Considering If and When to Go to College

A year ago hedge fund manager and author James Altucher announced in a provocative piece for Yahoo Finance Tech Ticker, “Rethinking College as Student-Loan Burdens Rise”, that college, particularly right after high school, may not be a good investment for most students and their families that often are paying the bill. Says Altucher…

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that motivated kids are going to make money whether or not they go to college… So teach your kids how to be motivated. Teach your kids how to sell a product, build a network of connections. That’s going to be far more valuable.

As a hedge fund manager, Altucher is all about getting insight from the numbers. Here are some of the numbers he considered…

1. College graduates earn on average $800K more over their lifetime than people who did not attend college

2. Today the average four-year college costs $104K (top private schools are more like 200K) and the average student finishes college $23K in debt

3. The cost of college has risen 10 fold during the last 30 years, compared to a six-fold increase for health-care and three-fold for inflation overall, and is rising today at 20 times the rate of inflation.

4. A recent study found that 45% of students learned little after two years of college and 36% learned little after a full four years. The study was based on transcripts and surveys of more than 3,000 full-time traditional-age students on 29 campuses nationwide, along with their results on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test that gauges students’ critical thinking, analytic reasoning and writing skills.

Some pretty thought-provoking statistics, particularly the fourth item above if you can believe that study and accept that real learning can be assessed by standardized tests.

Looking back at my own life experience, my first four and a half years of college led to a degree in Speech from the University of Michigan in 1978, with a concentration in TV and Film production. I moved from my home town of Ann Arbor Michigan to Los Angeles and worked in low wage jobs in the entertainment industry and later as a political organizer where my education and degree were fairly meaningless. Unlike my years in the classroom, these “real world” jobs were invaluable experiences for me and the skills I learned in them I leverage to this day.

Luckily due to my family’s financial situation most of my college classes had been paid for by the State of Michigan. If I had been saddled with any kind of significant debt I might never have been able to leave my home town and venture to the West Coast.

Regarding college, Altucher says provocatively, “Not only is it a scam, but the college presidents know it. That’s why they keep raising tuition greater than health care or inflation costs”. Don’t know that I would go that far, but I do think that college is over-consumed and too quickly entered into immediately after high school.

Altucher says it’s time to rethink the value of four years of higher education, especially right after high school. He believes the vast majority of HS grads would be better off if tuition money was used to fund one of the following projects:

– Start a business
– Work for a charity
– Travel the world
– Create art
– Master a sport
– Master a game
– Write a book
– Make people laugh

He notes for some people, it might be more enriching and productive to go to college later in life.

That is what I ended up doing!

While doing my political organizing work I met my partner Sally and we married in 1983 and planned to start a family. Rather than seeing a way to leverage my BA in Speech to get a good paying job, I decided that I had to go to college again. That was another three years of school but this time I got a BS in Computer Science, a degree I was able to leverage into some actual good-paying work. Unlike my first go-round on a university campus, this time I was a highly motivated and goal-oriented student with the real-world skill and experience to get the most out of this formal education.

Later as a parent, our son Eric became increasingly school-phobic in middle school and we finally pulled him out in the middle of eighth grade in favor of homeschooling. (That’s a whole story in itself. See my post “Unschooling Instead of High Schooling”.) After a brief aborted attempt to attend high school for tenth grade I don’t believe Eric, now 24, has set foot in a classroom since.

Lacking a high school diploma, let alone a college degree, our son Eric got his more self-directed education doing some of the things that Altucher suggests, including starting a building a large and well-knit network of friends and other contacts, starting a business (See my post “Techies”) and learning how to design and facilitate on-line and pen-and-paper role-playing games (See my post “Massively Multi-Player on the World Wide Web”.

