When I was in high school, I had a poster in my room showing an obviously wealthy young man, standing in front of a mansion, exotic cars lining the brick drive, and beautiful women on each arm. The caption read “Justification for higher education.” You can, in fact, still buy a similar poster on Amazon, albeit toned down a bit for more politically correct sensibilities.
College is the gateway to the American Dream, an expected right of passage if you want to get anywhere in life. It was never even an option when I was growing up. It didn’t occur to me that I might not go to college. Even when my oldest son asked about taking a year off before he started college a couple years ago, it struck me as a remarkably bad idea (particularly since he didn’t have any particular plans for his time off…college just didn’t hold the appeal that it did for me when I was his age).
Two years is forever
A lot can change in two years, though. Two years is forever in the land of the Internet and and fast-moving startups, where bringing an idea from brainstorm to prototype can happen at a lightning pace. Things have changed and, for many of us, the value of a formal, traditional college education just ain’t what it used to be.
Part of the problem is, without a doubt, the expense. In post-recession 2012, most of us have a very different sense of frugality than we did in 2008 and it’s harder to justify leaving school with massive debt and uncertain prospects for employment. There are less expensive schools (some state schools, community colleges, and for-profit universities that don’t have to build athletic fields for their football teams), but even these tend to develop a bit of what Kaplan CEO Andrew Rosen calls “Harvard envy”.
If two years is forever, then four years is even longer
Four years spent in college are rarely a waste of time. No matter how many football games students attend, no matter how many parties they frequent, no matter how many classes they skip, college can be a time of extraordinary personal growth. That being said, four years is lot of time to be doing something awesome. In four years, bootstrapping two or three startups is ambitious, but realistic.
In four years, you could become an established writer or make a movie or write an app that revolutionizes a field, or build a web community that can be mobilized for good (or not). Internships and apprenticeships could become careers.
That same oldest son who was wavering on college started a community theater group this spring. His grades suffered a bit, but I can’t say I cared. In an economically depressed, working-class town, he filled the town hall to capacity and brought a great production to a stage that had sat unused for years. He learned more in three months about business, charity, the arts, communication, and community development than he learned in the previous year and half of university study. By a long shot. I was far prouder of his production than when he made dean’s list his freshman year.
Do you need a degree to be a successful, life-long learner?
But don’t you go to college to get more knowledge, as the old rhyme goes? Of course! And for many, many students, college is the perfect place to find their niche, develop a deep understanding of a particular topic, become an expert in a field, or do groundbreaking research.
College, however, is no longer the only place to get more knowledge. There’s this thing called the Internet. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it. Seems kind of useful…
If my kids need to learn how to write a business plan, there are online courses for that, independent of any university. If they need to improve math skills or learn a programming language, there are classes for that (many of them given away for free by universities). On WizIQ alone, they could learn new languages, become hackers, or learn Cisco networking.
This says nothing of the courses they can take on Coursera, Udemy, MITx, or any number of other educational outlets.
I’m not saying don’t go to college
Not at all. But how many of today’s highly successful entrepreneurs, artists, and thought leaders either didn’t go to college or left college to pursue the opportunities that led to their success? Plenty more found their success because of learning and networking opportunities in college.
The message is that college is no longer a forgone conclusion. For a lot of students, it’s absolutely the best choice. The real 21st century skill, though, that students need when they leave high school is the ability to learn, to seek out and use information, and to adapt to their surroundings. If they can do this and take advantage of the plethora of advanced learning opportunities just a search engine query away, then it’s all right to let their entrepreneurial spirits soar.
Like I said, times have changed, and so are the ways in which people can learn and reach their goals.