The "Is College Worth It?" Conversation Doesn't Mean Much Without a Sense of What Teenagers Will Do Instead
There’s a debate going on currently regarding a significant decline in faith in whether college is worth the costs, particularly among young people. Here’s Paul Tough with the case for the prosecution, and here’s David Deming with the case for the defense. Swirling around is the usual question of whether various quantitative benefits are caused by getting a degree or whether they simply reflect the selection effects of those who self-sort into college - people who can and do go to college are people who tend to enjoy all number of advantages over those who don’t. This is an important debate, given that (for example) people with degrees enjoy not just a wage and employment premium but a significantly higher lifespan than those without. There’s a lot of literature out there, which you can peruse if you’d like.
Those of you who have read my (brilliant, eye-opening, majestic) first book know that I do indeed think we are pushing too many people into the college pipeline. But my resistance is a little different than most; it’s not a reflection on the cost of college, at least not for the students. I think a) we push so many people into college because the Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal consensus destroyed middle class jobs in industry and manufacturing and we don’t have many alternatives and b) we shouldn’t push kids into college because most of those who have to be pushed will prove to lack the cognitive and soft skills necessary for them to capitalize on their degrees anyway. When people obsess over the college pipeline, they do so because they think that college can turn everybody into a busy little meritocrat, the kind who go on to get jobs at Google or a SLAC or the Ford Foundation or the Department of the Interior. But the high school excellence to college to enviable PMC employment cycle depends on a level of natural intellectual talent, plus the ability to delay gratification and keep to a schedule etc., that many people don’t have. So we need other models, and in the book I explore some.
Here’s the thing, though. In the debate as it exists in the real world, I think a really trenchant question for the kids who forego college is this: what will you do instead? How will you spend those four-plus years of your life, if not in school?
Unfortunately this question is usually either not really confronted or answered in a bullshit way, when this topic is debated. There’s an assumption that people will save and make money, but not a lot of discussion of how and what they’ll give up in doing so; there’s also a lot of vague handwaving about how they’ll pursue other kinds of enrichment, without a sense of the associated costs. You hear things from the young people rejecting college like “I’ll do my art” or “I’ll travel the world.” Which should immediately prompt the question, with whose money? You can’t just bum around for four or five years doing your art unless you have some sort of bullshit job you hate that takes up too much time, which for most people defeats the purpose. Unless you have rich parents who will subsidize you, in which case then, cool, yeah, don’t go to college if you don’t want to; you’ll be fine regardless. But that’s not most people. Traveling is even less accessible if you don’t have rich parents. I guess you could do it by loading up on credit card debt, but going into a lot of debt was the very thing we were trying to avoid, right? At some point you have to square the economic decision not to attend college with the unromantic reality of life living at home or in low-wage employment.
The thing I’m trying to get at here is that skipping college from an individual point of view, rather than making college completion less central to our system from a societal point of view, is sold as a fundamentally financial decision. And an unspoken but potent element of this is that many seem to assume that kids are simply going to begin their real careers at 18 or 19 or 20 instead of at 23 or 24 or 25, and likely live at home for several years into their twenties to save money. This is fine for those who want to do it, but how many want to do it? There is of course the question of what kind of careers someone in late adolescence can get into without a degree, and whether employers should loosen hiring requirements to expand that category. But there’s also this important question of whether people actually want to start their working lives that young. How many 18-year-olds actually want to live at home with mom and dad and then go to work in some nondescript office setting for the next 40+ years, out of a desire to maximize lifetime earnings, if the college track is at all available to them? Who doesn’t want to spend a few years finding themselves (drinking drugging sleeping around) before they get serious about work?
Look, I get that there’s wiggle here. I myself spent too many years of my life in a lovely state of being young and drunk and free and broke, and I suspect some people will simply do that without going to college first. The options aren’t attending a $75,000 a year college or immediately joining the rat race. But as a large-scale phenomenon, there’s an obvious tension between a simple dollars-and-cents argument about whether college is worth it in purely pecuniary terms and the broad cultural appetite for spending your early adult years with a degree of freedom that’s not conducive to a job in the square world. And I think that the people arguing that college isn’t worth it might make some hay at the margins, but will lose in the big picture, because young people really want the college experience of free time, communal living, casual sex, constant drinking, and yes, even learning. They even like that too.
The missing piece of the puzzle, in so much of the discussion about college costs, is the degree to which public funding for state colleges cratered amidst post-financial crisis austerity. And a humane society would ask why it’s allowed the burden of paying for college to be shifted to its young people, at the same time that its educational ideology machine has made college attendance a kind of secular sacrament. Then there’s the fact that there are, of course, non-pecuniary virtues to education, and the fact that the colleges have allowed their costs to spiral so out of control…. But for the decision facing every 17 and 18-year-old who’s remotely academically inclined, I think the big unspoken element if whether they’re willing to start stuffing themselves into a cubicle already. But then, that’s just as much a part of our romantic conception of our system as the idea that everyone can go to Stamford and become a star programmer - the notion that everyone will someday find the job of their dreams, when for most people the goal is to find something they can live with. The whole thing is a tangle of dueling romanticisms, a narrow and constrained vision of pragmatism, and the hearts of people too young to want anything other than what those hearts desire.