To college, or not to college — that is the question. I’m of an age that I can remember when a college education wasn’t the be-all end-all that it has been portrayed for the past generation or two in American culture. When I was in high school, the American dream may or may not have included a sheepskin from the nearest university. I was the last of five
children in my family, but the first to get my college degree, and I have to admit it wasn’t really a priority when I started down the path of receiving a degree.
Back in the day, it was OK to pick a vocation and do it well as long as it was honest, rewarding work and you could provide for yourself and your family. It wasn’t like no one from my high school class was going to go to college, it just wasn’t the thing for everyone like it is today.
Or maybe it’s not such a big thing. My wife and I have two sons — one in college and the other on the cusp — and not a week goes by that I don’t start doing the math on whether the money spent on a college education is worth it in today’s career-a-minute culture. I find it hard to rationalize the debt that most college students compile over a four-or-five-year span and then come out wanting to own a home and a car or both.
Now don’t get me wrong, my wife and I have multiple college degrees between the two of us, and I’ve proselytized at the pulpit of getting a good education for years, but one has to wonder with all the mounting college loan debt in this country, is a four-year degree still worth it? For years I’ve told interns and anyone who would listen that a college degree was the token to get into the game of life, and in many respects I still believe it.
Even with a “full ride” scholarship to a fine local public college, our older son will have spent more than $10,000 out of pocket for his first year. That 529 account we saved for went like water that first semester. So you won’t see me crying many tears for the jocks at old Bully For U when they asked to get paid to play.
My bigger point is that students are leaving college with loan debt in the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Here’s the rub, and maybe we have TV money-whiz Suze Orman to blame or to thank. Suze says to tell your kids that they’ll be paying roughly 1 percent of the loan amount a month over the first 10 years of their working life to pay down this debt. So let’s say you get out of school with $40,000 in student loans, that’s about $400 a month right out of the liquid cash for the first 10 years or so of your working life. How many newbies can afford that?
My father raised five children on an electrician/plumber’s salary. I guess he ran what they would call a startup company today, although it was much simpler back then. He taught himself a trade, found a business partner and soon they were in business — no college, no degree. Is he smarter than the average person I know? You bet. He twisted wires and did his own books to boot.
In many ways we are at a crossroads. With there being so many more sources of education and knowledge at our ready disposal, just how important is it to plow money and time into a degree only to find out that: a) industry has shifted and there are no jobs; or b) you really don’t like the subject you studied and now you’re stuck with a degree you can’t use and school loan debt you’ll never get out from under.
We still hope that both our children can find their way through college. In America, we’ve created a system that paints a scarlet letter on anyone without a college degree, regardless of their abilities. I have to say, given how the times and the economy of employment have changed, if either of our children came to us with an alternative plan that was fueled by their passion, I’d step out of their way and let them do it. Isn’t that what life’s supposed to be about, finding fulfilling work?
My father worked six days a week often 10 or 12 hours a day, not because he had to, but because he loved what he was doing. The job challenged his problem-solving intellect and allowed him to please his good-natured soul by serving others. He worked well into his 70s, and I’m sure if the body were willing today in his late 80s, he would pick up his tools and head out the door tomorrow.
Sure, there are many careers such as medicine and science where we want highly skilled, well-trained individuals with lots of alphabet-soup acronyms behind their names. But for every doctor or rocket scientist, there are thousands of individuals who would do quite well in their careers with a bit of specialized training in a field they enjoy and the promise of a good job.
No one really knows what kind of jobs the economy of the future will be filled with. As parents we ask ourselves what the “hot jobs” of the future will be so we can coax our children toward those careers. The mantra of follow your dreams has suddenly been replaced by chasing what’s on somebody’s short list of “top jobs” for the next generation.
At the end of the day, both parents and colleges have to ask themselves how flawed is the equation? Certainly knowledge for knowledge’s sake is no longer the standard of the day. Education is still of primary importance to everyone, but the question is just what level of importance will we put on college degrees in the future and is there another way to educate people without dragging them down into a black hole of college debt?