With hundreds of thousands of college grads unemployed, the skyrocketing cost of tuition, the growth of online education, and the prevalence of dropouts among the super-wealthy (Steve Jobs first among them), an anti-college movement has slowly begun to form. Michael Ellsberg’s article, “Will Dropouts Save America?”, published this weekend in the New York Times, is the latest case in point. Ellsberg, the author of The Education of Millionaires: It’s Not What You Think and It’s Not Too Late, argues that America’s educational system is not geared towards teaching young people how to be good entrepreneurs, who are the real drivers of economic growth. All that most Americans learn about sales and marketing in college, for instance, is that they are part of the capitalistic system and therefore evil.
I have been in school for almost my entire life. I graduated at 22 with degrees in history and economics and, six months later, enrolled in a masters program in American history. Three years later, I’m still there, working part time to pay the bills. And it’s obvious to me that what Ellsberg says is largely true. The only thing I’ve ever learned in school that has helped me in the non-academic world is how to use Microsoft Excel. My accounting teacher in high school, herself a former business woman, taught me this useful skill, which I put to use for my dad’s carpentry business. To this day he uses the proposal and billing templates that I created.
Even now, after twenty years in school, my most marketable skill is my steady hand with a paintbrush. I don’t know where I got this talent for painting straight lines where the ceiling meets the wall, but it certainly wasn’t in school. I have had some success with tutoring, but this business offers sporadic and unpredictable hours and requires a tremendous amount of prep time. A big painting job pays much better with a lot less hassle than does taking on a new student looking to ace the SAT next month. And even though the material you teach as a tutor is the same stuff you’ve been learning for years in school, the process of actually finding students, of maintaining relationships with customers, and of managing your time and costs are things the average student (including me) have never learned in school.
I can’t say how beneficial business classes are. I’ve never taken one, though I hear bad things. Judging by my friends’ experiences, it seems to me that you don’t need a business degree to get a job in the corporate sector and that your work history is far more important than your college grades are. Plus, you don’t need any degree to start your own business.
But few of the people I’ve met during my long career in school have ever had that ambition. Which makes sense since, even today, going to a good college is seen as the safe route to a good career. After all, the average college grad makes a million more dollars over the course of a lifetime than the average high school grad, as universities and the government that subsidizes them like to remind us. But as Ellsberg points out, this could be just because motivated people tend to go to college, not because of any of the supposed benefits of higher education.
But then, if college is so useless, what should people do after they graduate high school? Ellsberg says they should go to college, but if they decide to drop out and start a business, the government should continue sending them financial aid. James Altucher says 18 year olds should spend the money they would have spent on tuition starting a business or traveling the world. Peter Thiel, the founder of Paypal, has recently set up a fellowship program that provides $100,000 grants for a select group of entrepreneurial-minded students to put their business plans into action. Gary North thinks that young people should earn their BAs from an accredited college by taking CLEP exams while working part time.
For a special type of 18 year old with a special set of parents, these are interesting ideas (except that one about the government giving financial aid to dropouts). But most people aren’t cut out to be full time entrepreneurs, especially when they’re 18.
I know the anti-college response. College is risky too; 46% of college students never even graduate. They’re left with piles of debt and no degree. And even for those who do graduate, many end up with jobs they could have gotten without a degree. But they have the debt and 4-6 year of foregone experience.
All true. But the solution, for the 97% of kids who aren’t ready to start a business at 18, is to work smartly within the system. First of all, if you want to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, scientist, or college professor, you have to go to college. Because for these careers, you have to go to grad school, and to go to grad school, obviously, you need to go to college. But that doesn’t mean you should spare no expense in selecting a school. Go to a good state school or, if you have the grades, go to a private school where you can get generous scholarships. No one should ever go to an expensive private school if they’re not offered a good scholarship (unless they’re rich). The debt from spending 4 or 5 years without funding at say, NYU, can be financially crippling even if you find a well-paying job after graduation.
Second of all, no one should ever major in subjects like gender studies, art history, or sociology without a very specific plan on how to make use of it. (And the only specific plan I can think of for these subjects would be to become a professor, and this is in itself a very risky plan, given the glut of PhDs on the market.) I was told dozens of times in college that I should pick whatever major held my interest and not to worry about how to find a job with it. While it is true that classics majors do sometimes end up getting jobs in the corporate sector, that’s usually because they had no idea how to utilize their major, desperately needed money to begin paying off their student loan debt, and ended up falling into a job by luck. Career change for these people is difficult, especially as the years go by and their financial and familial responsibilities pile up.
It’s far better an idea to choose a field whose graduates are in demand, and to seek internships that supplement your study. While it might seem like reading novels all day as an English major is a rewarding way to spend a college career, people considering such a course should see the utter bewilderment that strikes English majors after graduation. No other group that I’ve ever observed is more unprepared for the non-academic world. The result: lousy retail jobs, dingy apartments, and crushing debt. Reading Ulysses isn’t that fun.
And finally, there’s always technical school. Students who do poorly in traditional academic subjects are not necessarily unintelligent, and teachers and parents should stop trying to force them to like and do well in things they’re not suited to. Carpenters, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and IT specialists are all integral to the economy and can make decent money. There’s no good reason for an 18-year-old ‘C’ student to spend two years in college as a history major before dropping out with nothing to show for it but student loan payments. Many of these students have the type of entrepreneurial skills that their more bookish counterparts lack, and we shouldn’t let formal schooling get in the way of that.
I do hope along with Michael Ellsberg, James Altucher, Peter Thiel, and Gary North that that unusually talented and ambitious 3% will not waste any time with college and instead get to work on becoming the next generation’s great innovators, inventors, and capitalists. But for the rest of us, the answer is not to avoid college, but to go to college smartly. Easier said than done, I know. I, myself, have not done perfectly. But I did manage to graduate in a reasonable period of time without racking up an unsustainable amount of debt. My painting abilities might still be my most valuable asset, but, in college, I did meet dozens of new people, learn many things I probably wouldn’t have been exposed to on my own, and gain experience as a writer and researcher. Would I be better off now if I had forgone college and tried to start my own business or tried to make it as a freelance writer? I actually thought about both ideas. I could have had a million dollar business selling war relics on ebay or I might already be a best-selling author. But I doubt it.