Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Myth of Post-Secondary Education

by Mariah W.



If you live in North America you are probably aware of the overwhelming desire among pretty much any parent you meet, see, or hear about to “send their kids to college”. [note: the word "college" has slightly different meanings on either side of the 49th parallel, but I'll stick with the American usage as it's less of a mouthful than "university and/or college"] Savings programs start when the baby is still in the womb, parents agonize over how they will pay for college. They spend years bullying, coercing, manipulating, pleading, and haranguing their children to “do well in school so you can go to college”. The message these days is pretty clear: All good parents want their kids to go to college. The underlying message is equally clear: if your kid doesn’t go to college they will not be successful or happy (words which seem to be intertwined in our culture); they will live meaningless lives of subservience.

Well, I’m here to say that this is actually quite a load of propaganda and, once again, I’m amazed at how readily parents in our culture just eat up mainstream advice on how to raise their children without being able to critically examine the idea (oh, but they don’t teach critical thinking in the school system: coincidence? I think not). And I feel I’m particularly qualified to stand firmly on this side of the fence because I personally spent 12 years at University, earned three degrees (BSc, MSc, PhD), and pretty much loved every minute of it. I now teach university students (albeit on a very part-time basis). I’m not a “college-hater”, I’m not a bitter drop-out. I just don’t think it is for everybody, and I think the reasons why parents worry so much about it are based on a lot of false assumptions and information.

I spent 8 years as a graduate student. When I began grad school I wanted to work in the pharmaceutical industry. At that time a Master’s degree was not cutting it anymore as a means to getting on the Senior Scientist career ladder; there were too many people out there with MSc’s competing for too few jobs so if you had a PhD that gave you an edge. So I continued on to complete my PhD. By the time I’d done that a PhD was no longer cutting it. The market was flooded with PhD’s and now companies were asking for two years of post-doctoral experience. This requires one to get a position as a post-doctoral fellow, which is essentially working as a research scientist but for crappy pay (I well recall the border guards interviewing me as I entered the US to go work at a prestigious laboratory in Cleveland: they doubted that I met the requirements for my visa, claiming I couldn’t possibly be a “professional” because my salary showed me to be making less than they themselves earned).

So reason #1 that not every parent should send their kid to college is that if everybody has a college degree then its value becomes diluted and soon it doesn’t open that many doors anymore.

Parents have been suckered into believing that learning can only take place in institutions. College has become, for them, just another school that children must go to in order to learn what they need to know to get a decent job. The truth is that in pretty much any profession, real-life skill counts for more than a piece of paper. This is especially true in business, where many of the world’s greatest business successes did not get college degrees and many didn’t even complete high school. Any business worth its salt would rather hire young people who’ve already had real-life business experience, either by starting their own business(es) or working out in the real world in positions that allow for growth and/or are outcome-based (thus giving the job applicant a set of accomplishments or achievements from Real Life to show their potential employer).

So another reason for not putting your child through college is to allow them to go out in the Real World (which they’ve been sheltered from for the last 12 – 15 years), gain some experience, mature, and figure out who they are and what they really want to do. Putting them in yet another institution only stunts their personal growth and prevents them from figuring out these things while they still have few responsibilities to other people.

Yes, there are some professions that require certification. Lawyers, doctors, dentists, nurses to name a few. Frankly I think that whole system is a crock. I have mentored dozens of students, both high school and undergraduate, in research laboratories and those kids come out knowing far more about the science of what they were doing than years in a classroom could teach. It was real information, in a real context, the results of which they could see and feel every day (wanna really understand the role calcium plays in cardiac contractility? watch what happens the day you forget to add it to your isolated heart perfusate!). I would bet anybody any amount of money that in the 4 years it takes to churn out a B.Sc degree (which won’t get you a job past “dishwasher” in any laboratory) I could produce a fully capable research scientist (with the caveat that the subject has to be passionate about, or at least highly interested in, science). In the department where I teach, the third and fourth years of undergraduate study are separated by a year of fellowship work in a real laboratory. I’ve taught the same students before and after their year in the Real World and the differences are striking. When setting up labs the running joke is “oh, they’re fourth years, we can go for coffee” because those kids are already so capable. The third-years need their hands held and things spelled out for them every step of the way. They are helpless without someone telling them what to do.

