Consider skipping college

Consider not going to a 4-year college

Depending on who you are there could be non-college pathways, or at least non-4-year-college pathways, that might yield a bigger return on your investment of time, money and energy.  You should invest in your future, but think about this equation:

4-6 years of your life +
$50,000 – $300,000 +
4000 – 6000 hours of unpaid work
                        = B.A. Degree

Is this the best way?  With so many unemployed, underemployed and rudderless college graduates already out there, maybe it is; maybe not.  If you’re affluent or middle class this may sound like crazy talk because everyone “knows” that college educated adults have more successful lives. But, again, you should not compare college to having nothing.  You should compare college to what else you could do with the same time, effort and money.

The things everybody said to college students in the 20th century seem dated now.  When we were in college we were told “Take your time – explore your options”; “It doesn’t really matter what you major in because everyone ends up working in some other field anyway”; “College is really about learning how to learn”; “You’ll learn more outside of class from your peers than from the classes” and other things like that.  College was cheaper then and the economy was growing so fast that it could absorb millions of extra workers each year with only general office skills.  The economy forgave our cluelessness.  There were enough office jobs to go around.  It didn’t feel this way to us at the time, but compared to today finding work was easy.  With four years and $100,000 or several times that a young adult can do other things besides go to college.  He or she can learn a trade and set up a small business, buy some land and build a house or farm, or travel the world and visit every continent.

A “trade” means an occupation that requires skills and maybe a credential or associate’s degree but not a 4-year college degree.  Examples include welder, ironworker, charter boat captain, airplane pilot, cabinetmaker, dental hygienist, firefighter, plumber, electrician, locksmith, lineman, auto mechanic, farrier, animal trainer, farmer, electronics technician, registered nurse, soldier, air traffic controller. These jobs pay as well as most office work. Sometimes they pay better.  They usually come with good job security and benefits, and none of them can be outsourced overseas.  Some of them allow you to exercise your creativity and ingenuity at least as much as any white-collar job (because how creative is most office work, really?)  Some give you the option of going into business for yourself when you feel ready to do it.

Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, has written an article in Salon titled “College is a ludicrous waste of money.”  In it he promoted technical jobs like these that pay middle class wages and don’t require a bachelor’s degree.  (Plenty of respected commentators chimed in afterwards to the effect that college is not a “ludicrous waste of money.”  But it’s telling that we have to debate whether it is or not because there used to be no question.)  In another article titled “Why College Isn’t (And Shouldn’t Have to Be) For Everyone” Reich pointed out that Germany offers its young adults excellent technical training and industrial apprenticeships.  Consequently, Germany leads the world in precision manufacturing and has higher median wages than the United States.  The closest equivalent here can be found at American community colleges, which Reich believes ought to be much better supported.  College of Marin, the community college nearest to our school, is by no means the largest of these.  We live in a place where 4-year degrees are much more valued, in terms of status if not in the job market, than 2-year degrees.  Yet even College of Marin offers certificate programs and associate’s degrees in automotive technology, computer information systems, court reporting, dental assisting, early childhood education, electronics, emergency medicine, machining and welding, medical assisting, nursing, phlebotomy and real estate among others.  Almost all community colleges offer programs like these; most offer more than College of Marin.   With one of these certificates or degrees a young adult can achieve independence and economic security long before his or her 4-year-college bound peers.

In his iconoclastic book Shop Class as Soulcraft Matthew Crawford eloquently demonstrates that work in the skilled trades is actually more cognitively challenging, and offers more opportunities for creativity, than office work.  Many people mistakenly confuse the skilled trades with factory work.  In fact, the kind of assembly-line drudgery that they are thinking of was all sent overseas decades ago.  What’s left requires experience, judgement, resilience and real-world problem solving ability on the part of the worker.  (Crawford has a specialized business repairing vintage motorcycles, and every mechanical problem on these old bikes is uniquely complicated.)  Meanwhile, many “information economy” jobs have been bureaucratized and dumbed-down to the point that they require an active suppression of the worker’s critical thinking to survive.  Crawford offers as one example of this the thousands of mortgage brokers in the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007–2009 who had to make loans to obviously unqualified borrowers because the market demanded it. Bankers traditionally exercise their judgement to determine who is creditworthy and who isn’t, but layers of institutional complexity combined with a surplus of capital to invest made it possible (and necessary) to say “yes” to all comers.

Crawford’s story is interesting.  He supported himself through college and afterwards by working as an electrician.  Ever since, he has bounced back and forth between manual work and white-collar work.  He did some low-paid office jobs like working in a law office and writing abstracts of articles for a database company.  Then he earned a Ph.D. in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, served on that university’s elite Committee on Social Thought, and became the highly-paid director of a Washington, D.C. think tank.  He quit that job because the policy positions he took had to reflect political patronage more than real-world evidence.  But mostly he quit it because being the director of a policy institute just wasn’t as interesting as fixing motorcycles.  Mastering real things, being answerable to the physical world, fosters an ethos of craftsmanship, responsibility and self-reliance that Crawford argues is missing from most “knowledge work.”  Today Crawford also does some social science research at the University of Virginia.

