You don’t have to go to college. Really.

One of the ways I wage-slave is online tutoring. Each day I slug a few cups of battery acid strength coffee and then nurse papers written by college students with my MFA-teet of pseudo-expertise. Often assignments are crafted with headlines in mind, including a recent one asking students to weigh in on the student loan crisis and the millennial casualties fast achieving economic rigor mortis in their sobbing parents’ second-mortgaged basements.

Despite mainstream media prophecies casting colleges as places to master more scholarly spare changing techniques, the bulk of papers insist that even triple-digit student loan debt is ultimately worth it, so long as the end result is a four year degree. Why? What result is so lusted for that it becomes okay to forsake youth’s adventure in favor of becoming a student debt Master Blaster, with a poor dumb body perpetually steered into the Thunderdome by a tiny lord?

Knowledge? Sadly, in hundreds of papers the reason offered has never, not once, been because college is a place for brain ignition and to have the mental breakdown of turning 19 with company. No one, not one, has written that nerd core trumps financial burden, or even that the problem is what colleges are charging in the first place. In fact, cost never comes up. Life experience? No. The clinical way they describe college makes me wonder if it’s even still considered the ultimate mating ritual and watering hole. Instead, nearly 100% of those arguing that 6.8% interest rate loans signed in lifeblood are “worth it” contend this worth is established through achievement of a “good job.” A “good job” is defined as One Where You Make A Lot Of Money, which is increasingly advertised on blogs and bad reality shows as the ultimate American objective for everything.

Is this line of reasoning even valid? According to the New York Times, with a major in education or engineering there’s solid potential for gainful employment post-graduation. This same article states that 17% of grads enter the work force courtesy of the food industry — working alongside degreeless peers that likely command a higher hourly wage on account of experience. This article, and most all others that have emerged in the past 18 months, regard a humanities degree as being as useful to employment as four years in prison on a felony conviction. A degree in the arts has pretty much always been a punchline for those aspiring for multi-car garages and suburban pedigree.

The good news is, if jobs and money are the motivation, William Bennett seems to think that in 2018 there will be 14 million jobs that require “more than high school, but less than a degree.”  This is a great case for technical schools or community colleges — the sorts of schools that market themselves as gateways to employment and skilled labor. They are affordable, practical, and in some cases offer education at the same level as four year universities. Best of all, even if riding in on student loans exclusively, it’s reasonable to assume a two year degree can be obtained with a significantly smaller student debt burden.

Others with money on the mind know when reasonable skills have been acquired and it’s time to quit. These are often folks in the IT or design industries that can choose between slogging through classes or running with an idea before someone else smells it. A combination of learned skills and on-the-ground work has made plenty of businesses and billionaires. (I’m looking at you, Bill Gates, and all these other folks.)

For me, the question then becomes (and is stated directly in these papers): if the motivation is employment and money, and the result of staying is that a negative balance adds more zeros, does it hurt you more to stay? It would seem so, especially when it isn’t so bad to just go. 

Some would assert that college in general is becoming an antiquated enterprise, and the modern equivalent of library card exhaustion is the financially savvy route to academic mind expansion. Online classes, streamed lectures, and free to download class materials are just some of the channels opening for people interested in college for knowledge acquisition exclusively. Gluttons for learning can certainly feed themselves fat auditing ivy league classes if they’re okay with the dedication without the degree.

For me, online interaction can’t replace the excitement of a thriving college classroom. Working online offers daily insight as to what’s missing, and when I log off each day I remember what that is: the heart. There’s a chemistry that occurs when a competent professor engages a room in debate, poses a new idea in direct response to a student question, or riffs on the fly based on collective reaction to a controversial theory. Even with virtual classrooms that allow for more robot-to-robot interaction, the distance created by screens spares both student and teacher the immediate all-revealing expression. It’s a play where you exaggerate every facial expression in hopes that the pinhole camera captures it and communicates so there’s no second, bigger grin necessary to simply state: you’ve got it. 

College memories are shaped by the thick pheromone smell created by over-heated hallways, sliding down an ice covered hill on a backpack to get to a test on time, nudging a neighbor for thoughts on the half-cocked nonsense that just fell out of the professor’s mouth, meeting half a dozen people in a diner for endless coffee and dollar breakfasts over books. It’s being in a pile of people having different reactions to being in the same place at the same age, responding to the same words with different interpretations, and understanding the amazing mechanics of the human mind and our emotional catacombs as a direct result.

Getting a job sounds like a decent enough reason to start college, but not a good enough reason to stay. 

There is nothing wrong with being a plumber, a fisherman, a construction worker, a line cook. There’s nothing wrong with education exclusively to be a carpenter, an electrician, a paramedic. There is something sad about perceiving four years of your life as an onramp to a paycheck that won’t arrive unless you slick the surface with debt.

My post-graduate six-figure pay day never came, and I’m from an era where everyone wore big pants and some people wore them backwards, and no one thought the economy was screwed. I filled out dozens of scholarship applications until I got one, and went where the scholarship told me to go, knowing that any college was more college than some of my peers would enjoy. My five year dive bomb into my twenties included jobs, study, love, loans, scholarships, creativity, ideas, and very little sleep. The education and experiences accumulated could never be boiled into paste. I didn’t succeed or fail, though in the aftermath I’ve often been broke and sometimes poor and have taken jobs that I hate, including (at times) the tutoring one. This is life.

To this day I consider myself lucky for having had the privilege to interact with brilliant minds who mastered their subjects, and curious people with excitement for invention, and for having known (and knowing) the thrill of challenging myself to approach the terrifying truth that there is always, always more to learn. The sod of such discovery was sewn there. I found new ways to use old tools.

There are no more ways I know to tell my students that what’s left, when you take the future away, is the real reason to go or stay.



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