As I have been reminded, I promised to share some thoughts on the idea that everyone should attend (and graduate from) a four-year college. It turns out that this question has some public energy behind it at this time. In addition to the Robert Samuelson article that I mentioned previously, on June 25th the Wall Street Journal ran a full-page debate between educators on the question, “Do too many young people go to college?” There are, I think, two driving forces behind the “College-for-all” idea. The one most cited is the idea that college graduates earn more money than non-grads. This is supported by numerous statistical surveys. One thing to keep in mind with statistical studies is that just because two variables are correlated doesn’t mean that there exists a cause and effect relationship. Nevertheless, this is the tangible, rational argument. The other factor is cultural. Our society tends to hold college graduates in higher esteem regardless of their economic standing. The more letters after your name, the more people seem to be impressed. We’ll try to look at both of these driving forces in turn.
The best place to start might be, “What do we (or should we ) believe constitutes a successful life or a ‘life well lived’?” In a column in the Raleigh News and Observer on June 8th, Burgetta Eplin Wheeler shared some thoughts that high school grads should embrace. Her starting point is the book of Proverbs advice that “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold”. She recounts going to visit a cemetery with older relatives and observes that “They might not have crafted policies to alleviate human need on a presidential scale, but they have salved it with their own hands. …their names are honorable ones even if … relatively few people will recognize them.” And the apostle Paul in his second letter to the Thessalonians had this to say, “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” Paul went on to say that people “…should do their work in quietness and to earn their own living.” There is nothing about having a college degree in any of this. It’s interesting to note that in our free enterprise system, if we are going to get paid for something, it has to be something that some one else puts value on. Therefore, if we earn a living in any honest profession, we have to be contributing to someone else. If we are going to do that well, then if must be something that we have an aptitude for and enjoy doing. Most of us, college graduates or not, are not going to be rich or famous. So it’s hard for me not to conclude that if we have good character and earn a living by making a contribution to others needs or enjoyment, we have a “life well lived” – and we should have earned the respect of our fellow human beings.
One difficulty that we are having with the economic argument for college is that today there seems to be a lot college graduates with a lot of college debt and no job that really requires a degree. In his 1993 bestselling book Post-Capitalist Society, Peter Drucker says that we need an educated work force, but not necessarily in the way a liberal arts education has historically been taught in the colleges. Rather people need an “understanding of reality” and they need to understand how to productively “do something”. He does not mention the need for a four-year college degree as the only, or even the best way, of obtaining this. Robert Samuelson suggests that we might benefit from more “apprenticeship” programs such as have been successful in Europe. People are all different and we probably need more than one “career track” available to each of us.
Some additional thoughts and observations:
- One issue in today’s economy is that there are many college graduates who have amassed significant debt to get a college education and can’t find a job. At the same time a Wall Street Journal article at the end of February reported that a survey indicated that there were 600,000 U. S. manufacturing jobs unfilled because employers can’t find workers with the right knowledge and skills. These include jobs such as Machining & Metal-working, Welding, Die Casting, Fabrication, et. al. that don’t require a college degree. The quote from the president of a Technical College in Kentucky was that in the 1980’s, manufacturing was “80% brawn and 20% brains” whereas today it is “10% brawn and 90% brains”. The would seem to confirm Drucker’s prediction that the knowledge worker is critical, but not necessarily knowledge in the way we have historically defined it in terms of a 4-year college degree.
- College costs have risen in the last 20 years at a rate that is, I would guess, at least double the inflation rate. I have not seen a cogent explanation of why this is, but I would guess that it is a result of two factors. More money being available to students in the form of loans which relieve the colleges of having to compete as much on tuition costs. There has been an increased competition for students on other factors including such things as replacing the 10’x20′ dorm rooms that I remember with 2 bedroom apartments with complete kitchens. In a sense, the increased availability of loans is similar to what we experienced in the housing market which had the effect of driving housing prices up. In any event, people are beginning to question the wisdom of amassing large debt to obtain college degrees for non-existent jobs or jobs that may not pay well enough to retire the debt without several years of hardship.
- Do college graduates always make more money than non-college graduates? Not necessarily – consider names such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs – both of whom were college drop-outs. Not long ago I saw a list of 10 CEOs who suggested that a traditional 4 year college degree is not necessary for success. And then there is Jimmy Joe (not his real name), a relative who had reportedly some difficulty getting through high school. He now apparently has no difficulty finding what is probably a 6-figure paying job and holds several patents.
- There are many different options for learning things that are important to one’s economic success. One of the things that Tulsa offers is a strong Vo Tech school. In doing some work with our local chamber, this seems to be one of the things that manufacturing companies are looking for in location decisions. We have in the local school system started to provide some “school-to-work” programming as an alternative to a college prep track. Much of what I have learned over the years has come post-college in the form of seminars and short courses. Many of these are available from local schools and colleges at a reasonable costs.
- In U. S. Corporations including the one I worked for, I have seen the requirement for a 4-year college degree listed for many jobs that don’t really require it. Some do. But many that carry that requirement need knowledge and training, but not necessarily a college degree. For HR departments I think this has become a crutch. It is a screen that makes their job easier than trying to judgementally assess the actual education, knowledge and experience that a person has that is related to a specific job opening. Nondiscrimination laws have not helped in this regard. One of the unintended consequences of those laws has been to cause emphasis to be placed on “tangible and specifically identifiable” requirements so is that if a discrimination law-suit ends up in court it can be better defended than an individual’s judgement of less specific criteria such as “equivalent experience” (whatever that is). The difficulty with this practice is that if a young person aims initially for a profession that doesn’t require a degree and so passes on that option, he/she can seriously limit future options regardless of what his knowledge base has become.
So what is the answer? I agree with Peter Drucker, that education should teach people how to do something in the real world. College tracks, such as Holland Hall provides are good, but not the only alternative we should be providing our young people. We need electrical engineers and architects, but we need other people and skills as well. We need to recognize that all people are not the same and be able to accommodate and foster a range of interest and aptitudes. I belive that everyone can be a productive member of society, but they need to be able to find those things that they are both good at and enjoy. Eigthteen-year-olds (as well as some of the rest of us), don’t necessarily know what they want to do with their lives. They need to be given some help and some options as well as a chance to change their minds before they get saddled with a lot of debt. We need to put more thought on what people need to know and less on how many letters they have after their name. But for this to happen, we need to change some of our cultural thinking about how we judge success and “a life well lived”. Not an easy chore or something that will likely change quickly.