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The $100,000 Question

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Before I got distracted by chimps who are arguably smarter than college students (as determined by the single measure of the ability to sequence randomly placed numerals), I was questioning the disconnect between the public concern that young people lack financial literacy, and a public education policy that insists on rhetorical mathematics at the expense of applied mathematics. Consumer Math just doesn’t have the resumé cachet of Trigonometry, and it seems our high schools are more concerned about preparing kids for college than preparing them for life. My question from two weeks ago is back on the table:

Your own 18-year old comes home and asks you to be his co-signer on a note so he can take advantage of a great investment opportunity. He's not really sure why this would be a good investment, but all of his friends are investing so he should, too. He's not really sure how he would repay the note, but he is sure it's going to be worth the required $100,000. What would you say?

Of course the investment we are talking about is a four-year college degree. It takes most young people five years to graduate, so with tuition, fees, books, and living expenses (including health insurance and other miscellany) $100,000 is a very conservative figure. However, my concern is not whether a college degree is overpriced. I am more concerned that it is simply the wrong investment for many of our young people.

The first question that needs to be asked is “Why do you want to go to college?” And the answer is likely to be, “So I can get a good job and make good money.” The crass commercialism of this response is enough to cause the denizens of academia to cringe, and with good reason. The assumption that the purpose of a college degree is economic advancement is a major misunderstanding. While a college degree may act as gatekeeper for entry into some jobs, it does not guarantee a well paying or highly rewarding career upon graduation. (Just look around - there's plenty of evidence. Try the mall.)

The second question probably ought to be “What sort of work is it that you expect college to prepare you to do?” And the answer is often, “I don’t know yet.” Our education system pushes eighth graders into Algebra I, rather than Consumer Math, because all students should be prepared to apply to a four-year university. But there’s a terrible disconnect between structuring a 13-year old’s education around college preparation (an option that less than half of them will eventually chose) and then sending students to college with the mindset that their junior year is soon enough to declare a major. Too many students spend four years in high school with no goals other than “getting into a good school.” The next four or five years are focused on “getting out with a degree.” Plenty of what. Not much why.

Is anyone else old enough to remember the 1967 classic film, The Graduate? Dustin Hoffman portrays Benjamin Braddock, who has recently earned his Ivy League degree. As he floats in the family pool, his father questions and Ben responds:

Ben, what are you doing?
Well, I would say that I'm just drifting. Here in the pool.
Why?
Well, it’s very comfortable just to drift.
Have you thought about graduate school?
No.
Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?
You got me.

Back in the 60’s we understood Ben Braddock was a rebel. We didn’t realize he was a prophet. Somewhere along the way, education has morphed into something like a video game where the point seems to simply be getting to the next level. In the end, the reward for playing the game may be elusive, but the investment in time and money is very real. Then the college game is over, and our young people discover they don't really know why they went there or what they went for.

I think college is grand. I loved it as an undergraduate. I loved it as a graduate student. I still take a class every year or so just for the joy of it. But (and it's a big but), who decided that the sole purpose of high school is preparation for application to a four year college? Are there other ways to win? Have we been truly responsible? Have we fairly informed young people about their choices? Or have policymakers and educators imposed a single game plan on young people, their parents and the general public?

Why do we want them to go to college? It's a $100,000 question that all too often begs an answer.

So you ask, "What should they do instead?" Stay tuned.

19 Comments

Susan,

What a great post. I am pondering these very questions as I look at my twin 10th graders.

INSIGHTFUL.

I think that we are doing a grave disservice to our young people. We are still functioning with a 1950's educational model that is not fit for today's world. Years ago, schools in Texas dismantled vocational programs because college was deemed the only acceptable route. I don't know about many of you, but I have a 4 year degree, and my stylist makes more money than I do. Many electricians and plumbers fare well, and are often business owners. Somewhere along the way we started to frown at certain types of work....jobs that we still need today. Everyone shouldn't go to college, but we owe these young people better than minimum wage service jobs.

INSIGHTFUL.

