Higher Education Doesn’t Have to Happen on a College Campus

Higher Education Doesn’t Have to Happen on a College Campus

People wait to board an Amtrak train heading to Los Angeles, in San Diego, Calif., on April 3, 2018. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Lance Christensen

Lance Christensen

6/7/2024

Updated: 6/9/2024

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Commentary
With my children slowly matriculating through K-12 schools, my wife and I have wrestled with the wisdom of sending them to college. We’re both college graduates, but we are concerned by the inflated costs, diminished value of degrees, and institutions surrendering to radical ideologies. Many jobs no longer require a four-year degree, and online education provides various high-caliber educational portals at a low cost, meaning anyone could easily create a custom portfolio on just about any subject without incurring a six-figure debt.
So we asked ourselves: Should a college degree be the primary goal for our children, or would we be the generation that didn’t actively urge our kids to go to college?
There are myriad ways future generations can be academically adroit and engaged citizens, beneficial to their local economies without an expensive credential. Experience and consequence are incredible educators.
A new friend, Hannah Maruyama, argues on her Degree Free platform that funneling high schoolers into the academic-industrial complex isn’t always the best option for parents and their children facing the decision of whether or not to go to college. She recently outlined a few perspectives that seem to be hardwired in our collective American psyche from which we struggle to escape.
Currently, outstanding student loan debt sits around $1.7 trillion. Forty-five percent of college graduates are underemployed, and students from a quarter of higher education programs are making—on average—less than $32,000 a decade after graduation. The average cost of a bachelor’s degree is estimated at $509,434 in tuition, interest, and lost wages as of 2023. These numbers vary state-to-state, but are, nevertheless, sobering.
The idea that college creates well-read critical thinkers and offers exposure to different cultures is, well, laudable. However, data show the median college graduate only reads seven books a year. And cross-racial/class interactions are less frequent on diverse college campuses than expected.
American high schools have become college pipelines where degrees are bought at a great price. Students become both commodities to a financial cabal negotiating their financial aid packages far above their heads and slaves to a debt burden they don’t really comprehend as they borrow more to stay afloat in an inflated economy.
As wonderful as they are, high school administrators and guidance counselors have limited vocational creativity and love the prestige college acceptance letters bring, thus limiting the menu of alternatives for students. They have an incentive to exclusively encourage the bachelor’s degree track, so trade school, homemaking, or freelancing careers are largely ignored.
Girls are particularly affected by these pressures. They are often directed towards so-called “pink collar” fields like teaching, social work, or psychology which often require multiple degrees and specialized credentials. Women often put off family creation in search of credentials and validation only to be rewarded with relatively low salaries and large student debt obligations despite their ambitious curriculum vitae.
I have one daughter who wants to be a teacher and another one who wants to be a gymnastics coach. I’ve told them that they can do whatever they want in life, just not all at once. They’ll need to make sequential, character-building decisions guided by their core principles. I’ve counseled them to ignore the cacophony coming from the “girl boss,” aspire-higher camps who want it all, now. I believe my daughters can better accept the consequences of life if they aren’t pressured to aimlessly follow the crowd to college but find vocations that complement their lifestyle choices, including marriage and motherhood.
Some of the most satisfying work I did in my younger years was as an electrician’s apprentice. There are fewer things more satisfying than powering up a newly built home and seeing the blueprints become someone’s home. While professional tradesmen may study hard for a certification, the hands-on training is where the lessons are learned and rewarded.
There is a growing trend of private companies and government agencies dropping college degree requirements. The internet-based economy and independent contractors are ambivalent about college degrees. Employers are focusing on skills and experience rather than expensive degrees that may or may not be relevant even as innovation and artificial intelligence march forward at break-neck speed.
None of this is meant to denigrate those who have or would get college degrees. I believe it’s necessary to have highly trained doctors, and university campuses can be important labs for scientific study, scholarly collaboration, and specialized learning. But we should seriously reconsider our college-above-all position as a society. Are we pushing our kids to mortgage their futures based upon our nostalgia of yesteryear? Will the ever-growing list of marginal college degrees really benefit future generations? Does anyone need to walk across the stage after four years to be deemed a success?
Let’s encourage our young people to pursue an education and their avocation, and if they feel like they need a college degree, for that to be a secondary consideration.
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Lance Christensen

Lance Christensen

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Lance Christensen is the vice president of education policy and government affairs at the California Policy Center and former candidate for state superintendent of public instruction.

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