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College as a stop on a journey

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Esther Cepeda
June 23, 2011
— Peter Thiel is not the enemy of all parents who ever felt cold terror shoot up their spine upon hearing their teen offhandedly talk about skipping college.

Thiel, an early investor in a little web startup called Facebook, recently garnered national headlines when he announced that he’s paying 24 teenagers $100,000 to drop out or delay college and start businesses in such diverse areas as biotechnology, finance, energy and education.


He believes a college education isn’t as intellectually rigorous as it once was and costs too much, and that burdensome student loans keep recent grads from taking the entrepreneurial risks needed to spur our economy.


Whether you agree or not, Thiel, himself a juris doctor, has done students and parents a favor by publicizing frequent criticisms of today’s higher education system, hopefully spurring honest conversations about what anyone can reasonably expect from the college experience.


A recently published book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” has ignited a lot of discussion about what students really get out of college. Written by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia, the book details their research, which found that after four years of college, 36 percent of students didn’t demonstrate a significant improvement in learning.


And no one can deny that the cost of college tuition has skyrocketed along with the implicit assumption that you’re practically unemployable if you don’t have a degree. According to the College Board, the current annual cost of a four-year degree is anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 for tuition, fees, room and board, depending on whether we’re talking about public or private universities. FinAid.org says the average student loan debt for four-year public college graduates was about $27,000 in 2008.


Thiel is not unique in thinking that college may not be the be-all, end-all of a person’s professional life. Even before landing one of Thiel’s fellowships, Dale Stephens and his “UnCollege movement” began gaining traction among teens with its message that differentiation is the key to success. Launched this past January, UnCollege promotes self-directed college-level home-schooling tailored to a student’s unique needs and interests.


The front page of www.uncollege.org offers a tantalizing proposition: “With 70.1 percent of high school graduates going to college, a college degree no longer guarantees success. … You can create your education by leveraging the resources of the world around you.”


This can make sense for mature, completely self-motivated students who are truly planning on becoming fully independent entrepreneurs. But for average students, the traditional path is probably still going to be the best option.


In March, Metlife released the results of its annual teacher survey that for the first time included a representative sample of Fortune 1000 business executives. Seventy-seven percent of the business leaders believe there will be few or no career opportunities for students who don’t complete some formal education beyond high school.


“From an entrepreneurial standpoint, those who are successful in business without a post-secondary degree are going to be the exception, but not the rule,” said Dan Ryan, principal of Nashville-based Ryan Search and Consulting, a member of the national Society for Human Resource Management. “I was an HR generalist for 12 years in two different industries and saw that more and more companies are starting to rubber stamp positions with ‘college degree required.’ Why? Because there are so many degreed applicants available and the fact that someone can get through a collegiate program provides a baseline.”


Ryan reiterated what I’ve said time and time again when talking to students and parents about the dangers of pursuing a college degree for the sole purpose of “getting a good job”: Think far beyond the job.


“For students who are considering going to college, the greatest piece they need to understand is that college is not a destination, a job is not a destination, it’s a stop on a journey,” Ryan said. “Your career is going to be a series of different destinations, but there needs to be some forethought about where you really want to go. If you don’t know where you want to go, any road will get you there.”


When it comes to highly intelligent, self-starting students who could, with a little seed money, become the next Mark Zuckerberg, Thiel’s got the right idea about skipping college. But for everyone else, the fundamental “uncollege” philosophy is actually even more important: Know yourself before pursuing higher education.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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