I think that we are doing a grave disservice to our young people. We are still functioning with a 1950's educational model that is not fit for today's world. Years ago, schools in Texas dismantled vocational programs because college was deemed the only acceptable route. I don't know about many of you, but I have a 4 year degree, and my stylist makes more money than I do. Many electricians and plumbers fare well, and are often business owners. Somewhere along the way we started to frown at certain types of work....jobs that we still need today. Everyone shouldn't go to college, but we owe these young people better than minimum wage service jobs.

I've had this discussion with our math remediation teacher many times, especially when she was frustrated with trying to teach algebra to students who had trouble with basic math. School for these students is already so frustrating and the required curriculum is creating a new generation of dropouts. We need to offer students different pathways to success - starting as early as middle school. We talk about differentiating and multiple intelligences, maybe we should differentiate the curriculum as well.

You've articulated something that I've been struggling with for some time now. I was one of those students that went to college because it was "expected" of me, and had no idea what I wanted to do. Now, I am stuck with a very large student loan debt that I'm not sure when I'll be able to pay off, and a job that pays a lot less than some vocational jobs that I wouldn't have had to go into this much debt to get. I wish that I'd taken a couple of years off from school to work in the real world before college - or even joined the military straight out of high school.

I have retired after 39 years in both academic and vocational education. The last fifteen years I run a vocational high school. I believe that the American public is brainwashed. That the only way to win is with a four year degree. Your article reiterated everything I have said for years, but vocational education is only the tail of the dog and it is difficult for the tail to wag the dog. I could go on with many examples, but your article covers the area of concern very well. Keep up the good work.

I have retired after 39 years in both academic and vocational education. The last fifteen years I run a vocational high school. I believe that the American public is brainwashed. That the only way to win is with a four year degree. Your article reiterated everything I have said for years, but vocational education is only the tail of the dog and it is difficult for the tail to wag the dog. I could go on with many examples, but your article covers the area of concern very well. Keep up the good work.

I have retired after 39 years in both academic and vocational education. The last fifteen years I run a vocational high school. I believe that the American public is brainwashed. That the only way to win is with a four year degree. Your article reiterated everything I have said for years, but vocational education is only the tail of the dog and it is difficult for the tail to wag the dog. I could go on with many examples, but your article covers the area of concern very well. Keep up the good work.

Interesting! and Insightful!

I too have wondered about the benefits of a college education and believe that not all of our young people need a college education. Some of our young people do need to be encouraged to pursue the vocational track.

Amen amen amen. I blame us--the educators. We should stand up and shout everytime somebody keeps ramming college for all down our throats. All education has done is to "dumb down" the college prep curriculum so all can pass. I really don't believe that my plumber should have the same academic prep as my doctor. All we have done is to give kids the wrong expectations.

I have no regrets about the hard work required for my college degree. It has opened doors for me and allowed me to make educated choices; things that most likely wouldn't have been possible otherwise. But, unlike many students today, I was motivated to learn. I had an objective to be an engineer and that's what drove me.

Since I became an instructor at a local community college, I have had my ego dashed and my hope for the future all but erased by the influx of illiterate and unmotivated students. Roughly three-fourths of the incoming freshmen require remedial reading and mathematics. Many of those who don't are still devoid of any meaningful idea of what a college education is all about. Most assume that they will receive a degree by just occupying a seat in the classroom. A few lucky ones actually get it and work to learn the content of the course.

You are right on the mark. Some of these students do not belong in college. At least not at their present stage in life. They would do well to first gain some life experiences in the workplace in order to fully understand what it takes to survive in our modern world. That is not a bad thing, it is just common sense. Many parents have forgotten about the "learning ethic" and fail to instill in their children the importance of learning. Everyone talks about the schools failing at this and failing at that. Well, what about the parents? After all, aren't the kids their primary responsibility? The current situation is not necessarily the fault of the schools or the students. We should be educating the parents, too.

What I'm concerned about for our youth is that so many of them are taking on great amounts of debt to pay for college. When I was a college student I never had to face that kind of debt and I had no help from parents. As a society we have chosen a one-size-fits-all curriculum aiming kids for only ONE choice: college, (no voc ed) and then to help them get into debt. That is just wrong. Kids and their parents need more choices and more help like there used to be. We can do better for our kids.

