Who Says You Have to Go to College?

I recently joined StumbleUpon (and would love it if you joined, too, and “stumbled” me and any of my blog posts that you have enjoyed by using the little “thumbs-up” icon.) This morning I received my first batch of “recommendations,” and it included this post from The Stump, which appears to be an opinion column on OregonLive.

The gist of the article is that “higher education” has been rendered meaningless by the admission of huge numbers of unqualified students. The author’s premise seems to be that it is “higher education” itself that is at fault, because its mandate is to expand/profit as much as possible.

…the quality of education being delivered to a majority of students is closer to remedial high school rather than college….The problem is that about half of our student population shouldn’t be [in college] for academic or motivational reasons. Why are they there, then? Because the higher education business, in its zeal to keep expanding, has convinced us that everyone “has to” go to college regardless of what they get out of it. We have managed to raise the bar for getting any kind of menial job to a bachelor’s degree and are well on the way to requiring a master’s to qualify for a barista position.

I don’t entirely disagree, but I think some of this blame is misplaced.

The fact that we all now think that a bachelor’s degree is necessary to do ANYTHING is a larger societal problem, and not, I don’t think, one that the educational institutions alone have created. It has its roots in an attitude that service jobs, technical professions and skilled trades are somehow less valuable than professions that require rigorous intellectual training.

That said, the intellectual training itself is not particularly valued – college students (and their parents) often complain about required English and humanities courses, for example, saying that they have nothing to do with the professions they eventually want to pursue.

What’s more, part of the problem is that students are graduating from high school, and even getting relatively good marks, without having basic skills or knowledge. The primary and secondary school curriculum and policies in Quebec, for example, have now reached the point that it is in some cases almost impossible for students to fail a grade, even if they don’t show up for half the year or they don’t pass a single assignment. Every semester I deal with students whose minds are blown because they are going to fail my course, even though “I came to every class and handed in all the work” – the fact that they got failing grades on everything doesn’t seem to factor in for them.

The major issue, though, is that students, whether or not they have any talent or inclination toward academics, feel that college is their only option. There are simply not enough other paths students can take toward a rewarding and financially viable career, and, what’s more, parents may not encourage their children to pursue the paths that do exist.

This may be changing – lately in Quebec there has been more public promotion of skilled trades and technical professions that require more career-focused training and less “academic” work. Some CEGEPs are offering more certificate programs where students can receive a career-specific diploma without having to complete General Studies courses (English, French, Humanities and Physical Education.)

One step toward a solution would be for parents and children to sit down together and discuss what the child really (and realistically) wants to do, at least for now, and whether college is the best place for the child to learn to do it. If students don’t feel that college is for them at the moment, parents need to help them determine other realistic and responsible options (technical or trade school, or working and paying some minimal rent at home for now, for example), and make it clear that college is not the only choice that they, the parents, will support. Parents need to make it clear to children that being an electrician, a restaurant manager or a pet groomer is a noble profession if one has a talent and inclination for it, and that these choices are no less valuable, in their minds, than going to university to pursue more “academic” fields. Finally, students also need to be reassured that if they don’t like or do well in school, college may not be for them, but that if they change their minds a few years down the road, the option of college will still be available.

Railing against the greed and imperial mentality of institutions of higher education is not getting at the heart of the issue. There are much larger forces at work here.

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14 thoughts on “Who Says You Have to Go to College?

  1. One of the big problems–at least in the United States–is that college-going and college aspirations are determined largely by socioeconomic status. Even if they harbor no hostility to the skilled trades, higher-income parents will send their children to college–and their children are more likely to graduate. It would be a challenge to figure out how to encourage non-college options openly without reinforcing troubling educational–and then income–disparities down the line.


  2. This is a good point, Claus, and one that we in Canada often forget – not because we don’t have issues w/ socioeconomic class, but because our tuitions are, comparatively, so low that most people can find a way to go to college/university, even if they have to go part-time.

    As you say, the challenge is to find a way to present college as one of a number of equally valid options, and to change social perceptions to the point that NOT attending college is seen, not as a personal failure, but a conscious and informed life decision.

    Thanks for your comment!


  3. There’s a great segment from a recent This American Life podcast that deals with this very topic. Here’s the description of the relevant section:

    “For NPR’s Adam Davidson, dropping out of college is the worst thing any young person can do in this economy. So when Adam’s favorite cousin DJ does just that, Adam brings in a professor of economics from Georgetown University to help persuade DJ to get back on the right track. Only after hearing them both out, the professor thinks Adam, not DJ, might be the one on the wrong side of things.”

    And here’s the link:



  4. I’m not at the point where I’d advise students not to go if they wanted to, Atlanta. But if a student didn’t want to go, I’d certainly encourage him/her to explore other possibilities.


  5. Have you seen the Slate article by the guy who quit his work at a think-tank in order to repair motorcycles for a living?

    There’s a lot to be said for skills that will always be in local demand. I just re-connected via Facebook with a classmate from junior high (middle school), who seems quite satisfied with his job as a journeyman electrician.


  6. Clay:
    Do you have a link to that Slate article? I came across it at some point but it slipped by me; I’d love to give it a closer look.

    The Fiance occasionally tells me the story of Gary Burghoff, aka Radar O’Reilly, who left acting to retreat to the wilds of California and become a wilderness painter…but I’m not sure how apocryphal/exaggerated this story is…


  7. I know that you mentioned that it seems like for anyone to do anything they need to have a bachelor’s degree. I’m kinda halfway on this… I barely have my associates in architectural design, and I feel lucky to have gotten the jobs I have. However, to get to where I really want to be, a fully licensed engineer, I know that I will at least need to have a bachelor’s…. On the flip side, my sister is a pharmacy technician, and making a decent living for herself and her son. The only prior experience that she’s had is our mother being a licensed pharmacist…. So while it’s not entirely true that people NEED a bachelor’s degree, I certainly agree that kids need to have a good understanding of what they want to do before jumping onto college.


  8. Brian:
    I think that’s the question; I don’t think there’s a fast rule as to whether kids need to go to college. For me, the question is why there aren’t more alternatives. Thanks for commenting!


  9. Ah yes, the do I go to college conundrum. Long ago I faced this problem,having skated though the first three years of high school there was no way to get into college. I was fortunate enough to be accepted into a practical nursing program, the only male in my class (that’s another story entirely). That was thirty five years ago, thought about going back to get my RN many times, but I loved bedside nursing to much to risk that. I will not say the road I took is for everyone but it worked for me. OK the pay is not top grade but it’s a good living. (49500 before OT) Just another view.


    1. Oakhollow: your experience points to what I’m talking about here – if more people valued opportunities like the one you took, I think a lot of people would be happier.

      The other day I had a conversation with a student of mine who is clearly not cut out for college – maybe in five years, but not now. I asked him why he came to college and he said, “To be an important person for my family.” It almost brought me to tears. How do you impress upon someone with those sorts of convictions that going to college doesn’t make you important, that you’re already important no matter what path you choose in life? (I later found out that no one in his family has ever gone to college, so of course that makes the stakes even higher…)


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