What if College Isn’t Necessary?

A few weeks ago, one of my readers shared a really interesting book with me. Written by Blake Boles, Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree argues that, rather than assuming that a college degree is necessary, we should consider that some students would be better off pursuing their own paths to success. I was raised with the certain knowledge that I would be attending college upon high school graduation; I raised my own children with that same expectation. This book certainly caused me to question that conventional wisdom, though.

First, there is the matter of rising college costs and student debt. The average cost of tuition, room and board at a four-year college in the United States for the 2012-2013 academic year was $23,872 per year. Even if those fees stayed the same for four years (they tend to rise 2 – 3% each year), that would still mean that a college degree would cost about $100,000. Seven out of ten of last year’s college graduates started their careers with $28,400 in debt. Is it worth the investment? Boles points out several scenarios in which the value proposition might not be in the student’s favor. For example, for students who are unsure what field they’d like to enter, or for those majoring in liberal arts subjects, waiting for at least a year before following the traditional college route may be beneficial.

Instead, Blake Boles outlines an alternative way to spend that $20,000 for one year of self-discovery. Many people assume that college is a horizon-broadening and skill-building experience that helps individuals to grow both personally and professionally. Boles posits that, by traveling the country and the world, reading widely, watching TED talks and online lectures and courses, meeting with mentors and/or life coaches, and interning or volunteering within the community, a student can accomplish the same things – perhaps even more meaningfully. Mind you, he is not suggesting that high school graduates sit at home and play video games or watch television all day; in fact, he has a pretty ambitious plan laid out for them. Visit the site he hosts, Zero Tuition College, an online community of self-directed learners who are challenging themselves and charting their own paths to success. The 627 members are smart, articulate teens and adults who are taking responsibility for their own learning – and their own lives.

This is what I find most compelling about Boles’ argument. Like many people, I went to college with no real direction. I loved my liberal arts education, and I learned to read critically, write well, and follow my passions. Two years after graduation, I returned to school for a Masters degree (in a completely different field than the ones I’d majored in). I was luckier than most because my parents were able to fund my undergraduate education, and I’ve never felt that it was a waste of time or money. But if I’d had to pay the tuition myself, or if I’d had to take loans, I might not have been so lackadaisical about the courses I took or about the fact that I never worked in a field related to my undergrad degree.

Boles also makes the point that the world has changed dramatically in the past few years. Jobs that were once critical can now be delivered through the internet; more and more positions are being outsourced. According to author Daniel Pink, careers that used to be secure, such as accounting, engineering, even law, can now be filled more economically overseas. Thus, the best job to have today is one that is creative, innovative, and requires a physical presence. That is why Boles asserts that entrepreneurial skills may be the most critical skills for young people to acquire. And college, where a student is compelled to take certain courses, often with little true guidance or options for personalization, may not be the best place to acquire those skills.

Regardless of whether you agree with Blake Boles, this book is a worthwhile read - especially if you are considering college for yourself or your child. And the concept of self-directed learning, particularly with the rise of Khan Academy, TED talks, and numerous MOOC’s from places like Harvard, Stanford and MIT, deserves our time and consideration, as well. SATs used to be required for entrance into college; today, many colleges are making them optional, as we learn that high test scores aren’t correlated with college achievement. Perhaps college will prove to be optional, as well, as more people find that they can achieve success without it. What if our elementary and secondary schools focused on helping students to become lifelong learners who were empowered to set and achieve goals for themselves? I think that would be a skill likely to guarantee their future success – no matter what fields they ultimately choose.

This post was originally published on GoLocalProv.

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