Is College Necessary?

I didn’t get into college on my first try. I came from a good high school, made National Honor Society, and was class president. I also had pretty unimpressive grades, and got suspended from school my senior year. I was a mixed candidate, to be sure. Too self-assured to listen to anyone, bored senseless by class, and more than a little lazy, it’s probably a good thing that I wasn’t cool enough to drink or do drugs. But I was certainly cocky; I applied early to MIT and assumed that I’d get in. More accurately, it didn’t even occur to me that I wouldn’t get in. So, once I got deferred into the regular admissions pool, my sense of my own brilliance got tweaked a bit. It didn’t help that it was December 12th and I hadn’t applied to any other colleges. Quickly, I hammered off some applications to schools I was sure I could get into: Stanford, Caltech, Harvard—no sweat. It brings me great pain to remember that I’m only four years older today than I was then. Of course, I was resoundingly rejected from all of those schools, and from MIT as well. My prospects were unappealing, and the only business-sized envelope I’d received had an Arizona return address. I hate hot weather.

As a student at a high school in a fairly affluent suburb, I quickly turned into something of a conversation piece. Except for two football players who’d impregnated their girlfriends, I was the only student that didn’t advance to an institution of higher learning. Tactlessly, the school paper placed a large bold question mark next to my name in its story on the post-graduation plans of the senior class. It broke the layout of the page pretty badly.

By the end of April, I was designing a complicated strategy for the rest of my life. I announced that I was moving to Boston to find a job at some Route 128 dot-com firm. After all, by 2004 there were more than a few companies that needed computer programmers in the metropolitan area, and I was pretty skilled. From April to August I applied to approximately two hundred different positions, getting up from the computer only twice—prom, graduation—yet failed to land even a single job interview. With only my high school diploma, I couldn’t so much as park cars at the buildings of the companies I wanted to work for.

Desperate, I started answering Craigslist ads and ended up slinging pancakes at a Bickford’s in the western sprawl of Boston. Unable to rent an apartment in the city without a steady job or credit, I ended up living in a three-decker seven miles out of town, a mile and a half to the subway and fifteen miles from anywhere I actually needed to be. Commuting took an hour and happened exclusively at 2 AM, as I chugged coffee behind the wheel to avoid drifting through red lights and drove on back roads to dodge tolls.

After five months of work, I quit and found a job at a tony bistro on Beacon Hill. Stumbling across Boston Common snowdrifts at 5:30 AM in a thin coat at five degrees below zero sounds like a great cliché that I’ll be repeating to my grandkids, but things were pretty dismal. Money was tight, and when my car heaved its last breath I found myself commuting two hours by bus each way to temp at an office park on I-95, reviewing the results of urine drug screenings and taking phone calls from meth addicts. When the snow thawed, I was unexpectedly admitted to Columbia. Although already feeling a little nostalgic for a life of hard work, I left Boston behind and headed to New York, eager for my education.

But to be honest, Columbia has not done much for me academically. I declared Computer Science at SEAS and spent my first two years studying the same facts I’d known when I finished high school. Something had changed, though: when I called for interviews, I could walk right in the door, even at major companies. In Boston, I couldn’t convince anyone to let me be a bug tester—or anything above “coffee boy”—but by the summer of 2006 I had somehow become qualified to manage teams of programmers and pull in three times my salary from a year earlier. What had happened? I certainly wasn’t any smarter, and didn’t have any fresh experience. All I had was a new name on my resume, and a renewed cynicism. Still, I was leaving my high school self in the dust. In three months, I’ll be graduating with the job that I wanted so badly in 2004.

The conclusion one draws is that when you look past the lofty goal of “a liberal education in every pot,” college is really just a meal ticket. Despite the tumultuous economy, the average family has a strong incentive to dig deep and pay for a degree in the hope that it will provide future stability. While this is a smart move for their kids, it’s the polar opposite of the traditional values embodied by education. The university’s potential for personal self-actualization is squandered in the name of financial self-realization, and colleges don’t discourage this attitude: from one end of the university to the other, careerism is in the air. While my own department is busy courting Wall Street recruiters, exotic liberal arts faculties stress their résumé appeal to medical and law schools that have supposedly tired of applicants holding more standard qualifications. With this much specialization, the “generic B.A.” becomes the qualifying degree, and one that’s held by more graduates than ever before. The onslaught of new enrollments hasn’t brought an academic revolution about, and it’s driven tuition up steadily for the last thirty years.

It wasn’t always this way. When college was a goal left to those who could truly apply their degree, there was breathing room in the educational process. A chemical engineer, a graphic designer, or an architect didn’t have to worry as much about finding a job because their applicant pool was more specialized and limited to those who were set on their field. When an 18-year-old enrolls in college today, however, they rarely do so with a strong understanding of their career path. Even if you aren’t excited about the major you end up in, you can bet it’s where you’re going to look for a job; too bad the crowd vying for that job has doubled.

This trend forces colleges to find a place in the world for all of their undergraduates. You can get a terminal degree in Conflict Management at Columbia now, not to mention Sustainable Development or another program struggling to find a niche. Colleges are allocating previously unthinkable resources to be able to leverage their graduates as competitive commodities, and to ensure that their degrees maintain their appeal based on their clout in the job market rather than on their intellectual merit.

But the evidence suggests that a Bachelor’s degree in anything isn’t worth as much in real life as it used to be. The present condition of New York speaks to this—there are probably a hundred thousand college graduates in Brooklyn living three to a room in the kinds of tenements that their grandparents or great-grandparents dreamed of escaping. Twenty-seven percent of Americans hold a post-secondary qualification, but among the population aged 25-34 in 2000, that number was up to 33%, and rising. (In fact, according to the Census Bureau, 41% of those aged 18-24 in 2000 were in or out of college, and that number’s up to 43% in 2005.) With such a large segment of the population armed with degrees, how long will it be before a Bachelor’s is a prerequisite for merely waiting tables? (Don’t laugh—most of my co-workers in Boston were grad students, or worse, had finished their MA degrees, and were hitting their early thirties.) The future’s very much uncertain. As the economy shrinks and the cost of living rises, is minimum wage at a coffeeshop (plus tips) going to keep up with interest rates, with inflation? It might be time to acquire some marketable skills. Of course, the problem could solve itself—by the time our kids want us to drop $800,000 on college, we’ll have just finished paying off our student loans.