I grew up in an age (and a socio-economic class) where all children were taught the roadmap to a Successful and Happy Life: First get good grades, then go to a good college, and then get a good job. If you wanted to be anything, college wasn’t only a suggestion; college was an imperative. There was no other option.
And so, like the good little girl I was, I followed that map. I took my passion (writing), applied it to a profession (journalism), and scored internships at some of the top magazines — including the prestigious Condé Nast internship (RIP). I went into deep debt for that degree — debt that will continue to weigh us down for a long time — but it would be worth it because JOBS and MONEY and SUCCESS!
Well sure — unless you graduated college in the spring of 2008. Not only did the economy crash months later (the timing!), but the magazine industry was spiraling like a plane out of fuel. Hiring freezes and magazine foldings — all with a fist raised to the darn Internet that was ruining the publishing industry. (It was a real Doomsday-ish time to be searching for a magazine job — especially after an unexpected pregnancy, but that’s a different story.)
I know that my case is specific — the digitalization of the publishing industry and the market crashing and all. But the Digital Age has done more than just change the way we consume news and stories. It’s changed the way loads of industries have evolved (and are continuing to change). The Digital Age changed the way we communicate, the way we market businesses, and it changed the skills we need in specific industries. Not only that, but it’s created all sorts of new professions (like this here blog).
The Digital Age has made it impossible to operate in the old paradigm. And is traditional college in the old paradigm? Can college keep up with the changing times?
Of course there are many professions where a college degree will continue to be necessary, but I’ve seen plenty of kids waste thousands of dollars to switch majors and stress about their futures, because what is a six-digit debt to a 17-year-old? I’ve seen people struggle to get any kind of a job because they went to school for music or poetry or history — and they were promised that a degree = a job. I’ve also seen countless people finish their degree, only to have their profession obsolete in a number of years. And on top of that, when everyone has a college degree, doesn’t it devalue the college degree in general? (Quick! Econ majors!)
Then there’s the price. The price! I calculated how much money college will cost in 2027, and my son is looking at $50,000 for a public school and $89,000 for a private school PER YEAR. That means I have to save…let’s see…my entire future savings to send him to college. (I wasn’t a math major.) If he wants to be a surgeon or an engineer, then yes. Yes, college is important. But I’m not confident that college should be marketed as a one-size-fits-all MUST for all kids — and I’m not the only one who thinks so.
Mike Rowe has started a mission to encourage kids to avoid debt and get real on-the-job training through vocational school.
Dale J. Stephens — founder of UnCollege and author of Hacking Your Education— promotes the idea that, yes, a prestigious college can still give status, but it doesn’t prepare kids for the real world. (For the record: No employer has cared about my college’s name, it was more about my internship and work experience.)
Blogger Matt Walsh echoes the same ideas — that “outstanding student loan debt has long surpassed a trillion dollars with no signs of slowing down,” and, like Stephens, he challenges the assumption that college is the best way to experience and learn about life.
And Rolling Stone did an entire piece on how college loans are ripping off our youth.
Looking back at my own experience, I learned more through internships and on-the-job training than I ever learned in class. And while college was an incredible opportunity to explore any subject that sparked my interest — theology, politics, sociology — the Digital Age has also brought the most accessible education we’ve ever known (if used properly). We can learn via TED Talks and podcasts and a slew of online courses. How long until the next generation — the Digital Natives — figure out how to utilize the power of the Internet to learn outside of the formal classroom setting?
And while I certainly had a blast in college, was it worth this kind of debt? When maybe 10% of college prepared me for my career and my life, was the debt worth it? Will it be worth it for my son?
Thanks to the Internet and social-media boom, we can collectively share our stories and tear up the archaic roadmaps with outdated information. Will traditional college be outdated for our kids? Only time will tell. But maybe we should stop thinking in such absolute terms.
I know I will.
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