Before I get into the topic at hand, I’m excited to announce that Money at 30 now has a home of its own at Moneyat30.com. While I look forward to posting in-depth yet light-hearted takes on personal finance over there on a regular basis, I will also still be maintaining my weekly column over here on Dyer News — so really it’s the best of both worlds. Anyway, when I was in the process of building and fleshing out my new site, I wrote an “about me” section I ended up titling “My Story.” In it, I share a number of both random and pertinent facts about myself, including one I don’t believe I’ve actually discussed on my blog before: I am a college dropout. Yes, after a year of university and a smattering of community college courses, I bid adieu to the classroom many years ago with no real plans to return, thus leaving me degreeless.
I suppose this fact never really meant a whole lot to me until this most recent election. See, when the pundits began incessantly talking about “uneducated white men,” I suddenly realized that was a demographic I, by their definition, was a part of. That might sound too obvious to qualify as some sort of revelation but it actually was surprising to me. After all I don’t feel uneducated. In fact (and not to brag but) I’ve been described by others as “smart” on numerous occasions and I actively seek out new information on topics that interest me in order to further my, albeit less formal, education. So am I really “uneducated” simply because I don’t have a college degree? This pondering led me to another, larger question: is college overrated?
The case for college
From the time you’re a child in elementary school the messaging regarding higher education is clear as day: you go to college so that you can get a good job and make more money. And they’re right — studies show that, the higher the level of degree you have, the more you’re likely to make in salary. In that aspect, many see higher education as in investment in your future. Of course the problem is that the investment has gotten more expensive over time, but we’ll get to that later.
Beyond the pure economics or it all, college is also touted for the life skills and experiences it provides students as well as the networking opportunities one can gain that will help them as they transition to their career. Again, these are all valid points that I wholeheartedly to agree with. But the question I’m proposing isn’t “is college a great way to prepare for a career?” but “is it the only way?”
The student debt crisis
As mentioned, lately the coverage colleges and universities have been attracting relates less to the pursuit of education and more to the financial costs of such a pursuit. As you’re surely aware, the rising costs of tuition and books coupled with the all-too-recent recession have led to a student debt crisis. Not only are some students in over their head with obligations that will take them years to pay off but other are also still struggling to find employment using their degree, making repayment even less realistic.
Although this was a hot topic during the election cycle, the new administration has yet to make it much of a priority. Additionally Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently reversed course on guidelines introduced by the Obama administration intended to help protect borrowers, with DeVos saying the guidelines held “a lack of consistent objectives.” As a result it’s unclear if or when the student debt crisis will improve, which may beget an upcoming slate of students who are reconsidering their options.
What qualifies as education?
Speaking of Secretary DeVos, one of the initiatives her appointment was said to stand for was school choice. While this is a term usually associated with charter schools and voucher programs, it also recognizes that the face of education and how students obtain knowledge is rapidly changing. For example public universities such as Arizona State have introduced online degrees for students across the country, joining a trend set forth by for-profit institutions previously.
In addition to these accredited, degree-granting schools, there are also a number of places to take in college-level lectures and courses online. Whether on paid sites like The Great Courses Plus or on free services such as iTunes U or YouTube, there is now a wealth of information available to anyone with an internet connection and interest in learning. This begs the question, what makes traditional higher education much different?
What experience is worth
You might expect a premium to be placed on those who have experience relevant to the position they’re applying for regardless of whether or not the candidate has a degree, yet that’s not always the case. Even on sites like Craigslist you’re likely to find a majority of job listings require some sort of college degree regardless of past experience. Granted, many also require some amount of experience as well (which also happens to be a catch 22 in some cases), but — speaking very loosely — it seems that degrees are necessary to even get considered by many employers.
How can this change?
Perhaps due to start-up culture that reveres college dropouts like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg or to Millennials looking to help escape the student debt crisis, anecdotally there have been efforts by employers to look beyond the traditional degree when looking for candidates. Going back to Craiglist for a moment, among the strict “Bachelor’s required” listings are posts that ask applicants to demonstrate their skills by completing a small test task instead of merely regurgitating their credentials like some sort of Sorkin character. In my humble (and supposedly uneducated) opinion, this technique makes far more sense in certain fields and, I believe, leads to better hirings.
Let me be clear that there is, without a doubt, value in higher education. That said, with the myriad of knowledge sources available to us and the student debt crisis still raging, perhaps it’s time we rethink the extreme emphasis we place on college. Because, while attending university or other institutions should certainly be a choice afforded to Americans, those (like myself) who forgo should be given a chance to prove themselves as well. By opening our minds to what should qualify as education while also taking experience and skill into account when hiring, I believe we can easily make that happen.