Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A dubious school of thought


One idea that's taken off in the age of spiraling student debt and poor job prospects is that college might be a waste of time. Those who adhere to the idea ask, is it worth assuming mountains of debt for a degree that's increasingly worth less as more people get them?

The most obvious answer to this is, of course it is. Even if the value of a college degree has been diluted, job requirements have gone up, so any competitive advantage helps. And even if you're going into the trades (the most-cited alternative to a degree), it helps to have at least some post-secondary schooling or certification. 

So in terms of who's arguing that college isn't an automatic option, tradespeople have a point. But their point — that vocational school is a viable alternative — really isn't that different from college in the broadest sense.

The worst anti-college argument of all comes from people like Peter Thiel, who encourage students to drop out because, hey, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg did it, and look at them now!

Where to even begin with that?

The same year I started college, I read a magazine article about a home-schooled girl who had been accepted to Harvard. It was part of a package on the viability of home-schooling, making a case that maybe this is what more students need to ensure Ivy League-level viability. But my immediate thought was, "This is so rare that it merited an article in Newsweek."

Speaking of Harvard, that's the school from which Gates and Zuckerberg dropped out. Just being there is generally a good sign that you're several levels above set for life. Gates quit because he had better computing equipment than Harvard and was already making headway into his burgeoning field. Zuckerberg quit because he was making millions redefining the interactive world. 

(As for Jobs, well, his was the perfect storm — a billion-dollar creation in a better economic age where college degrees still weren't all that common. Hardly a case for skipping school today.)

Thiel and others like him would have you believe that college holds everyone back like it did Gates and Zuckerberg. That's not just incorrect; that can lead impressionable students badly astray. Just like with the Harvard home-schooler, the examples are the exceptions.

The pro-dropout camp is fixated almost entirely on the tech sector, a fact that isn't always obvious in the discussion. It's possible even they aren't aware of their myopia. This list, linked by Griswold in her article, particularly hammers home that point. Every dropout on it is either a young techie or an older CEO. That proves a point, but not the one the dropout cultists want.

There's a huge difference between already having money and connections and launching a new billion-dollar tech venture, and thinking not going to college will make you a billionaire. If the pro-dropout crowd can't see that difference, perhaps some education is in order.

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