I could not agree with you more. After years of college, many student loans, and a set back in my home state's economy, I find myself a full-trained, very eager, but unemployed teacher. We tell our children that they should go to college. We tell them they can be anything they want to be… that college is the ticket to that dream...

The reality is that our world is changing rapidly. Jobs and professions come and go, some out of the country. What our children need is to be in love with learning and life-long learners, to be flexible so that they can adapt to these changes. That is what we (teachers and parents) should be focusing on.

Getting a good job and making good money is responded to by Dr. Graham so: "The crass commercialism of this response is enough to cause the denizens of academia to cringe, and with good reason. The assumption that the purpose of a college degree is economic advancement is a major misunderstanding." I disagree with the learned Doctor. Seeking a good job with good pay is a reasonable, practical, and important objective of education. Nor should denizens of academia cringe. Rather, they should thank their lucky stars that so strong a motive exists. Without that motive, many fewer academics would have paying jobs. Perhaps the very rich can be blase about the financial fruits of higher education but for many of my generation, making more money was an urgent and positive driving force.

Susan, I'm hoping you will contact me. I am the co-editor of the Utah Special Educator (you can view it online at www.updc.org). The theme of our March issue will be Addressing the Needs of the Whole Child. I'm hoping you would be willing to write an opinion piece with the perspective that you presented here. Let me know if you're interested. Thanks, Ginny Eggen

While it is true that a college education isn't for everyone, who wants to be the one who decides which students get the college prep curriculum track and which students get steered towards vocational education? Many years ago my parents - both African-American -- were told that they shouldn't think about college, that it wasn't for them, and that they should just "get a good job." Well, they didn't listen to those teachers and went on to college at night while working and supporting a family, and they both have done very well for themselves. My father never realized his goal of medical school because at that time most med schools in the US didn't accept African-American students, but their love and respect for education was passed on to their children. As a teacher myself I would never advise any student not to reach for the stars. Reach for the stars but keep your feet on the ground and you just might end up on the planet that's right for you.

Ms. Hopkins gets at the fears at the heart of the current dilemma in education. The problem is that perhaps the pendulum has swung too far. The decision to consider college is a personal one that should be made by the students and their parents. As a special ed resource teacher I have learned that many students and their parents would be relieved to know they do not have to attend "college" to get a great job--Community Colleges offer wonderful vocational opportunities at an affordable price. Unfortunately the focus on raising academic standards has led to some absurd situations. One of my students won a national welding competition, but nearly didn't graduate because he had difficulty passing our state's Algebra requirement. He understood the need for basic math and literacy skills, but didn't get the need for Algebra. He told his math teacher "I just want to weld!" I am sure he (and many other students) could learn more advanced math, when it is connected to real life skills and when he is ready. Did our insistence on holding him to that standard help him become a better welder, a better citizen, or a better person? My point is, we should be helping children realize their dreams, not throwing obstacles up in front of them, or telling them what their dream "should" be.

Ms. Hopkins gets at the fears at the heart of the current dilemma in education. The problem is that perhaps the pendulum has swung too far. The decision to consider college is a personal one that should be made by the students and their parents. As a special ed resource teacher I have learned that many students and their parents would be relieved to know they do not have to attend "college" to get a great job--Community Colleges offer wonderful vocational opportunities at an affordable price. Unfortunately the focus on raising academic standards has led to some absurd situations. One of my students won a national welding competition, but nearly didn't graduate because he had difficulty passing our state's Algebra requirement. He understood the need for basic math and literacy skills, but didn't get the need for Algebra. He told his math teacher "I just want to weld!" I am sure he (and many other students) could learn more advanced math, when it is connected to real life skills and when he is ready. Did our insistence on holding him to that standard help him become a better welder, a better citizen, or a better person? My point is, we should be helping children realize their dreams, not throwing obstacles up in front of them, or telling them what their dream "should" be.

Susan,
College is not a gurantee of anything. That comes from inside the individual with a drive that can be taught and honed. I have a BS degree in Welding Engineering and my brother in-law and sister are welders and they travel the world and make more money than I do. I will help any school anywhere set up a welder training program.

[email protected]

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