Why College is So Hot: The Complexity of a Post-Secondary Education

It’s becoming a hotter topic by the minute, or so it would seem if you’re tracking the media in the way that I’ve been doing lately: to go or not to go to college–and why. We’re preparing for our next community workshop series, which aims to look at complex social issues and address them using Critical and Systemic Thinking methods. For this one, we’re rethinking college in our times.

I’ve heard–and known–people who’ve pretty much done it all, indicating that the answer to this question is not so simple. The expectation of going to college is out there; we live in a society where having a degree indicating higher education, the capacity to make a commitment and the ability to finish within good standing are critical factors in ‘making it in the world.’ Having a B.A. or B.S. or higher degree makes you employable–at least on paper. Don’t have it, and most HR representatives won’t even take a look at the rest of your resume.

Unfortunately, most young people entering the world after a college education are finding that it’s not so easy. I graduated from college in 2009 (after exploring many other options and getting other certificates in the eight years between graduating high school and college) and was lucky to have a job and a new location all lined up when I tossed my cap into the air on graduation day. I watched, however, as many of my brilliant peers spent months and months searching for, and applying to jobs, unsuccessfully. I have one friend who, despite his shining recommendations, his stellar grades, his professional presentation, has not managed to get a job for over three years.

A decade ago, this would have been unfathomable. He’s literally stood in line with 500 other applicants for one retail position. He’s traveled up and down the coast looking for a job. He’s interviewed for anything and everything, and has even managed to pick up odds and ends to help make ends meet, but this is a travesty, because the dream of not only improving his skills but then applying them and doing something meaningful with his life has been squashed so profoundly. Truthfully, the new message seems to be: having a college degree does not necessarily guarantee you much, unless you are savvy, well-connected, and plain lucky.

That’s one part of the issue. There are many others: the incredible debt which early twenty-somethings walk away with. If they’re lucky, they got a scholarship or a grant which significantly cut their college tuition costs, but nearly every former college student has student loans to pay off–and many have had to defer paying them because they don’t have any income stream. To top it off, many have resigned themselves to the fact that they will be paying off their education costs, in the cases of a $46,000 a year over the course of four years with no tuition assistance, for over forty years. That number is stifling in itself. Add to it that they may not get a job…and the picture is a scary one. We’ve not even yet factored in how this all trickles down to participating in the economy–buying a house, traveling, participating in the greater American Dream…the reach is far.

Other factors in the conversation are whether or not college is what people need in the world–are vocational schools actually where young people should be going, so that they can train some real hard skills (supposing that they don’t get these at their liberal arts school) to survive in the world? Are gap-year options the way to go? And what of that incredible experience one can have for four years of exploring the liberal arts, of meeting incredibly smart elders who are passionate about all subjects of life? There is real value there, as well. The academic path is a beautiful, inspiring and titillating one, too. I had it, I loved it and I wouldn’t have changed the course of my own learning path if I could.

All of this raises the question: what role does the student have in his or her education? Is he or she a consumer who has the right to make demands and have expectations of what a $46,000 (for example) investment will look like or what its return might be? Or is paying tuition then also simply saying, “I’m going to go with the flow and hope I enjoy the ride” the way to go? How much is a college education really worth–and is it different for me than for you?

This kind of layered complexity affects all of us. We all have experience in the matter, and we all have something to say about it. In fact, I’m sure my points here already have stirred up some responses; drawing upon Critical and Systemic Thinking will allow us to work with those responses and see what else is living in this conversation and how we might, as individuals and as citizens, inform the next steps around this on a greater scale. Who knows what kind of information we have that could dramatically alter the picture?

Whether we are about to head off to college, are graduates, drop-outs, parents, teachers, politicians, or business owners, this issue impacts us all. With increased dependency and expectation set on what the return on a college education should be compared to the realities of our times, we need to have the courage to take up these issues together and see what’s real, what’s not, and what’s next.

Join us for an important “Rethinking College in Our Times” workshop series on May 3, 17 and 24 in Fair Oaks, California.

Still not convinced that this is an issue worthy of your contribution? Some of these links will show you who else is looking at the topic:

  • Is a College Education Worth the Debt?” on Tell Me More, NPR News: A college degree has long been considered a golden ticket to success in this country. But with the current economic recession, some question whether obtaining a college degree is worth going into debt. Boyce Watkins, a professor of finance at Syracuse University; author Richard Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University, discuss how many are rethinking their high hopes of a college education. The men are joined by Hunter Walker, a recently-enrolled graduate student at Columbia School of Journalism, who recently wrote about his educational debt worries on the tabloid Web site Gawker.com. >>Learn more.
  • For the Have-Nots, the Rocky Road Through College” by Jeff Selingo: The academic scene is changing–as college tuition rises and the economic continues to wobble–more students are applying to schools but fewer are being accepted. What does this mean? More students are having to find alternative educational options, or accept one school’s offer and then transfer out after a period of time to another school. This blog post it worth reading. >>Learn more.
  • Pick a College. Reconsider. Repeat Until April 1.” by Clare Tiarsmith: Clare is a senior in Atlanta who has been blogging for the New York Times about her application process. She shares her concerns and considerations for her collegeprocess. It’s a unique glimpse into the entire experience of what it means to be an applying student today. >>Learn more.
  • Could We Make All College Tuition Free?” by  James Ledbetter: James analyzes a book by Richard Reich titled Aftershock which challenges how students pay forcollege. Are we ready for new ways of working the old system? Reich proposes a pay-it-back system, where successful college graduates, after acquiring a job, would actually pay for the next wave of students at their school, known as the ‘graduate-tax.’ There’s appeal to the idea, but responses have been mixed. The conversation raises the question of what the new forms for education, and for supporting education, might look like. >>Learn more.


Leslie Loy has worked in the non-profit sector for over ten years, focusing on integrating youth and social technologies to impact social renewal. Her work with youth began in her teens when she become a youth advocate and representative on numerous community-wide groups and facilitated a peer-led, self-organized regional publication. She has been active in giving voice to youth social activists and providing diverse forums for them to engage in, both on and off-line. She was a founder and later Director of WeStrive.org, an alternative social networking platform, a Community Facilitator for the Anthroposophical Youth Section in North America, she lived and worked in a Camphill community supporting young adults with special needs and abilities, and a volunteer coordinator for college students to become actively involved in addressing complex issues within their own communities.

Speak Your Mind