Education Opinion


By Nancy Flanagan — April 28, 2014 3 min read
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What does it mean to be “ready” for college?

What is the package of skills and core knowledge that makes your average 18-year old equipped to handle higher education? How many of those are talents, abilities and information that teenagers typically acquire--via practice and application--in their high school classes? Does maturity play a part in making someone ready for college?

Recently there’s been a spate of articles on how unsuspecting students are wasting their money by a) going to the wrong college and b) pursuing the wrong major. Why are these colleges and disciplines “wrong?” Because the return on investment, based on reported annual income of graduates of these programs, is less (sometimes a lot less) than the earnings of graduates of other, presumably better, institutions and fields of study.

Debunking these so-called studies is akin to plugging a King salmon in a tiny barrel. Cedar Reiner has done so, deftly and comprehensively, here and here. Besides, anyone who ever pursued a degree in, say, theology or philosophy, out of a deep-seated desire to experience rich, personally meaningful learning could easily explain why ROI isn’t always (or even usually) measured in annual salary.

There are plenty of important, life-changing career directions-- teaching --where the big bucks are neither expected nor an issue, over the long term. And thank goodness for that. Thank goodness for all those in social-helper careers who got post-secondary degrees or vocational training, then took up the important work of making life comfortable, safe and rewarding for others, rather than playing the odds of college/career monetary roulette.

These days, there seem to be multiple points of editorial and political hard sell around securing admission to the “best” possible college and emerging, educated, to lead your prosperous life in a global economy. The trajectory looks like this:

#1) Being college-ready

#2) Being successful in college (completing a degree program, admission to the next level)

#3) Using those degrees to leverage more money and prestige

And, of course, we’re crafting policy to support this trifecta, under the assumption that everyone wants or needs a college degree, because it’s the ticket to a better life. This is how we end up with professional degree-holders who have six-figure liabilities and no professional job prospects. This is how we end up with our next sub-prime loan crisis, student debt.

What do we expect to get out of a college degree? It’s very rare to hear policymakers or thought leaders talk about depth of disciplinary knowledge, exposure to diverse viewpoints and the art of argument, guidance in learning to create or solve problems--or lead. Instead, we get lifetime salary estimates as payoff for slogging our way to a credential. Nobody talks about personal satisfaction or the benefits of an educated populace.

College ready? It’s not about test scores. It’s about having the self-awareness to choose IHEs and fields of study wisely, in an era when people are likely to have more than a dozen grown-up jobs. It’s about having a clear purpose for attending college. If the primary purpose is cashing in, OK. But there are other reasons to get a rich and varied education.

I have always been intrigued by the European practice of a gap year between secondary school and the university. There are programs like this in the United States, but a quick Google of “gap year” yields a plethora of pre-packaged “opportunities” for students who have the financial backstop of a place to live, a stipend for travel and someone to support them while they, umm, find their passion.

What I’m thinking looks more like this: Get a Joe job. Move out and live independently, or with roommates. Pay your own utility bills. Sponge off your parents for home-cooked leftovers and access to the washing machine. Travel to places you’ve never been. Think about how you’d like to live, as an adult. Dream. Read. Make mistakes.

I’m not sure many young people are ready to take full advantage of four years of intense academic study, no matter what their ACT/SAT scores say.

It’s a cliche’ to say that college is wasted on the young. But what would happen if we weren’t pushing high school grads to compete for slots in top-tier colleges and high-ticket degree programs? What if we valued a college education for its own sweet self, rather than as the most efficient training to enter the rat race?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.