Besides the cognitive satisfaction and decent pay, work in the skilled trades has the advantage that it is difficult to replace with technology or overseas workers.  Today, any “knowledge work” capable of being transmitted via a fiber optic cable can be done by hundreds of millions of smart and English-proficient potential workers in places like India and the Philippines who are willing to work for less than you are.  Today, X-rays are read by doctors overseas instead of by American radiologists.   Legal research for American court cases is done by companies in Asia.  As Crawford notes, the number of white collar jobs that can be outsourced overseas is vast:  not just taking orders at a call center or writing software, but architecture, science, editing, publishing, graphic arts; economic research, accounting; basically anything that involves analyzing data and writing about it.  Besides which, technology itself does more and more of these jobs without the need for overseas workers.  Computers can be taught to read pap smears, recognize human speech and even human facial expressions, decide who to hire, analyze who is likely to buy a product, or what incentives they need to do it.  In some cases they do these tasks much better and much faster than humans can.  In other situations they are not as good, but still “good enough” considering that they don’t have to be paid and won’t get sick or quit.  But no computer or overseas worker will ever fix your motorcycle.

It’s puzzling to us how few of our own students consider the trades, but part of the reason is that we don’t teach the trades or even tell our very many of students where they can go to get that instruction (community colleges, union apprenticeships, trade schools, the military; here are some options:  Our district’s implicit goal for all our students is a 4-year college, even though we know that not all go to one and not all of those who go ever finish.  Crawford writes:

These seem to be the categories that inform the educational landscape even now, and this entails two big errors.  First, it assumes that all blue-collar work is as mindless as assembly line work, and second, that white-collar work is still recognizably mental in character.  Yet there is evidence to suggest that the new frontier of capitalism lies in doing to office work what was previously done to factory work: draining it of its cognitive elements.  Paradoxically, educators who would steer students toward cognitively rich work might do this best by rehabilitating the manual trades, based on a firmer grasp of what such work is really like.

This would take courage.  Any high school principal who doesn’t claim as his goal “one hundred percent college attendance” is likely to be accused of harboring “low expectations” and run out of town by indignant parents.  This indignation is hard to stand against, since it carries all the moral weight of egalitarianism.  Yet it is also snobbish, since it evidently regards the trades as something “low.”  The best sort of democratic education is neither snobbish nor egalitarian.  Rather, it accords a place of honor in our common life to whatever is best.  At this weird moment of growing passivity and dependence, let us publicly recognize a yeoman aristocracy:  those who gain real knowledge of real things, the sort we all depend on every day.

With the money you save by skipping college you could tour the world and visit every continent.  The only continent that’s expensive to visit is Antarctica, and even Antarctica can be cheaper than a semester at a private college.  Airfare, food and budget lodging are all relatively cheap compared to college.  Experienced world travelers find ways to earn some money as they travel.  You could do this at less cost than a college education, and it would not necessarily be frivolous.  Most world travelers come home with personal connections and life experiences that can translate into employment opportunities, particularly in the fields of international development, teaching, travel and leisure.  We challenge you to find any middle aged adult who traveled the world while young and regrets it now.  Or what about buying a house?  Where we live in California a house costs more than a college education.  But I have owned two houses in my life and the first one, in upstate New York, was purchased for $72,000 and sold a few years later for $80,000.  (I re-did the kitchen during that time, so I didn’t make a profit.)  Anyone could buy it today for only a little more than that.  Houses and land outside of the big cities can be really cheap.

The point is that college has opportunity costs.  That‘s how economists say “you could do something else with the same time, effort and money.”  Parents and teenagers view this differently.  Parents know how expensive it is, but most middle class kids experience it as free and they look forward to college intensely.  They know it means postponing big decisions for four years, not too much work or responsibility, living away from home, and fun times with their peers.  They believe that college is an entitlement (particularly if their parents went), and that there will be plenty of time, energy and money to figure out what to do after college later.  But really they will never have the luxury of so much time and money again.  I frequently run into former students who got good grades, went to college, graduated, (having spent four or five years and several hundred thousand dollars) and are now living with their parents again and working in dead-end food service or retail jobs that they could have had years earlier.  They don’t know what to do next, nobody is helping them, and they are surprised at their situations.  You can kick the can down the road for years as these students evidently did, but sooner or later you have to decide what you want to do when you grow up.  This will be much easier if you have planned ahead.  So if you are not really interested in ideas and learning (quick litmus test: do you ever read non-fiction books when nobody assigns them?) then consider entering a trade, building a house, or traveling the world.  If independence is what you want, you can live on your own as a 20-year old in a college town, work, and go to parties without having to take classes or pay tuition.  You can get a great liberal arts education in your local public library without spending anything.  You can postpone big life decisions by joining the military.

A 4-year college away from home is right for you if you are good at school, you like ideas and academic learning, you have specific and attainable goals for the years after college, you have a good work ethic, you are not addicted to drugs or alcohol, and the financial burden won’t be too much for you or your family.  If that doesn’t sound like you (or your teenager) then maybe you should have a family conversation about alternatives that will give you a better return on your time and money.

Author | Teacher | Scientist