The Need for a College Education

I notice that education has come under attack again.  For examples, a Washington Post article challenges the value of a college education, and the Town Hall website suggests that many people should start a business rather than go to collegeIt’s become a trendy thing, challenging the value of a college education.  It’s also a very risky thing, and many of the challenges are intellectually dishonest.

 

According to the Small Business Administration, about half of all new businesses fail within 5 years.  But the University of Buffalo released a study showing the failure rate to be much higher rate, at 80% failure within five years.  It’s difficult to track precisely, but the general message should be clear that simply starting a business does not mean it will survive, let alone become successful.   And it’s not hard to figure that while some business owners are unfortunate, failure to study, plan and work hard will contribute to failure.  In other words, if someone is a poor student, they would probably be a poor business owner as well.  The people attacking schools for failures miss the fact that intelligence, diligence and inspiration are uncommon traits, and it’s not the schools’ fault if someone does not do their work.  They get worked up about the cost, but really , from a historic perspective it has always been expensive and difficult to get a really good education, and if someone really does their homework, so to speak, they can get their credentials for a lot less than some other people.  But the main reason the challenges fail, is because the challengers do not understand the basic purpose and function of collegiate education in the first place.

 

My dad grew up in the Depression.  His first job was a factory shift when he was 8 years old.  The child labor laws were not of much concern to folks in those days, nor were safety or compensation standards.  He came to believe that the key to getting a better life was to get a solid education, so he earned a Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering and a Masters in Mathematics.  He also took some business courses at Wharton.  My father made it clear to all of his children, that he expected us to do as well as possible in school.  My mom earned a Bachelor’s in Sociology, and four degrees were earned by the four children, in six majors.  My brother did not earn a degree, my sister and I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Literature and I later earned my MBA, and my other sister triple-majored in Chemistry, Physics, and Business for her Bachelor’s.  Between my parents and us kids, we earned seven degrees plus certifications in nine majors at seven different universities.  I believe I can claim we represent broad experience in education. 

 

Besides the practical value my dad felt that advanced education represents, my father also felt that education was mental exercise, a vital need to seek intellectual growth just the same as we should use nutrition and physical exercise to develop our bodies, and join religious and ethical organizations to grow as moral individuals.  Long before continuing education became commonplace, my dad believed and taught that a person should never consider their education complete or finished.   I mention this because my values largely follow the same line of opinion.  I also think that these additional points need to be included in the discussion.

 

Let’s start, then, but addressing the biggest real problem in the college decision – most young students are not able to make a good decision about college on their own.  We live in a world where people get into routines and tend to do what they believe is expected from them.  So a lot of kids know by the end of high school whether they are going to college, not because they have thought out the decision with the care it should be given, but because they know what is expected.  The decision will only be about cost, opportunity, difficulty, or value to a very small degree; it will generally be about what the person’s family and friends say and do about the matter.  As a result, if you are friends or family with someone going into their last couple years of high school, or if they talk about deciding on going to college, speak up and let them know what you think. 

 

The next thing to consider is the career path you want to follow.  The people criticizing college seem to imagine that only college students have hard choices.  But for good or ill, life in general is hard and a lot of young people have no real idea what they are getting into when they choose their lifestyle.  Media is not helpful; the celebrities and glamorous people we see in movies and television, look, they are just not normal folks.  In fact, even the stars and athletes often warn folks that the image does not match even their own reality.  Most new businesses fail, as I said earlier, so the idea that kids coming out of high school should plan on being the next instant millionaire is pretty close to being complete fiction.  And working for a living straight out of high school with no special training or advance education, is a ticket straight to hard times and a poor future.  When you get right down to it, what everyone needs to do is reach a place where they understand the three circles of their career horizon; what you are able to do, what you want to do, and what someone is willing to pay you to do.   That’s it, simple but hard to work out.  And answering those questions takes the ability called critical thinking, which is not often taught anywhere these days.  I’m not saying you get perfect results from talking things out with your family and friends, or from trying to figure out what you want to be in 20 years, but you’ll definitely get a better sense of which path is better for your situation right now.

