Education is Important. However, a College Education is Largely Irrelevant.
“If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.”
― Frank Zappa
Let me start by saying that I am a huge believer in education. I graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle with a bachelor's degree, I was part of a 2 year apprenticeship program learning hands-on business skills in the IT industry, I have taken numerous online courses (free and paid, credit and non-credit), I am a constant reader, and I am currently developing white collar and blue collar apprenticeship programs. I care about education because it is the single most important factor in preparing the U.S. workforce to compete in an increasingly competitive global economy. I have read dozens of books on education as well as countless articles on millennials in the workplace. In creating apprenticeship programs, I have conducted personal interviews with college students, college grads, white collar workers (with and without degrees), and blue collar workers (again, with and without degrees). Boil all this down and it forms my very radical opinion: a college education is, in terms of growing the workforce and becoming a global competitor, not a good investment for more than half of college-bound students (footnote 1). Simply stated: education is good, however, our current higher education system is ineffective.
According to politicians, your high school guidance counselor, the media, and more than likely your entire support structure (i.e. your parents, grandparents, friends, family, religious leaders, teachers, bosses, coaches, etc.), higher education serves two purposes:
1) Someone with a bachelor's degree (or higher) is entitled to a livable wage career with benefits like healthcare, stock options, bonuses, paid vacation, and if you’re lucky, a company vehicle.
What’s your plan? Do you have a plan? Or are you just going to play your guitar and be a goth your whole life? … [Y]ou’re better off going to college because a bachelor's degree degree means job security and a million dollars more money over the course of your career. ― My high school guidance counselor (Footnote 2)
2) The more people in our nation with a college degree, the more likely we will be able to compete on a global level and strengthen our economy.
It is virtually impossible to compete in today's global economy without a college degree ― Bobby Scott, U.S. Representative (footnote 3)
The reason why you believe(d) in the importance of a college degree, why I believed it, and why all the other brilliant, kind, and loving people in your life believe it too is because this is exactly what every university sells. Come to our school because our graduates make more money, have better jobs, graduate with less debt, feel more fulfilled, go on grad school, blah blah blah blah blah.
If this is how we measure the success of our higher education system, we are failing on both counts. College graduates are struggling to find good jobs. Daily, college graduates apply to the blue collar apprenticeship programs I am currently building, and I speculate there are two reasons for this: either the jobs aren’t there for college graduates, or college grads don’t have the skills necessary for the white collar job they are applying to. Why? It might have a little to do with the weakening of our national economy, which is a direct result of our lag in performance in the workplace. A problem that circles back to higher education.
Of all the graphs and studies, I think the weekly median earning from year to year is the most telling. Below, the first graph shows the rise in adults in the U.S. with a college degree and the second shows the average weekly income per week (adjusted to the 2013 dollar).
The chart below is from Familyfacts.org and their data is from the U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2011.
Percentage of Adults Age 25 and Older with at Least a College Degree
Take a look at what millennials are earning now compared to someone their age over 30 years ago. For many millennials, their parents were making more (adjusted to the 2013 dollar) than they are now. By more than $100 a week! At the same time, the number of people receiving college degrees has nearly doubled since the 1980s. In the last few decades we have made great strides in graduating people with degrees while simultaneously lowering their weekly income AND increasing college tuition (raising student loan debt).
It’s clear that our educational system is not holding up its end of the bargain. I’m not writing this with a smirk on my face. I don’t get any joy out of proving people in power wrong (except for maybe my high school guidance counselor). I do care about the future of American workers, as well as our economy in the increasingly agile global marketplace. As great minds (and lawmakers and corporations) are reforming education, I would ask them to keep the following in mind.
A college education is largely irrelevant (at least at this point in time).
Before we start arguing about the cost of education, the bigger question is to first determine if a college degree is useful. The industry is changing so rapidly that traditional book learning in a classroom isn’t relevant (many books become irrelevant within a year of publication). Dumping money into most university programs is like handing out bigger, more durable buckets to bail water out of a sinking ship.
