada, a country that is known for an excellent system of higher education at a reasonable cost.
In the United States many college graduates are struggling to find jobs while trying to pay off a mountain of debt. They had assumed their sacrifices in getting an advanced education would pay off, at least in a monetary way. But as witnessed by the number of college graduates working in minimum-wage jobs today it clearly hasn't.
There is no doubt that college preparation is essential for certain specialized professions. Medicine, law and engineering come immediately to mind. But in non-technical areas things have changed in recent years. For one thing, a college education is not the proof of aptitude or general competency that it once was.
The main goal of many cash-strapped colleges today is to retain students and keep tuition money coming in (read: meet student retention goals). And too often the goal of lending agencies is to sell young people on the need for a college degree, for which they have to borrow money (read: reap years of interest on the loans).
Average course grades have gone up (read: grade inflation) and course requirements have been watered down. Too often, beneficial but demanding coursework is discouraged to keep students from dropping out of school. A greater emphasis is being placed on teacher evaluations (read: personal popularity) at the expense of rigor and results.
According to the Los Angeles Times, some of today's college graduates are so poorly prepared that they graduate with little more than a paper diploma and an expanded page on Facebook.
In a typical semester half of the students surveyed didn't study more than five hours a week, and for that they earned a 3.16 GPA. According to the Times, the fault lies with universities who are focusing on increased revenue, soft courses, inflated grades and "deluxe dorm rooms."
We, of course, can't lump all colleges together. There are a few demanding, top-notch colleges that still provide real value for the investment.
Based on my own time on the Admissions Committee of a large East Coast university, I know that there are some colleges -- primarily private unaccredited religious colleges -- that provide little in the way of a true university education. Although some parents prefer these schools because of their sectarian in locus parentis approach, graduates are not highly regarded by employers.
We can't deny that the highest percentage of young people out of work in the U.S. right now are those without a college degree. We also can't deny that college graduates on average make significantly more than non-graduates.
However, the question is how much of this is due to what is learned in college and how much is due to cultural differences.
There is no doubt that family backgrounds that encourage learning and by extension the value of an advanced education, create a strong work ethic and that, in turn, is related to success.
At the same time, according to those who study these things, success almost always comes down to an individual's attitude, willingness to learn and adapt, and determination to succeed. Although these things may be related to a college education they are not dependent on it.
And there is no doubt that in many cases a college education with the associated extra-curricular activities, ability to associate with noted instructors, and the contacts that can be made, are valuable.
At the same time, employers that have been disappointed in the abilities of many recent college graduates are catching onto the fact that a college education no longer guarantees competence.
In some politically influential U.S. sub-groups there is an unspoken bias against higher education in general. These people typical see higher education as being in conflict with traditional views.
In some states less than half of the politicians that control the budgets for higher education have any college experience. (A college education among state legislators ranges from about 25% in Alabama to about 90% in California).
So, what's the answer? We'll say once again, with or without a college degree, success almost always comes down to an individual's attitude, willingness to learn and adapt, and determination to succeed.
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