Eric’s younger sister Emma stayed in school through 9th grade, but then given the choice by her mom and I, decided to leave like her older brother and pursue her education at home and in the real world as well. Now age 21, Emma has spent the last six years of her self-directed education pursuing several of the items on Altucher’s list as well, including multi-player role-playing gaming (like her brother, see my post “The Adventures of an Unschooler on the Virtual High Seas”), writing science-fiction, and travel to Australia and several forays to French Canada to learn French (See my post “The Unschool Pursuit of French”). Her day job to support these other projects continues to be working as the manager at a small locally owned bakery restaurant.

Looking back at my own development, I think I got much more wisdom, skills and experience out of travel (see my post “A Very Long Day” and “Saint Gotthard Tunnel”),my involvement in theater (see “JLO” and “Lord of the Flies”), and military strategy simulation games (see “Avalon Hill” and “Boys in the Basement”), than anything I learned in a classroom during my high school and initial college years. In these activities, among many other things, I learned significant system design, project management, and collaboration skills that are mainstays of my paid and volunteer work today.

So I think it is important that older youth (and their parents) considering college, particularly immediately after high school, really take Altucher’s advice to heart and think outside the box of immediate continued formal academic learning (college) and consider some formative experiences in other than academic venues. Holding off college attendance may not be the right path for everyone, but I bet that, after thoughtful consideration, it may be the right path for many.

That said, think about all the often repeated, ofter reinforced conventional wisdom around transitioning immediately from high school to college. The current expectations from almost all parties – high school counselors, parents, extended family, friends and neighbors, state and federal government, and certainly colleges themselves – is that a kid should immediately go from one into the other.

Looking back to when I was in high school, I recall that the argument for starting college immediately was that not to do so put you in danger of never attending. If you did not move on to higher education ASAP, you were danger of getting a low-end job, getting married and having children and being “stuck” in that scenario for the rest of your life. I think even today some form of that assumption remains, that perhaps going out into the real world before pursuing further education somehow damns you to low-paying jobs your entire life.

Whatever the logic of this conventional wisdom was or is today, I think it should be completely rethought and probably retired. In spite of the heavy marketing interests by colleges, universities and other “higher” learning venues, I would say that the new general rule might be to wait to attend college, unless it is very clear to the transitioning youth that they know what initial career they would like to pursue.

But particularly if that youth has spent the last four years cloistered in a high school and insulated from the real world, I think waiting to attend college and getting out and experiencing the real world of work and living with a budget, and taking on a project from Altucher’s list, is a better path forward out of ones youth. After maybe a year or two of that, maybe a more thoughtfully arrived at path forward will emerge, perhaps one that will require some formal higher education.

2 replies on “Considering If and When to Go to College”

  1. I have a friend who is a sound person: he runs the sound system at speeches and concerts. He is very good at it. He did a short stint teaching sound systems at a school that specializes in related subjects: they were very impressed with his skills at both sound and teaching and were ready to hire him, until they found out that he didn’t have a degree, he was self-taught.
    This thinking is the reason college is still necessary even when all it means is you made it through the classes and the fees.

  2. Kim… appreciate your comment!

    That’s why I went through college for a second time to get a degree in computer science so I had that credential to work those corporate jobs as an “aparatchik for the man”. But given the time, psychic energy, and increasingly now the cost, its best to invest in this huge effort at a more appropriate time than coming out of high school when most kids, including me, don’t know what they want to do with their lives (or at least what they want to do for their “day jobs”).

    As to teaching, I appreciate your friends dilemma. He may be a natural teacher but has not gone through the four or five years of formal training to get that credential. Like my son who hated academic classroom environments, the psychic costs of that five-year grind might not be possible or worth it, and points out I think that we have an overly rigid system that discourages a lot of natural teachers from going into the profession.

    I think things are changing. Both my kids who did not go to formal high school or college are making their way in the world of work and have living wage “day jobs” and are pursuing their more passionate aspirations which could also be economically fruitful in their futures. They are finding paths forward into the adult and work world without college (though our daughter is taking various university extension courses to continue to develop her fiction writing skills).

    My bottom line is that we need to move away from a one-size-fits-all 17 straight years of formal schooling to a more varied “many paths” for learning.

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