Not everyone should go to college, nor should that be the standard by which we consider young professionals. For several generations by now, the push, the goal–the Dream–for adults has been to get their kid to college, get them a degree, whatever it takes. That is the noblest goal. And don’t get me wrong, I loved college. I love to learn, do research, write my findings into cohesive arguments. I loved reading books and discussing them with teachers and peers interested in the same topics. I loved debating, and loved that I had an excuse to buy expensive academic books and explore topics in great detail that I might have missed had I forgone the experience.
But I do not think everyone has the same feelings towards disciplined, lecture-based schoolwork, especially coming off of twelve years in the education system already. But much has also pointed lately to the diminishing return of a degree. It is not as valuable as it once was, firstly because there are so many degree-toting young people all competing for the same mediocre jobs, probably requiring some specific training or work experience that the candidates don’t have because they’ve been in school forever. Add to the lovely little package a whole bunch of student loans, and the deal doesn’t sound so sweet.
I went on and got my master’s right after earning my bachelor’s, mostly because there weren’t really any other options with a history degree that you can apply to a job in that field without also having the master’s degree as well. I happened to get a graduate assistantship which made the difference between me going or not, and worked two jobs throughout the two years, during which I also attended class full-time. But now that I’m out, I am still considered entry-level for everything I am applying to, because I haven’t worked a full-time job for a significant amount of time (though, as I will stubbornly point out, I was working two part-time jobs, that equalled six-day work weeks every other week). That on top of school should prove, when I look at my resume, my ability to multitask, my mastery of time-management, and my dedication to working hard and making a difference in my career field–which, admittedly, is the little niche of public history, museums, oral history, and whatnot.
Looking at it from this end, I second-guess my decisions. Should I have sucked it up and gotten some horrible business degree? Or maybe I should have been a math person, gotten a tutor and tried my best. I haven’t done classroom, high-level math in years now, so it’s sounding lovelier and more romantic the farther out I am from it. Then I remind myself that what I really love to do is write, and tell stories, and hear stories. And that is exactly what people in my field do. And, also, I remind myself that this is an equally important component of life, albiet one with fewer jobs, none of which will make you rich. I have to remember all the times I have in fact turned to this very medium to gush about a certain project, or book, or exhibit, or idea that I have come across that has given me once more a renewed appreciation for this marvelous avenue I have been down for the last six years.
Earning my history degree was the most fun I could ever have imagined having in college, and that’s important. Getting a job is also important, too though.
So it is with a complicated perspective that I say not everyone should go to college. And also, some of the smartest people definitely should not go to college. As the recipients of the new Thiel Fellowship grants illustrate, it can sometimes be better to just head out and begin executing a great idea. Or, if you’re not the recipient of basically a genius grant for the under-20, just go out and work a real job. Gap years should be real, supported and sanctioned options for recent high school grads. We should be making it easy for them to go out and take some time away from institutional education, where they can learn real skills, and how to take care of themselves, without worrying that if they try to come back later, they won’t be at a disadvantage.
Kids who do these things, opt out of college, execute a great business idea, take a gap year, would right now stand far ahead of me in the job market, for their real-world skills. I have many real-world skills, and I know this, but what is reflected on my resume is that I’ve been in college for six years while learning them, and for some reason, this is a major turn-off. Like learning anything while also learning in a classroom somehow invalidates those skills. Even if this is truly faulty and frustrating, I am going to change no one’s mind about it.
The Thiel Fellowship program is a brilliant step in encouraging a different trajectory for young people. Though this one in particular is highly competitive and only goes to kids whose families have already spent a lot of money and made sacrifices for their smart children to thrive and come up with lofty concepts, it is a move in the right direction. It is an inspiration to see these Ivy League-caliber people opt out, say, no, that’s not the right course for me right now. It opens up whole new realms of creativity, motivation, and entrepreneurship–and actual work experience to boot.