A growing number of individuals are promoting the idea that a college degree is not always necessary for success, especially with the state of student loan debt.
When Michael Ellsberg graduated from Brown University at 22, he found himself unable to use his international relations degree, and he realized that he didn’t know how to make a living. He had learned theoretical, academic information but had no real-world skills that could earn him money.
Ellsberg started talking to people who had learned to support themselves — entrepreneurs, freelancers and self-employed businesspeople — and found they had one thing in common:
“A surprising number of the people I was talking to didn’t have college degrees,” he said. “They said they had majored in street smarts.”
Ellsberg, the author of The Education of Millionaires: It’s Not What You Think, and It’s Not Too Late, is one of a growing number of individuals who are promoting the idea that a college degree is not always necessary for success, especially with the state of student loan debt.
The Institute for College Access and Success found that two-thirds of college seniors who graduated in 2011 had student-loan debt, with an average of $26,600 per borrower.
“No one should be going into large amounts of debt for their college education,” Ellsberg said. “Being saddled with tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt when you’re 22 puts a weight on your entire economic development in the future.”
Nikhil Goyal, a 17-year-old high school student, speaker and author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School, argues that while doctors, lawyers and engineers should go to college, those with a desire to major in the liberal arts should think twice about attending. Seminars, online communities and classes, forums and freelancing could replace it.
“I don’t believe there’s anything in a liberal arts course that you can’t find in the library or on the Internet, except for the discussion aspect,” Goyal said. “However, there are seminars and online groups, very cheap and accessible, by which you can fill that discussion facet.”
If students have the opportunity to go to Ivy League schools, however, they should still attend for the opportunities that being associated with that brand name will reap, Goyal argues.
“If you have an opportunity to go to those universities, you should,” he said. “While the likelihood that you will have real-world experiences and engage in meaningful work is slim, having that degree and that stamp of approval can make a significant difference later in life.”
No matter what, the key is self-education and real-world experience.
“What I’ve noticed when I’ve spoken with employers is that their perceptions toward prestigious degrees and just college degrees in general are really declining in the sense that they are taking people who have real-world experience, who have apprenticeships and internships under their belt, who can actually solve problems and do real work versus somebody who just has a 4.0 GPA, who went to Harvard and got a degree,” Goyal said.
Pondering the un-college-ing of America
Opportunities such as the Thiel Fellowship allow students to apply their entrepreneurial talent. The fellowship offers select individuals $100,000 to skip college and focus on their work, research and their self-education.
Dale Stephens was among the first class of Thiel Fellows in 2011. The fellowship provided him the chance to found UnCollege, a website that provides online resources for students who are considering not attending college.
“The Thiel Fellowship offers people an opportunity to explore and learn and create outside of the traditional framework,” Stephens said. “The fellowship is really open to conversation about what it means to learn outside of school and how that can be valuable.”
Stephens was unschooled for grades six through twelve and then attended Hendrix College for one semester before he left the school and started writing publicly about his frustrations with the education system.
“My main frustration was that most people were there not because they really wanted to learn or knew what they wanted to do,” he said. “It was because they didn’t know what else to do with their lives and just because that seemed like the next step.”
Goyal said the public education system has been indoctrinated with the idea that the purpose of school is to create obedient and submissive people, an idea brought to the United States with the birth of public education.
“We can’t treat children like factory workers and people who are just going to memorize and regurgitate information,” he said. “We have to shift that mindset to understanding that learning is messy, learning does not necessarily happen in an academic and formal setting.”
An earnings gap
Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, points to the earnings gap between college graduates and those without a degree and the difference in unemployment rates as evidence that the value of having a college degree is still large.
The Institute of Education Sciences found that in 2010, young adults with a bachelor’s degree earned twice as much as those with only a high school degree.
The unemployment rate in November was 8.1 percent for high school graduates with no college, while it was 3.8 percent for those with a college degree or higher, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Rosenberg said a college eduction also provides other advantages, such as the exposure to different perspectives, people from around the world and a variety of disciplines that can broaden your worldview and enrich your life.
“I would argue that democracy is founded on the notion that you have an educated citizenry and that doesn’t function properly if you don’t,” he said. “I think we benefit collectively from having people who are educated.”
People like to look to the exceptions like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs as evidence that you can succeed without a college degree, Rosenberg said, but the vast majority of students would benefit from the skills that a college education provides.
“By choosing not to go to college, you’re making a pretty big bet and the bet is that you’re not going to need it,” he said. “I think for most students at that age, that’s not a good bet.”
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