The No-College Option

I almost didn’t go to college. I guess I was like many high schoolers who don’t know what they want to do with their lives. I did have a small interest in computers, though (this was back when computers filled large warehouses, ran on vacuum tubes, and generated more heat than Global Warming), so, early in my senior year, I investigated the Computer Systems Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I took the entrance exam, was accepted (I don’t recall that they were as selective as Princeton University), and never enrolled.

As it turned out, I eventually did go to college, mainly as a result of my ability to hit a tennis ball with some decent effectiveness. However, I often wonder what path my life would have taken had I not gone to a four-year college and pursued my life’s work through a different set of paths. This raises an interesting question: Is college right (or necessary) for everyone?

puzzled_student

Food for thought, eh? Please understand that I’m not advocating skipping college. I’m merely presenting another side of the college coin. To do so, here are excepts from two excellent articles about the no-college option.

The first is from an older Forbes article:

Five reasons to skip college
Think a college education is key to a bright future? Not so fast …

College is expensive. Four years at an elite university like Princeton or Harvard [would, back in 2006] set you back around $160,000.

That’s a lot of money, but consider the benefits: The professors, the coursework, the people you’ll meet and the invaluable experiences you’ll have. And, of course, the bottom line: You’ll earn more money afterward. In fact, on average, the holder of a four-year college degree will earn 62% more over their lifetimes than a typical high-school graduate. And that’s just on average. The return on investment for attending one of the nation’s 25 or so most selective colleges is far more impressive. Money well spent, right?

Well, not necessarily.

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Although there is clearly a correlation between earnings and a four-year degree, a correlation isn’t the same thing as a cause. Economists like Robert Reischauer ruffled feathers several years ago by pointing out that talented, driven kids are more likely to go to college in the first place — that they succeed, in other words, because of their innate abilities, not because of their formal education. Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft, certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype of a low paid college dropout.

In fact, more than a couple of billionaires never graduated from college. Larry Ellison, cofounder of database giant Oracle, dropped out of the University of Illinois and is now worth $16 billion. Fellow billionaire John Simplot, inventor of the frozen French fry, never even finished high school. Neither did Alan Gerry, who built the first cable television network in upstate New York and then sold it to Time Warner Cable for $2.8 billion.

REASONS TO SKIP COLLEGE

Is higher education a good idea?
Click below for reasons it may not be …

In fact, there is plenty of evidence that what really matters is how smart you are, not where — or even if — you went to school. According to a number of studies, small differences in SAT scores, which you take before going to college, correlate with measurably higher incomes. And, according to a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the lifetime income of high-school dropouts is directly associated with their scores on a battery of intelligence tests . . .

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There’s more to that Forbes article, so be sure to read it all. Another point of view comes from a current New York Times piece by Jacques Steinberg, the blogger of The Choice fame.

Plan B: Skip College

WHAT’S the key to success in the United States?

Short of becoming a reality TV star, the answer is rote and, some would argue, rather knee-jerk: Earn a college degree.

The idea that four years of higher education will translate into a better job, higher earnings and a happier life — a refrain sure to be repeated this month at graduation ceremonies across the country — has been pounded into the heads of schoolchildren, parents and educators. But there’s an underside to that conventional wisdom. Perhaps no more than half of those who began a four-year bachelor’s degree program in the fall of 2006 will get that degree within six years, according to the latest projections from the Department of Education. (The figures don’t include transfer students, who aren’t tracked.)

For college students who ranked among the bottom quarter of their high school classes, the numbers are even more stark: 80 percent will probably never get a bachelor’s degree or even a two-year associate’s degree.

That can be a lot of tuition to pay, without a degree to show for it.

A small but influential group of economists and educators is pushing another pathway: for some students, no college at all. It’s time, they say, to develop credible alternatives for students unlikely to be successful pursuing a higher degree, or who may not be ready to do so.

Whether everyone in college needs to be there is not a new question; the subject has been hashed out in books and dissertations for years. But the economic crisis has sharpened that focus, as financially struggling states cut aid to higher education.

Among those calling for such alternatives are the economists Richard K. Vedder of Ohio University and Robert I. Lerman of American University, the political scientist Charles Murray, and James E. Rosenbaum, an education professor at Northwestern. They would steer some students toward intensive, short-term vocational and career training, through expanded high school programs and corporate apprenticeships.

“It is true that we need more nanosurgeons than we did 10 to 15 years ago,” said Professor Vedder, founder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a research nonprofit in Washington. “But the numbers are still relatively small compared to the numbers of nurses’ aides we’re going to need. We will need hundreds of thousands of them over the next decade.”

And much of their training, he added, might be feasible outside the college setting.

College degrees are simply not necessary for many jobs. Of the 30 jobs projected to grow at the fastest rate over the next decade in the United States, only seven typically require a bachelor’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Among the top 10 growing job categories, two require college degrees: accounting (a bachelor’s) and postsecondary teachers (a doctorate). But this growth is expected to be dwarfed by the need for registered nurses, home health aides, customer service representatives and store clerks. None of those jobs require a bachelor’s degree.

Professor Vedder likes to ask why 15 percent of mail carriers have bachelor’s degrees, according to a 1999 federal study.

“Some of them could have bought a house for what they spent on their education,” he said.

Professor Lerman, the American University economist, said some high school graduates would be better served by being taught how to behave and communicate in the workplace.

Such skills are ranked among the most desired — even ahead of educational attainment — in many surveys of employers. In one 2008 survey of more than 2,000 businesses in Washington State, employers said entry-level workers appeared to be most deficient in being able to “solve problems and make decisions,” “resolve conflict and negotiate,” “cooperate with others” and “listen actively.”

Yet despite the need, vocational programs, which might teach such skills, have been one casualty in the push for national education standards, which has been focused on preparing students for college . . .

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Some interesting points. Bottom line: Considering your future path in life is serious business, and it can be expensive. What do you think about the no-college option?

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.