Possible Solution: the classroom and classroom materials need to change as the industry changes. This means stepping out of traditional desk learning and directly into the industry. A great approach would be to follow a technical school’s approach to education with class time and hands-on learning based on an apprenticeship curriculum. By breaking up universities and investing in an apprenticeship program structure, each major will focus on the relevant skills needed to have success post graduation. Business students need their own school where they can work with managers, directors, entrepreneurs, investors, and other leaders in the industry. Writing students need their own forty-hour a week technical school to study media and communication because meeting for five hours a week to talk about plot and character development will never teach the discipline necessary to write competently for a publisher or a business; five hours a week does not teach the necessary skills to compete with the millions of others who want write literature or report news. Political science students need their own school to prepare them for law school. Students in social science classes need hands-on learning to apply the theories they are learning in their books. And so on. The classroom needs to move out of the lecture hall and into the field they are studying. On the job, students will learn relevant skills in the industry and allow them to practice in a hands-on setting.
In the age of information, education is abundant and free.
There are really awesome educational websites where anyone can become competent in nearly any field of study for little to no cost. Websites like OEDB, Skillshare, CreateU, Coursera, edx, and many others, level the playing ground and allow any person to become competent in nearly any subject, so long as they have a passion and drive. So where does this leave education?
The first hang-up is testing these self-motivated autodidacts. The second hang-up for many schools is finding a way to make this kind of learning profitable. The third is getting practical hands on experience, because reading or watching a lecture about a topic is only half the learning needed for competency.
Possible Solution: competency testing. Students can take tests or be given an in person skill review to earn certifications, or badges, and be given the option to test out of lower-level classes and earn credit for past experience and self-directed education.
Most univer$ities don’t want to face the fact that they are failing.
And they will do anything to save their federal funds. The main priority for ALL universities is to make a profit (footnote 4). This only becomes a problem when universities are unable to prepare their students to compete at a global level. Especially when they are bleeding students (and their families) of all their wealth and creating a modern day debtor’s prison with tuition hikes and questionably immoral student loan programs.
Possible Solution: Create a new system to fund education, i.e. free higher education with the expectation of a 1% tax on all income made by the student for the next 20 years. This would encourage job placement after graduation. Both student and government-sponsored education program has an incentive for acquiring a secure and lucrative career.
Dollar for dollar, univer$ities really only care about one thing: sports.
With the amount of favoritism athletic programs receive in terms of funding and academic leniency, most state-run schools are really only vetting programs for the pros. The NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, and so on should be funding our young adult athletic programs because college sports is mainly a stage for future drafts. Not to mention the immoral sponsorship of student athletes and the outrageous cost of coaches salaries.
Possible Solution: OUR CULTURE IS SO INTERTWINED WITH SPORTS, A CULTURAL SHIFT IS NEEDED TO CHANGE EVERY UNIVERSITY’S PRIORITY FROM ATHLETICS TO ACADEMICS. I urge all academic institutions to focus only on academics and remove their athletic programs. I am not saying that we should eradicate athletics for young people completely, I’m interested in redefining them. These programs will operate independently and will easily be self-sufficient with the income generated by sponsors, merchandise, and ticket sales. This will also solve the big debate about paying student athletes. Since the program will be separate from the university, it will allow for the option to pay their “student” athletes. This is only an argument for a division between athletics and academics.
I am extremely interested in reforming education into a successful model that empowers workers and strengthens our economy. This is only the beginning. For a closer look at the types of skills necessary in the workplace that higher education is leaving out of their curriculum, check out my soon to be published book, Age of Agility.
(1) Excluding most, if not all, B.S. degrees. Broadly, this would be degrees in the medical field, which already has a hands-on learning curriculum with an apprenticeship-based model and degrees in fields such as chemistry, physics, math, and biology.
(2) There are a lot of things wrong with this statement that was nonchalantly barked at me by a faceless woman behind a desktop computer. Needless to say, I didn’t have the best guidance counselor. One reason being that a graduating class of around 600 x 4 grades was spread among a handful of counselors, of whom each of us met with once a year. Nevertheless, the point here is that for most folks, a college degree = entitlement. If you go to college you get something for it. You are owed something for paying big bucks, studying hard, and passing tests. This just isn’t true. Why this isn’t true is because of a lot of reasons. For starters, no one owes you anything, ever, and this is a cultural mindset problem we (and I mean we because we are, together, a culture) need to adjust. Mindset and your network are the two most important factors in having a successful career.
(3) Robert Scott is the U.S. Representative for Virginia's 3rd congressional district, and I'm sure he only has the best intentions for education. This is merely an example of how powerful well-intentioned people can accidentally mislead people.
(4) Schools need to balance their checkbooks, too! Why else would they call me at 10 pm and ask for a $50 alumni donation? No thanks, I’ll add it to my monthly student loan payment.
