Originally posted on April 6, 2015
As a fan of presidential trivia, I remember how surprised I was to discover that nine of America’s commanders-in-chief never attended college, with Harry Truman being the last to rise to the highest office in the land with such a humble pedigree.
Another reason this fact stands out is because of the obsessive push we have about ensuring virtually everyone in the next generation earns a four-year degree. We assume acquiring this piece of paper signifies you are an adult who is fully prepared to conquer the globe. The corporate world has bought into this mindset by requiring even entry-level employees have a bachelor’s degree.
The problem is the promise of a better life does not always match the reality. Students in America have borrowed more than $1 trillion to cover the cover of such an education and the average 20-something graduate has acquired more than $30,000 in student loans, with many owing much, much more. These recently minted alums need to find a job that will allow them to meet this significant obligation in the next decade, or else. This was easier in my generation and those before me, but with the skyrocketing cost of education, such a task has become much more onerous. Many of these problems and more are examined in the CNN Films documentary Ivory Tower, which I highly recommend.
Now that we’ve identified the problem, what is the solution? Well, as I see it, there are three questions to ask before making a decision that will impact the next 15 years of your student’s life, if not longer.
Who’s offering the most “free” money? Colleges are in the business of providing students with an opportunity to learn and, like other organizations that package and sell a product, have become very adept at concealing its true costs. Sure, going to college can cost $20,000–$30,000 a year, but the university’s financial aid department is willing to present what appears to be a very appealing package covering almost all of these costs. A closer look, however, reveals much of this assistance comes in the form of loans that must be paid back. It may look like your student is getting nearly a free education, but instead they will be expected to pay back $8,000–$15,000 or more per year in loans. If your student has earned a full-ride scholarship based upon grades or extra-curricular activities, then he or she is in a very fortunate position and probably should sign acceptance papers as soon as humanly possible. Yet for the vast majority of students, going to college is nowhere near this easy.
Is a four-year college the best place to go? We have been conditioned to think a four-year institution is the best place to learn what is needed to be successful in the professional world, but helping students earn degrees that automatically will translate into a job a week after graduation has never been the primary goal of college. It is helpful to remember higher learning was originally modeled on the idea of Plato’s Academy, in which the wealthy elites would contemplate the meaning of life and the world around them. Clearly such an education is unnecessary to fix a drain, repair a car, or help someone open a bank account. While it is a larger battle to convince companies that internship programs would be much more valuable to them than the bachelor’s degrees many require, we should at least accept the obvious fact there are many, respectable professions requiring advanced training not found at your local university. These programs often are less expensive than a traditional college degree program and have a much greater likelihood of job placement after graduation.
Is a four-year college the best place to go right now? Over the years, community colleges have earned a negative reputation for the same reason Ivy Leagues universities have garnered a positive one: acceptance rates. Relatively few people can get into Columbia, Harvard or Yale, but anybody can take classes at your local community college. Because these programs are so easily accessible and affordable, it has lead people to believe teens go to community college as a last resort and most students at these schools subsequently drop out and become failures in life. They also believe the opposite is true for those attending the regional university. As someone who has taught at five colleges, four of which were four-year institutions, I can tell you this simply is not true. You have good and bad students at both places. You might have more poor-performing students at community colleges because a wider swath of the population attends these colleges, but that doesn’t mean your student will fall into the trap of failure any more than he or she would attending any other school (as a side note, graduation rates at your student’s four-year school of choice may not be as high as you might think). And their workforce training programs offer a practical education at a quite affordable cost.
The honors programs at community colleges, for example, are their best-kept secret. At the community college where I currently teach, I know the director of the honors program and we regularly discuss its merits: small class sizes, great internship opportunities and a dedicated counselor making sure students are on-track to graduate from our institution and transfer to the four-year college of their choice, all for thousands less than going there right out of high school. I tell my students to run the numbers, and then buy a pennant from their dream college and put in on their wall as a reminder that community college is a steppingstone, not a final destination, for those who have higher aspirations.
So, the most important thing to understand is whether it is best in the long run for your student to attend a technical program, a community college or a four-year university.
For, in the end, it matters not where you start, but where you end up.
I have been a public high school teacher in Southern California since 2005 and writing since junior high. I have an affinity for chocolate, photography, sarcasm and well-written TV shows that refuse to talk down to their audiences.