by Mike Rose
For New Pittsburgh Courier
(CNN)—College changed my life, so when I think about the question of who should go to college, I can’t help but consider it through my own experience. And what I’ve learned from teaching over the past 40 years leads me to think that my experience is not all that unusual.
I was an average student through elementary school, good at reading (which saved me), horrible at math and flat-out hopeless at tasks such as diagramming sentences. I drifted through high school, never in big trouble, but not going anywhere either. Then in my senior year, a young, charismatic English teacher gave us a crash course in Western literature, Homer through Emily Dickinson with a few modern writers thrown in. And we wrote and wrote, and he read every word – and he hooked me.
My overall academic record was dreary, but that teacher got me into a local small college on probation, where I stumbled my first year, luckily encountered some new mentors and eventually found my way.
According to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, people with a college degree, on average, will earn significantly more over a lifetime than people without a degree. And the benefit increases with education beyond the baccalaureate. This relation of higher education and economic advancement has been part of our cultural wisdom for generations and has contributed mightily to the nation’s increase in college attendance. But this wisdom is being challenged as tuition skyrockets, as certain white-collar occupations have become prey to computerization and outsourcing, and as the Great Recession has made so many kinds of employment vulnerable. We all know the stories of young people who are saddled with college debt and are working part time at jobs that do not require a college degree.
There are good jobs available in midlevel technical fields, in the trades and in certain services that do require training but not a four-year or even a two-year degree. The work of electricians, chefs and medical technicians cannot be outsourced. Why direct all our youth into a degree path that they might not complete (about 50%-60% of those who begin college graduate), that keeps them out of the labor market and that saddles them with debt?
Still, granted the above, the college degree on average and over time yields labor market benefits. And certain majors—for example, in technical fields, financial services, health sciences—have a strong pathway to employment. So just using an economic calculus alone, it seems that college is advisable, realizing that other good career options are open that do not require a bachelor’s degree. Researching those options would be the first order of business for students and parents looking for viable alternatives to college.
A limitation of a strictly economic focus on the college question is that it doesn’t take into account the simple but profound fact of human variability. Some young people are just not drawn to the kinds of activities that make up the typical academic course of study, no matter how well-executed. In a community college fashion program I’ve been studying, I see students with average to poor high school records deeply involved in their work, learning techniques and design principles, solving problems, building a knowledge base. Yet they resist, often with strong emotion, anything smacking of the traditional classroom, including the very structure of the classroom itself. So making the decision about college will have to blend both economics and personal interest. What does a young person want to do with his or her life?
That last sentence takes us to another aspect of the college question. While some young people are pretty clear about what they want to do with their lives, many are not. So they go to a two- or four-year college in search of a career. And some succeed. I’ve talked to so many students over the years who find their calling through a course taken to fulfill a general-education requirement: astronomy to theater. And others have their eyes opened by a job they get on campus. A young man I know in a welding program was employed in his community college’s tutoring center, and it transformed him. He’s planning to transfer to a four-year school to become a teacher. His is not an unusual story.
Discussing interests and meaningful work takes us to another big question: What is the purpose of education? It’s understandable, given our time, that the focus of discussion is on economics and employment. But historically, we’ve also demanded of our schools and colleges the fostering of intellectual, social, ethical and civic development. I come from a poor family, and college made my economic mobility possible, but I also learned how to read and write more carefully and critically, how to research new topics systematically and how to think cooperatively with other people. And whole new worlds of history, philosophy and psychology were opened up to me. What is interesting is that many people entering straightforward occupational programs—seemingly with quite different motives than those informing my liberal arts degree—also express a wide range of goals: They want to improve their reading, writing and math; they want to be able to help their kids in school better; they want to learn new skills and bodies of knowledge. Some of them talk about changing their lives.
A traditional two- or four-year college degree might not be right for everyone. But I do believe in the individual and social benefit of all people having the opportunity to experience what college— broadly defined—can provide: the chance to focus on learning, to spread one’s intellectual wings and test one’s limits. We certainly can learn new things in the workplace, but both the bucolic college on a hill and the urban occupational program operate without the production pressure of a job and with systematic feedback on performance—which increases the possibility of discovering new areas of talent and interest.
And that’s what education, at its best, is all about.
(The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Rose.)