college isn’t for everybody, and shouldn’t be

I spent 12 years at university and came away with three degrees. I loved my years at university; it was a time of total freedom and opportunity and I savoured all of it. I was able to work in a field that I found stimulating, interesting, and rewarding.

But university (or “college”, as it’s collectively called in the US) is not for everybody, and I don’t believe it should be. Nowadays post-secondary education is held up as THE goal for every caring and concerned parent who wants the “best” for their child. This post over at Open Path Learners is what inspired me to write today. It’s just one example of many showing how pervasive this attitude is throughout our society. And yet nobody stops to ask the obvious questions…

If everybody goes to college, what value does that place on a college education? Not too many years before I went to university, you could get a nice research scientist position at a big pharmaceutical company with just a Master’s degree. But by the time I was doing my M.Sc you needed a PhD for such a position. Not because the job got any more difficult, but because there were so many applicants with Master’s degrees that having a PhD made you stand out. By the time I was doing my PhD, you needed a post-doctoral fellowship to land the same position. Again, not because the job got any tougher, but because PhD’s were being churned out by the thousands. The more candidates there are with the minimum requirements, the higher the bar gets raised. These days, a Bachelor’s degree is almost useless. I can’t think of any science-related positions that you can get with just a B.Sc. You’ll end up washing dishes in a laboratory, or typing memos in a research institution, or schlepping free samples of the latest antihypertensive agent around to doctors’ offices as a pharmaceutical sales rep.

If everybody goes to college, how are they all going to get jobs? As far as academia goes, there are only so many research institutions and so much grant money to go around. And the tech industries, while growing, certainly can’t supply jobs for every college graduate if more and more of them are graduating each year (and let’s not forget that places like India and China are churning out a few more hundred thousand college-degree holding job applicants each year as well).

Is college the only (or even the surest) route to success? I don’t think so. First it depends on how you define success (money? healthy, mutually satisfying relationships? job satisfaction? quality of life?). Second, the world is rife with stories about those who have succeeded without college degrees. These folks are usually held up as some sort of anomaly. But I fear that our total emphasis on college education as the only path to success robs young people of the opportunities to pursue other, equally satisfying pathways: they don’t hear about these other choices, and those choices are not held up as worthwhile endeavours relative to the goal of going to college.

It’s ridiculous that we hold a university degree up as the goal all parents should have for their children. As a homeschoolers, one of the most frequent questions I get (second to the socialization myth) is “what about college?”. Instead of considering college as ONE option for kids whose talents would benefit from such an experience, we treat it as the only goal worth shooting for. Immediately we are doing two things. 1) we are setting up a whole host of kids for failure, and 2) we are depriving ourselves of the talents of millions of kids who would be better served by following alternate paths to education.

Case in point: the local construction scene. When I was growing up, being a plumber or an electrician was considered “blue collar”. And construction workers? They were the building-site equivalent of janitors. Then we had a real estate boom, a construction boom, and a home renovation boom. Plumbers, electricians, and other so-called “skilled labourers” are bringing in six-figure salaries and have more work than they can handle. Construction sites will hire anybody with four limbs and a hard hat, and if you prove capable and reliable you will have no shortage of well-paid work.

I feel sorry for people who get sucked into this, and even more sorry for their kids. For the lucky few whose talents and learning style fit the mainstream educational system it will be fine. But what about all those kids who don’t want to go to college – who will support and encourage them? And will they recognize that this doesn’t make them any less capable, or potentially successful than their university-bound peers? And will the parents recognize that there is more to life than getting a degree before they have permanently damaged the relationship between themselves and their children?

I’ll end with a link to a marvellous speech by Sir Ken Robinson entitled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”. In it, he talks about the college issue. The clip is about 15 minutes, but I promise you it’s well worth the time.

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One thought on “college isn’t for everybody, and shouldn’t be

  1. Shawna

    Great post!

    I was one of those moms whose children where raised from birth to go to college/university. And then guess what? My oldest son and stepdaughter decided it wasn’t for them. I was heartbroken, devistated.

    But with a new perspective I began to realize they do have something to offer the world. My son has written a few novels and is working on more. Are they high quality, ready for publication? Maybe not, but he keeps plugging away at it and honestly, he has written pretty well. Who knows what he has to offer the world with practice and time. And he has decided to return to community college for some personal pursuits.

    My stepdaughter has held a few jobs, continued to mature, has decided she wants to teach elementary school and at 28 is heading back to college.

    Who knows what my other 5 kids will do, but if college is not where their hearts lie, I will be alright with that…knowing they still have something wonderful to offer the world.

    And I cannot tell you how many times when I was at university that I used to wonder to myself, “If everyone gets a degree, won’t it make my degree less valuable?” And I knew the answer even then. Your point is a very good one!

    And about those construction workers–married one and raised by another (my mother–General Engineering Contractor) and you painted that tale perfectly! Especially in California where construction wages are some of the best–still amazes me.

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