 

The decision about education also can be seen as a window of opportunity.  Back when I graduated high school, there was really only one way to go to a decent school; full-time at a school and on-campus, living in the dorm and basically immersing yourself totally in the school’s culture.  And in those days, almost everyone at college started right after high school; the older students were generally military veterans or professionals seeking advanced degrees and certification.  Alternatives to traditional colleges existed, but these were generally night schools and were commonly regarded as inferior educational opportunities.  Today, the demographic is much broader as is the window of opportunity.  In addition to full and part-time campuses, there are online courses, commuter campuses, and a number of flexible options.  Accreditation insures the quality of education provided, and the smart individual can check out a school on virtually any desired criteria prior to submitting an application.  Cost, regimen, focus and degree criteria can all be determined and compared, and should be weighed in balance to the student’s need.  The days of one-size-fits-all are long gone, and it is well that they should be.

 

The critics of modern education blame the schools, which is sometimes deserved, and a culture which demands a degree for most professional positions, or to advance in a company.  What these critics fail to consider, is that the student has the right and responsibility to choose their path, that there is good historical reason for believing that higher education produces, generally, superior employees, and the critics completely fail to grasp that non-collegiate careers are generally limited, low-paying, and, well, dismal.  This is another reason why anyone deciding about college should talk carefully with their family and friends – the consequences of the decision are literally life-changing, and you should not make a decision that important on the advice of strangers.

 

A college degree does not guarantee a person is competent, nor intelligent, nor really much of anything.  But if you’re considering hiring them for your company, your part includes interviewing them and asking the right questions.  There’s no use blaming the educational system if you get lousy people because you make a choice on appearances and don’t find out about the person you’re bringing aboard.  Same thing if you’re considering education for any other reason; you need to find from the individual what he or she really understands and about their character and personality.  Come to that, if you choose to enroll at a college, and the courses you take do not challenge you, force you to grow, then it’s your responsibility to do something about it.  College-level students are presumed to be adults, and adults are responsible for their decisions and choices.  Choosing the right school, the right regimen, and working hard to produce your best possible results can change your life for the better, but simply going to college is not enough.  Conversely, while a college graduate is not guaranteed to be smarter or harder working than someone who did not go to college, a degree proves that the individual had enough initiative, intelligence, and follow-through to accomplish the degree, while not going to college proves nothing of the sort.  Many companies require management candidates to have college degrees, because the degree demonstrates at least a minimal level of discipline and accomplishment; at the very least, a college graduate can be trained for somewhat detailed work and to gain additional skills.  A college graduate has demonstrated at least a willingness to grow and expand his or her horizons. 

 

The critics also have a habit of sneering at degrees they consider non-academic, especially business degrees.  Of course, by that myopic mindset one should reject medical school for ignoring literature, law school for ignoring biology, and even the liberal arts for focusing on just one area within the academic realm.  Never mind that most people go to college in hopes of acquiring a marketable skill, and many businesses sponsor executives to return to school for specific training relevant to their work.  Anyone who sneers at a student with a 3.5+ GPA proves their self an idiot unworthy of further consideration.  Work is work, and accomplishment which sets a student apart from his or her peers deserves praise and recognition.  Some folks simply don’t understand case studies don’t work the same way as rote memorization, but still count for developing relevant competency, that skills-based coursework in quantitative analysis is as valid as traditional math, and serves a more direct application, and that simulations and models in business theory are as valid as in the ‘hard’ sciences.  Perhaps more so, because modern scientists seldom seem willing to test their assumptions and double-check whether their models produced valid results.  At least business students understand the Deming Cycle.    

 

In the end, we each make our own choices regarding career and education, and it’s no one else’s fault if we make bad choices.  We have all the tools we need to succeed, and while success is not guaranteed, opportunity is abundant and a college degree is, in general, still the best road to intellectual competency and financial success.         

 

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