Monday, April 1, 2013

The last myth


The Final Myth: “You need a college degree to succeed in life.”


“I had stuff to do.”


--Excuse given by a bright student for why he missed a test. I learned later he had a court hearing. He did graduate eventually, and is now a successful purveyor of recreational chemicals. I don’t imagine his coursework is all that relevant to his occupation.


     “You need a college degree to succeed in life” is the core myth, the one most responsible for so many people ultimately destroying themselves by going to college. Children are told in certain terms that they need a college degree, and this imposed need is why so many sacrifice so much for a degree. They need it, you see. Without a degree they are doomed to failure, or so they’ve been led to believe.

     I don’t imagine my generation is particularly special in this regard, and I’ve certainly encountered many students who firmly believe that to fail at college is to fail at life.  I remember one day when I was a child, and my father, not a jovial man, was visibly happy. I asked him why, and he said it was because he was now certain that he would have the money to send me to college: his son would have a chance of success. I was perhaps 12 years old, and he was happy to have achieved that goal for me. That’s what going to college meant to people of a generation or more ago. The entire purpose of pre-college education is to learn enough to get into and succeed at college, to succeed at life, or so we’ve all been told repeatedly. A look around at the real world shows how this cannot be true.

     Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are household names. Bill Ellison of Oracle is worth over $30 billion. Karl Rove’s political career will be in history books for generations. These extraordinarily successful people never completed college. Dave Thomas (founder of Wendy’s restaurants) never even went to college. From a business or political point of view, it’s very clear lack of a college degree or even entire lack of college education is not an impenetrable barrier to success. Alternatively, there are tens of thousands of MBAs, people with at least two degrees, who have not achieved any comparable success in their business or political ventures.

    Those success stories are of people that worked for themselves, self-made men at the very least. On the other hand, a student intending to work his whole life for someone else might still be well served by learning particular skills, very expensively, at a college, so that someone will hire him. While being someone else’s employee does grant a level of security, the risks there are much higher than you’ve been told—just ask employees of Enron (or most any Detroit auto-worker) how safe it is devote your lives and livelihood to a boss at the top who cares nothing for you. If the myth were “Get a college degree to go work for someone else and hope you don’t get your pension ripped off at the end,” I imagine a college degree wouldn’t be held in quite the same esteem, even though it’s every bit as accurate as the current myth.

     Perhaps my examples are all geniuses, congenital masters at what they do. Do you need to be a genius to work for yourself? Not at all, not even close. My karate instructor, at 71 years old, can casually beat me in a fight even though I’m much larger and faster than he is. He has worked for others, but he’s also been his own boss often. He’s had a barber shop, gym, rental properties, and, of course, dojo…done it all. He can barely write outside what is necessary to fill out government forms. Despte that, by any measure, this is a successful man. And yet, he too, succumbed to the siren song of a college degree, spending nearly 20 years of his life struggling to get one despite the fact that he has no real talent for academics and it never did him any good. I feel grief when I consider all the time and money extracted from this man in pursuit of a worthless degree in Criminology. At least he started before the “easy loan” craze that has harmed so many of the more recent students.

     My mother also has no college degree, and yet managed to run a very successful antique mall, sell real estate, and raise a family with my father (whose college degree helped him only marginally, as he quit working for others, retiring before he was 40 to run his own business). My mother never took a single college course. She also never did require an accountant at her antique business, which had millions in sales and many thousands of customers (my college, incidentally, even when it had less than a thousand students, still required multiple accounting professionals, many with advanced degrees, just to get by).

    The average person doesn’t need college to succeed. Yes, it can help, but the vast majority of degree fields will not financially help in the slightest, and a person absolutely doesn’t need to start adult life four years older and much deeper in (inescapable) debt than he would be without college. Only a sucker could be talked into disadvantaging himself so, a sucker raised from childhood being told he needs it.


“It’s not that I’m the oldest student that bugs me. It’s that all the professors are younger than me, too.”

--comment from a non-traditional student, nonetheless receiving financial aid. If all goes perfectly well, she’ll get her teaching certificate just as she hits 65. For the vast majority of students, all does NOT go perfectly well.


     Institutions now aggressively pursue “non-traditional” students. This is not an officially defined term, but usually applies to students over the age of 24. Certainly, 24 is young enough to re-tool for a new career, but I find it troubling how often I see students 50 years and older in my remedial courses,  “FA” (“Financial Aid”) marked by their name, showing that they’re being loaned money to learn material they haven’t seen since they were in the 8th grade, thirty or more years ago.

     I see no reason to restrict older people from learning whatever they want but…if they’re truly seeking a degree for a financial purpose, why hasn’t someone done the math for them? It’ll take at least five years for them to complete the degree (assuming the very unlikely event that they pass every course on the first try), and they’ll only have a few more years after that to get any use out of the degree in the workforce. Going into debt just makes no financial sense, particularly when these older students, the few that have actually thought about picking an actual field of study, say they’re going for degrees in fields (for example, psychology) that have few job prospects, much less prospects where paying back the money is even slightly possible. Many of them quit their jobs or reduce their income for the privilege of going into debt—so now the lost wages should also factor into the cost of education at this age. It’s painful to watch these nontraditional students bury themselves in years of debt and college, because they were told as children that “good jobs” only went to those with degrees, so they believe they need the degree to be a success in life, and are willing to sacrifice everything to satisfy that need.

     Even more frightening for these older students is the little known detail that the Federal government can recover its loan money through social security payments. There were a mere 54 cases of social security being withheld due to student loans in 2000, but that’s shot up quite a bit in the last decade. In the first eight months of 2012, there were 115,000 retirees that saw their benefits reduced due to student loans8 People aren’t just mortgaging their homes to pay for a college education, they’re risking their retirement as well. While most of these people are at least paying for their own student loans, some of them are having social security payments reduced because of loans they took out for their grandchildren’s education.

     It’s difficult to comprehend the raw power of the myth of “You need a college degree to succeed” to overcome what should be obvious. Grandparents are destroying themselves to give a college education so their grandchildren can “succeed in life,” even as the grandparents in many cases have already demonstrated you don’t need a college degree to succeed in life. Even social security isn’t safe from the destruction of student loan debt. As the younger generation holds more student debt than ever in the history of the world, this probably will only get worse as the years go by.

      Anyone past the age of 50 and employable in any capacity, should think long and hard about going back to school and taking on debt for it, as it is seldom a wise career move. They should also be made aware of the risks they take when they support student loans for their children and grandchildren. Loan money changes college from a life fulfillment issue to a financial issue. Institutions won’t, of course, warn older people against the trap they’re entering, instead encouraging them to “just click the box saying you’re a degree seeking student.”

     Should people get a college education for personal growth? Sure, if that’s what they want. But putting loan money on the table makes education a different matter entirely.

     The pervasiveness of these myths in American culture created a whole population believing that college is ultimately desirable for everyone. These myths might have been true at some point, but college administration introduced policy after policy, snuffing each myth out while creating ever more suckers for the system.

      Of course, many people pulled into the system really aren't ready for college. For them, there's "remediation", which merits a look next.

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