(5) I understand that this isn’t all universities, some schools don’t even offer sports programs, and if they do they are club sports and are a great way to blow off some steam after an exam. In this section, I am speaking about most state-funded public universities.
BOOKS CURRENTLY NEXT TO ME ON MY DESK:
It’s that time of year again.
What time is that?
Paul Auster week!
There’s something about how he writes, the poetic language, the magical realism, the experimental style, the raw yet humanness to his characters, that makes me feel like Paul and I are old friends, perhaps, from a very long time ago. When I read his work it feels more like I am remembering than taking in new information, like I am recalling something I already know deep down, below and before language. In the land of dreams, my dreams at least, we sometimes visit on a train, but upon waking I can never remember what we talked about. Trains are important for some reason. I wake up only with an image of us looking out of a window. When I get too in my head and creative thinking turns into magical thinking, I find odd connections between us, like how my wife and his wife are from the same small town in Minnesota and Siri, Paul’s wife, knew my wife’s parents in high school. And then I realize that I’m trying to turn my life into one of his novels and that’s why there is a part of me that hopes I never meet Paul because it would completely ruin the story I have been telling myself about who he is. Paul Auster has become a character, much like the character he is in The New York Trilogy (Paul Auster, the author, is a character in City of Glass), and his actual living, breathing, in the flesh, existence is entirely predicated on myth and superstition. Much like the muses I believe in who help me with story ideas, meeting him would bring the realm of imagination into reality, something I am happy stay willfully ignorant of.
My favorite Paul Auster novel is The Book of Illusions. David Zimmeran, a university professor, loses his wife and children in a plane crash and breaks out of his depression when he starts researching the silent films of Hector Mann, an actor who has been missing since the 1920s. The research turns into a journey that takes Zimmerman across the U.S. where he uncovers mysteries about Mann and along the way, comes to terms with the plane crash that killed his family. My all-time favorite book of his is a second person narrative, a memoir of sorts, called: Winter Journal. This is the book I currently have on my desk next to me, a book I’m slowly working through because I keep on stopping to read and reread the intelligently crafted lines. It’s poetry, prose poetry. The closest book to it in terms of style and raw unprotected punches to the gut is a collection of short fiction vignettes called Life After God, by Douglas Coupland. Winter Journal is one of my favorite books and around this time every year (at least, for the last three or four years) I pull it out to reread.
On January 31, 2017, Paul Auster released his first novel in seven years (or so all the ads on Facebook and Goodreads tell me), 4 3 2 1. I pre-ordered the book and my copy should be on my front steps soon. At 880 pages, it’s a long one and I’m looking forward to sitting down with it next week when I am relaxing in the Arizona sun. (While writing this, the book was delivered! Hurray!)
In case you’re wondering, I’m still trying to find something valuable in They Shoot Horses Don't They? Something like this happens every year. Last year, I spent months slogging through Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts: I find a book that wows me in the first couple pages (or it’s a cult book that all my hip friends are raving about) and I carry it around for six months, reading a few pages here and there, and one day, I unexpectedly finish it and it hardly phases me. I end up wondering what the fuss was all about and asking if I missed something. And sometimes I don’t finish it. After months of packing it in my bag every day and lugging it around from bus to office to cafe and then back home as if it were a light-hearted daily devotion book, I set it down somewhere and never pick it up again. I think my copy of Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust is still in the satchel I was using last year in Seattle (out here in the unforgiving Midwest, I had to upgrade to something more mean and rugged and in leather to match my labor industry persona...and because I like that it matches my boots). Moving on… the day I finish They Shoot Horses Don't They? and/or a Nathanael West novella, I’ll be sure to blog about it. The bummer of it all is that I get all hopped up on a book and turn it into a big ordeal by slowly hacking away at it and reading becomes a chore instead of something fun to do. So then I put the book down and never want to pick it up again because: “oh, it’s that book, the book critics and my friends who have tattoos raved about. The book I would finish if it would only keep me interested for more than a few paragraphs.”
I admit it. I self-sabotage books, but I’m working on it. Dear book gods, forgive me.
My next update will come at you from Phoenix, AZ. I'm getting wind that Age of Agility is finally coming to a head, so I will hopefully have good news next week. Thank you all for your pre-orders, I know the wait has been long and the delays frustrating, but it will be worth it. Promise.