So, even though our society is set up so that certain professions require university certification the reality is that anybody who is passionate about a subject and is given the opportunity to gain hands-on experience actually doing that job under a good mentor, could do as well (and likely far better) than the still-wet-behind-the-ears graduate waving their degree. Mentorship is the way to go but that doesn’t support the massive industry that we call college education. It also doesn’t allow society to suck parents into investing and saving money for college fees (supporting oodles of money managers and college savings funds/schemes) rather than using it for something really useful. College is a business and its in the interest of society to guilt parents into thinking that if they can’t send their kid to college they have miserably failed them.

Many parents are so sold on the idea of a college education that their kids actually don’t have any say in the matter. The parents decide the kids are going to college, or else, and that’s that. I can’t imagine a bigger waste of time and money than sending a child to college who doesn’t want to be there. Unfortunately, most schooled children have – at age 18 – been completely infantilized by 12+ years of institutionalization, so they don’t generally know what they would like to do, what their passions are, and how to accomplish goals set by their own selves rather than someone else’s agenda. So not sending them to college may not result in them accomplishing anything until they’ve had a few years to find their own answers, but given the price of a college education you could afford to support that child at home while they took the time to figure things out, and still present them with a chunk of seed money for whatever they end up deciding upon.

On the other hand, you may have a child who is fortunate enough to have clear goals for themselves and a clear understanding of what they want to do. Perhaps your child has not bought into the promise of consumerism that more money = more things = happiness.



Being a doctor or lawyer is the stereotypical “first choice” of parents; the one that produces the most bragging rights. The one that if spurned for say, art school, is brought up as the sensible choice. And is this because we live in a society simply packed with altruistic citizens? No, this is not the modern-day equivalent of bragging that you have a son joining the priesthood. This has to do with money, baby, and the (mistaken) belief that all doctors and lawyers make a bundle. The good old family doctor doesn’t make much more than a union worker. Lawyers who don’t want to enslave themselves to a massive firm and commit to 120 hour workweeks, those who actually want to help the common person, well they don’t make very much either. When I look across the sea of faces in my classes, 95% of whom are heading to medical school, I wonder how many of them really *want* to be a doctor, why they want to, and what sort of life they envision for themselves (forget being home for dinner, seeing your children grow up, or spending quality time with your spouse). What I cynically wonder is: for whom are you doing this? Is it really for you?

The myths of College include: money= happiness, jobs that pay lots of money can only be had by going to college, if you don’t go to college you are doomed to flip burgers for the rest of your life, responsible citizens hold down full-time jobs and spend money to boost the economy, the only thing worse than being a college dropout is not making it to college in the first place, and of course the one that really irks me – all good parents want their kids to go to college.

Well, I loved university. And if any of my children want to go I’ll be happy to support them in any way I can. But I will support them in whatever they wish to do whether that is bum around Europe in between working at McJobs to save up for said bumming around Europe, creating art, writing poetry, playing music, becoming an athlete, volunteering with non-profit organizations or whatever else floats their boat. After spending their youth directing their own educations, finding their passions, seeing how the Real World actually works, trying out all sorts of jobs and paths before failure really matters, and figuring out who they are and what makes them happy…I have no doubts that whatever paths my children choose they will be successful. In the meantime, I’ll continue to amuse myself by announcing out loud in groups of mainstream parents who don’t really know me that I could care less if my kids go to college and I’m certainly not going to use money that could pay down my mortgage for some savings scheme to that effect.

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© 2010 Mariah W., previously published on her blog FreeLearning: A life without school; reprinted by kind permission