Is College A Waste of Time?

A few weeks ago, I read in the New York Times a column by Charles Murray entitled “Should the Obama Generation Drop Out?” 

I wrote about it on another blog, but the opinion continues to rattle in my head. This week most colleges, including mine, are back in classes for the spring semester and I thought about it again and so I'm posting a version here too.

His argument is that a bachelor’s degree should not determine what your chances of being employed are going to be.

Some statistics about this subject surprise me. Did you know that only about  1 in 4 Americans have a bachelor’s degree? Would you have said that our college dropout rate is over 50%?

Murray says that for many young people a degree is something “beyond their reach,” but that they (and their parents) may still spend much time, money and effort in preparing for that path.

I have two sons. One graduated college in 2007 and the other will graduate this May, so I don't have to think about that particular path any more. Still, I work in a college, so it still has an effect on me.

Murray has some tough things to say about the current generation of college students and potential college students.

"For most of the nation’s youths, making the bachelor’s degree a job qualification means demanding a credential that is beyond their reach. It is a truth that politicians and educators cannot bring themselves to say out loud:
A large majority of young people do not have the intellectual ability to do genuine college-level work
and many young people who have the intellectual ability to succeed in rigorous liberal arts courses don’t want to. For these students, the distribution requirements of the college degree do not open up new horizons. They are bothersome time-wasters."

Do you agree? I agree, at least in part, and that's not something an educator may want to admit. I have further questions, but right now, I don't have answers.

If you do agree with Murray, what can we offer those two groups of people who lack the ability or the desire?

Over the holidays, my lifelong friend and college roommate was at my house. I asked him if he could go back and do college over again, what he would major in this time. Ron was an accounting major who never went into accounting and went back for a MLS and now works in a public library after a bunch of years in the corporate world. He answered, "Ken, I don't think I'd go to college again." I was shocked.

He grew up knowing college was expected of him and followed his dad's path and didn't realize until college was over that it wasn't his path. He says that he would have been perfectly happy to have been able to start his own little business with no college and done that for his life's work.

I know that I couldn't have done the things I've done without college and grad school, but I know a good number of college-educated friends who question the value of their degrees. Part of it comes from them not really knowing hat they wanted to do even though they picked a major. Another part comes from those who went into the field they studied and found that honestly they had to learn almost everything on-the-job.

Last week, I had a conversation with an architect and asked if she hired or took interns from NJIT's architecture school. She said they did and they were generally well prepared, but that they just expect that for any school they will have to teach a new grad almost everything they really want the to do on the job. That is sad - or frustrating.

Another question I have about those unprepared and unmotivated high school students is: What does the employer of the future need to do to make way for change, and what would that change be? Is non-degree but job-related training after high school the future?


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