Is College a Rip Off?

This issue weighs heavily on my mind right now. Why? Because Dude graduates from high school this year and our natural inclination is to send him off to college.

But should he go? Is it really a good idea?

Let’s back up a bit …

We started digesting this whole college, to go or not to go, issue about five years ago when one of our nephews decided to skip college and go right into the work force. He had the motivation and discipline to teach himself everything there is to know about Flash while in high school. He made entire websites in Flash just to practice his knowledge and he wowed the right people. His work was recognized, and appreciated, and an up-and-coming computer agency offered him a job, which he wisely took, shortly after he graduated. (This up-and-coming agency has since been recognized by Apple and is currently bringing in high-dollar clients. I’d say the kid did pretty well for himself).

Though the situation was pretty unusual and there was really no other option than to take the job, we wondered if skipping college was really the way to go. I mean, work experience is pretty important, I won’t dispute that, in fact, I think too many people nowadays don’t put enough emphasis on work experience, but let’s say, at some point down the road, our nephew is ready to move up, to be promoted and it’s between him and another dude, equally talented, equally hard working, but who has a college degree.

I think the dude with the college degree may win out. Would it be fair? No. But it would be realistic.

I don’t know what it is about that hard-earned piece of paper, but sometimes just having it can open doors, or offer more opportunities, for an individual. Speaking as someone who used to hire people, I looked at work experience, but I looked more closely at those individuals with both work experience AND a college degree. Because even though it’s important for people to have work experience, to know what it takes to work in, and around, the public, I also think it’s important to have the college experience.

And not just for the education aspect, but for the thinking aspect. Though I learned a lot from my own college experience, I think one of the biggest lessons I took away from college was how to relate to people. College taught me so much about the world in general. It taught me to think outside the box, to appreciate, and respond, to opposing views as well as how to persuade (or manipulate, if you want to be honest) people.

To me, those are valuable, invaluable really, tools when dealing with people, especially people in the working world.

Going to college also helps mold and shape your expectations, ideals and maturity level. You’d be hard pressed to find a college graduate not admit he/she is a different person than when he/she began the college experience.

So we wondered, and we still wonder, if not going to college will affect our nephew long term. Only time will tell, I suppose.

The next big thing that got me thinking about college pros and cons, was a report by John Stossel on 20/20. I found the video on YouTube, take a gander:

Did you catch what Suzie Orman says about college?

“I have to tell ya, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

Orman says, college is a good idea, if you have the grades (i.e. smarts) to back it up to become a doctor, or a lawyer, but others should reassess the value of a generic bachelor’s degree.

So what’s the alternative for the “average” kid?

A vocational school?

“More people need to realize that you don’t need a four-year degree to be successful.”

I absolutely agree.

And this knowledge is something we plan on sharing with Dude. The “what to do with your life” talk is coming up – fast. And when Kevin and I sit down with Dude, we want to give him all the facts, the pros and cons of going to college or not, and try and steer him in the direction he wants to go. The problem is, he probably won’t know.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life at 18, did you? In fact, going to college was the LAST thing on my mind when I was 18. Heck, I was thrilled that I even graduated from high school, the LAST thing I wanted to do was go back and do more schooling.

And though as Dude’s parent, I would like to see him go on to college, either a university or a trade school, is he emotionally ready to take it seriously?

How many parents push their kids off to college, wipe their hands and think their job is over? How many kids do you think are mature enough to handle college? To take it seriously? The LAST thing I want for Dude is to send him off to college and he just blows it off, thereby wasting all the money he paid for his classes.

And if we send Dude to school, are we paying for it?

Kevin and I have had loooooong conversations about this very topic, and quite frankly, nothing has really been decided on that yet, though we’re leaning toward possibly paying for his first year (to whatever school he decides to attend) and then making him pay for the rest. And we plan on helping him budget and figure out a way he can do that WITHOUT taking out student loans.

Student loans will eventually strangle you, if you’re not careful. We plan on suggesting that Dude work AND go to school at the same time, perhaps paying for his classes as he goes along. Yes, it will take him longer to get through school, but he’ll appreciate his education more if he pays for his own schooling AND he won’t graduate with a ton of debt starting out. If that means he needs to live with us to save himself on rent, utilities and food (though we fully expect him to contribute some money toward living expenses), then so be it. We would love to have him around, and it would help the kid manage his finances in a smart and economical way.

That’s our current plan, at any rate. But it could all fall apart, or change, if he happens to land a job with a promising career with a good company. Who knows.

This whole go to a university, go to a trade school, or don’t go to school at all is weighing heavily on my mind. We don’t want to give the kid bad advice, but on the other hand, we hope he’ll have the presence of mind to weigh what he would LIKE to do against can he make any money DOING it. Going to school to say, major in writing, SOUNDS good (*ahem*), but exactly what type of job can you land DOING it?

*Side Note: I never really had any expectations of landing a job actually using the degree I graduated with [technical writing] because Springfield simply doesn’t cater to that industry – I’d have had to move to either coast to get a job in that field. However, having that writing degree will serve as a springboard to something that requires good writing skills, like this paralegal path I’m pursuing, and give me an edge against my competitors. Which is another pro for going to college, an edge.

I think the most important lessons we can teach Dude as far as his future is:

1. Keep your options open. Be willing to change your plans if something more lucrative comes along.

But with that said …

2. Set goals. Though we want to teach him to keep his options open, he’ll need to eventually (and that’s sooner rather than later), decide on a path. If he drags his feet and doesn’t decide on anything, years will go by and nothing will be accomplished. He’ll be at a stand still and possibly living with us when he’s 30.

Um, no.

3. Be willing to work as an intern, an assistant or even do some volunteer work in the field he’s interested in. Most times, just getting a foot in the door is all it takes to be accepted and offered a paying job.

Volunteering to re-design and maintain our sons’ school websites is what led to my current (paying) position as webmaster for ten local schools. This NEVER would have happened if I hadn’t volunteered for the job to begin with.

4. Be flexible. Just because your degree has a “title” doesn’t mean you have to get a job with that title. Look for ways you can use that knowledge in different fields. (Like me planing on using my writing degree as an added bonus to landing a paralegal job – paralegals are required to be pretty good writers as well as proficient in research and analytical skills).

The bottom line? College is not necessarily the answer to a successful life. Sure. It can be a starting point, and it might prove useful down the road (like if you’re competing for a promotion against someone who doesn’t have a degree, or a springboard to a field that’s related to your degree), but it’s not necessarily the ONLY option.

Michelle, over at Scribbit, has written an interesting, and informative, series on Preparing Our Kids for Life. I recommend giving it a read, she makes some excellent points.

I know Dude is both excited and scared about starting a new life after high school, we’re just as scared and excited for him, but the kid is smart, and he has options – that’s a strong start.

Our job is to help guide him on whatever path he decides to pursue.