When Parents Lead, Children Succeed

B2W OpEd: Does College Still Matter?

B2W OpEd: Does College Still Matter?

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It was jokingly said more than 100 years ago that everything that could be invented, had been invented. More recently it's been said that everything there is to be known, is on the internet. If either is (or both are) true, does college still matter? Does it offer any benefit?

The Dream

The dream of rising up out of one's circumstances through education and hard work is uniquely modern in the realm of human history. Mostly, the day-to-day work that people performed was done out of necessity for survival. Yes, everyone had a "job" to do...but it wasn't a job for which they were hired and paid because of their specific set of skills. Jobs were handed out based on circumstances and/or class and position in society. (This search for the first real "job" was an undertaking pursued by the Planet Money podcast team. Listen here.)

Since the time that opportunities to learn a skill set and apply for any job became possible, parents who wanted to support their children to thrive economically repeated the mantra "Go to college!"

For about five generations now, with unfaltering unanimity, our economy and research has supported the idea - mentally and financially - that going to college makes the attendee not only wealthier, but also happier and healthier, and more likely to have and keep successful relationships.

Getting a college degree was the be-all and end-all because it opened the door to not just a job to be executed in drudgery, but a career.

The Mental Shift

When the "must go to college" mantra was embraced by the middle class ranks of society and become louder and louder, it bore the responsibility of those promises. The promises of health, wealth, and happiness meant a shift had to occur within the fabric of the family. Sending the first person in the family to college was seen as a major familial accomplishment. It meant that everyone was doing well enough to be able to afford to let that person leave home and not stay to contribute financially. Mentally, it had to become a family priority and commitment to letting that person go.

Also, the college goer had to shift their thinking to allow themselves that luxury of time they had probably never had before. The environment, the accommodations, and the personal freedom of going away from home to college was shocking for many. They didn't always know how to take it, how to enjoy it, or how to immerse themselves in it. Without that shift in thinking by the family that supported them, or the student's mental acceptance that they were worthy of the opportunities in front of them, the promises of health, wealth and satisfaction would go unfulfilled.

The mental shift, today, is still extremely difficult for many thousands of students, most poignantly among those who are still "the first" in their families to attain acceptance to a four-year school. (Listen to the complete This American Life podcast, called "Three Miles" on this topic).

Why College?

So what was it then that distinguished the college graduate from the high school graduate? What were college graduates being paid for that was so much more valuable? What skill set did they acquire in college that others who pursued technical or vocational training did not?

Being presented with the ideas of philosophers, the actions of monarchs, and the experiments of scientists was supposed to prompt analytical and creative thinking skills. Known as institutions of "higher learning", colleges and universities allowed for the time to develop the student's capacity to encounter an intellectual problem, think creatively and contextually about it's root and history, and determine best practices for solving or attempting to solve it. That type of thinking was what businesses felt it was worth paying college graduates for. (And, not surprisingly, what business still claims it is most in need of today.)

The Change in Higher Ed

The last 15-20 years, though, have seen the college experience become something else entirely. Colleges now feel pressure from the public to turn out "work ready" graduates. The burden of thousands of dollars in steep tuition repayment means that the anticipated job at the end of college has to be there. And the job has to pay well. In the past, students attending their own state colleges were admitted tuition- free, and private university costs were more modest. The student's need for a job at the end of four years, now makes the school burdened with the responsibilities of education that leads to a job; a perspective more akin to vocational schools rather than liberal arts schools that turn out multi-disciplined creative thinkers whose value to a company or industry grows over time.

Unfortunately, many students don't graduate with real world work experiences where work ethic and the ability to interact with colleagues, peers, and others on any more than a cursory level are established. College for many today can be an astronomical waste of money, and the bearer of an old promise that the degree is inherently of value in the workplace when it no longer is.

Further, the result of the nose snubbing many Americans directed at vocational schools during the heyday of the "everyone must go to college" mantra chanting, is that high quality training in jobs that require technical expertise (plumbing, electrical, and other infrastructure) is hard to come by today. Notably, these are the only kinds of jobs there are certain to be in the 21st-century economy, and reflect the "skills gap" apparent in technical jobs that currently go unfilled. (Read more from economist Robert Reich on the topic here).

A person is of value not only because of their unique and individual set of skills and excellent thinking abilities. Exceptional skills and creativity of thought are not solely developed at the collegiate level, nor necessarily in traditional "white collar" careers. Technicians need be creative thinkers in diagnosis and application of solutions, too. Their jobs are critical to maintaining our economic infrastructure. To be effective in our careers today, we must move freely between many worlds of knowledge in which older systems live with new technology on the horizon. Solutions often lie well beyond the rote manual labor of the industrial dawn.

Parents Bridge the Gap

A hundred years ago there wasn't necessarily the opportunity or understanding to apply collegiate style learning to the lives of students every day, at home. Today even colleges can't maintain what they were once able to do for post K-12 learning. Parents and other caregivers can now offer phenomenal amounts of history and hands-on experience to the children they care for from a very young age. And at the other end, college will still be a good option for those seeking mentorship on a very specific path. But introduction to critical and creative thinking skills is not an isolated achievement that occurs within dorms and ivory towers under the auspices of PhDs. It starts at home, when parents and caregivers sit around the kitchen table and engage their children with discussions on relevant issues, current events and family stories that help define their lives and shape the dream for their own future.

~The Birth2Work Team

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