“Is college necessary?”
It’s a question that touches a nerve – especially with parents of young adults, people who take great pride in their academic accomplishments, and disgruntled souls paying off hefty student loans with what could have been a house payment while working jobs they don’t like.
A recent post at the blog College Startup profiles 15 high-profile entrepreneurs who are not college graduates. Like most riffs on the “is college necessary” theme, the article misses the point. What people want to know is, “Will college help me get the life I want?”
College offers students: credentials, education, experience, and connections. To determine the value of college, it makes sense to take each of these assets separately.
Credentials: If an individual’s calling is to be a brain surgeon, then there’s no room for discussion. No academic degrees, no brain surgery career. For many people, the value of a degree as a credential is over-rated. Specifically, a credential is no more than a marketing tool in in many occupations: a bachelor’s degree may impress a prospective client or employer, but it won’t make the sale. People without degrees often seem to overestimate their need to get one later in life. Life coaching clients may regard a degree as proof of credibility, but there are ways to build credibility that don’t take years or cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Take away: If you’ve got it, flaunt it. By all means put that PhD on your business cards. But weigh the usefulness of the credential critically.
Education: Does knowledge live within the bounds of campus libraries and the heads of people with particular letters after their names? Universities can grant a person easily navigable access to great teachers and programming, intelligent peers, and facilities such as laboratories and libraries; however, self-directed learners can find most of what college offers – and more – in the wide world. Some of the world’s great minds are more available for direct correspondence on the internet than they may be with their students.
Take away: Knowledge wants to be free, so it is!
Connections: Cynical thinkers suggest that the opportunity to make connections is the primary offering available at many schools. Visits from professors’ business contacts, late-night bull sessions with people who may someday be CEO, and membership in alumni networks can all be valuable as a graduate moves through life.
Take away: Getting connections in this way is probably most important to those who don’t already have them. Of the student who grows up in the projects and the one whose dad is a well-placed business executive, the former has a lot more to gain from expanding that circle of contacts via attending college. (See Malcolm Gladwell’s “Getting In” for more on this.)
Experience is … the wild card.
Ultimately choosing to go to college, whether at 18 or at 80 means foregoing other experiences to do so. So, perhaps the most important question to ask is whether or not attending will provide experiences the student can use. Possibly the worst reason to go to school: to extend a comfort zone and avoid new experiences in the world. This applies equally to the high-school partier looking for an environment where alcohol flows freely and the laid-off office worker who figures that law school “can’t hurt.”
Take away: You only live once. What’s on your “bucket list”?