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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Is College Necessary? Two Cases

How could I even think such a thought? But many of my cherished and longstanding beliefs on education have undergone changes over the past few years. To wit: the virtue of private liberal arts colleges, a la Oberlin and the like. I was saving up for these, but when it came to the decision, we went for free public institutions over pricy (even with some merit aid) colleges. I think Mr. FS and I feel more agony over the decision than my children do. Had we only had one income, and our children thereby eligible for full need aid, then it would have perhaps been a different story. Likewise, if we had higher incomes or wealthy families backing us up.

Two cases I have heard of late are making me ask "Is college necessary?"

Case 1: Talented musician, mediocre student. Got into out-of-state college with good music department. Received instate tuition, but entered on academic probation. After 3 years of Ds in all subjects other than music performance, he is taking a year off and working in a restaurant. The manager loves him and suggested that he think of a career in restaurant management. The restaurant in question is part of the empire run by a superstar Louisiana chef. He has a significant amount of student debt. What would be the point of his getting a college degree?

Case 2: Heard this one yesterday. Academically talented student, only child, attended prestigious lefty New York college. Suffered a tragedy: her boyfriend died suddenly of a congenital condition. Took leave from college. Working as buyer in mother's uber-successful clothing boutique. She is brainy enough to learn on her own. Or she could avail herself of the many nearby colleges. What is the point of her getting a degree?

That I--a true believer in art for art's sake--even entertain such thoughts is a shocker.

What do you think?


Duchesse said...

Case 1: Based on your profile, he is not a learner suited for this type of environment.Work at restaurant, possible attend private music school (not college) or master classes.

Case 2: There is a point IF she is seeking a credential for entry into a profession or occupation which values a degree. If she decides to enter her mother's business, she still may enjoy the intellectual stimulation of college. Is cost a consideration? You don't say.

I'm seeing more and more of this: kid gets liberal arts or commerce university degree, then goes into one-year college (trade school) program in PR, copywriting, travel and tourism, etc.

Is "art" a synonym for the academy?

Anonymous said...

Not having a college degree is an easy way to reject applicants for everything from MacDonald's Managers to potential suitors. 18 is too young to legally drink. I don't think it is old enough to begin a lifetime of supporting oneself. I think college is a good way of spending an additional 4 years of maturing. Do the best you can. It really can't hurt them to put your kids through school. I don't think either of your cases is typical enough to change the basic concept.

I have also found that when I have gotten advanced degrees, other people without those degrees are more impressed with them than I am. I tell them that a PhD or MBA just means that you had the money and the time at the same time. That doesn't make them any less useful. But the most useful degree I ever got was my first Bachelor's.

Over the Cubicle Wall said...

I have a nephew in college who I think would do just fine without a degree. He is just very independent and self sufficient and always has been. His brothers are complete opposites. That said, a degree will open up a lot of doors for him. College is about more than the degree as well.

Funny about Money said...

It's a question that's crossed my mind many times. Most recently: this very afternoon, when I forked over $35 to the hair stylist in exchange for a 30-minute haircut and realized he was working on three people at the same time. Thirty-five bucks is more than I was earning per hour at ASU at the height of my earning power! And this guy, who barely made it out of high school, is doubling that...nay, quadrupling it...nay even SEXTUPLING it, delivering the same old-lady haircut to every woman who comes into his salon. The two blue-hairs getting permanents, I'm sure, paid significantly more than I did.

If you regard a college education as some sort of key to better earning power, better look again. But if you regard it as something that improves your life by furnishing your brain (what does this buy THINK about while he's cutting all those heads of hair?), then at least for some people it's necessary.

The Bosnian guy who's laid the tile in three of my housing renovation projects is an amazingly well educated and interesting man. He can talk intelligently and in some depth about just about any subject you'd like, from literature to science to politics. I suspect this is another person for whom education is irrelevant to earning power. Whether he went to college, I don't know. But I think his learning, wherever it came from, makes him a more interesting man with a livelier view of life than the hairstylist.

Laying tile, BTW, also earns a helluva lot more than a Ph.D. will get you. Work's a lot harder, tho'... ;-)

Shelley said...

Well, it depends on what you want to do, doesn't it? Selling seems to pay the best and you don't need a degree for that. Skilled trades pay well, though I wouldn't want to be doing that at 60. On the other hand, I found the politics and the pace of change in my professional life to be very stressful. I had an attachment to a university and so got to enjoy working in that environment 2 days a week. I watched the two women I shared an office with, both PhD's bringing in thousands to the uni through grants, both publishing left and right, neither with tenure. It re-defined my concept of sweatshop labour.

If I were 20 again and starting from scratch I'd figure out how to have my own business. Either than or have a trade for 30 years and invest well.

Duchesse said...

"What does this boy think about while he's cutting all those heads of hair"? Probably the same thing my son and his friends with degrees do, and believe me, it has little to do with art history or physics :)

If one wants to "furnish your brain"- and since I assume you'd want to do that all your life- I advocate looking beyond school. Read, talk to interesting people, travel, volunteer. The world is a school.

Logan Leger said...

This is actually something I debate daily. For me, there's almost no need for a college degree beyond getting one for the sake of having it. I have no intention of working in the field related to my degree and my field of choice (the one I'm currently working in and plan on staying in) requires no formal training beyond what I can teach to myself. College seems like a waste of time and money and many great success stories in my industry are from those without degrees. So, what's the point? The only reason I haven't yet left college is simple: my parents wouldn't allow me to not get a degree. And, I guess, it's a valuable backup degree if I fail—which, of course, isn't even an option for me.

Frugal Scholar said...

@Duchesse--Re #1: Exactly. I hardly see the value of a college degree if you graduate with a D average. #2: She's a real smarty, but that makes me wonder if she needs the whole college experience. Re your question: probably! I like it here.

@bkolafa--You're right. Not typical. But it's unclea from your comments what you mean by "useful"--useful as a time of maturation or useful for something else.

@Cubicle--It does seem perhaps that the ones who do well are the ones who would do well without--if that makes any sense.

@Funny--It is so rare to meet people who are interesting/interested--like your Bosnian fellow. There's a book about "consumption-smoothing" that makes the case that over a lifetime of work, the plumber may make more than the doctor.

@Shelley--Those without tenure are always vulnerable. And people aren't terribly "nice" in this world.

@Duchesse--Love your second paragraph. My son wants to teach English in Korea for a year or two after college. I do hope this dream works out.

@Logan--Computer science? Well, you'd be in the company of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, two drop-outs!