Will my kids going to college?
I asked myself this question after I dropped my son off at my college-run Pre-K and drove to my alma mater where I work a graduate internship for a Master’s program at yet another university. At this crossroads of colleges, I happened to tune into a debate on NPR titled Too Many Kids Go to College. Despite the fact that I’ve spent the better part of a decade and the better part of a mortgage on higher education, my thought was an eloquent, “Well, duh.”
I suggest listening to the podcast, or reading the transcription, but I am going to focus on what resonated with me, which is this:
I’ve heard my fellow students admit again and again that they are in college to receive a Bachelor’s because they cannot find a job without one. Currently, in my Master’s program, I hear another version: we are here because a Bachelor’s is no longer a door to employment. Throughout both degrees, I’ve been in countless group projects where the consensus is, “We completed enough work for a decent grade; why do more?” I have wasted several credits’ worth of hours listening to students ask for extra time, lowered assignment expectations, and bonus points.
Those sentiments boil down to one underlying thread: college is not necessarily about receiving an education, though this can still be achieved. Instead, college is about trading the least amount of work required to receive one of those job-granting acronyms: B.A., M.S. and so on.
This has been incredibly frustrating for me. I’m not afraid to say it: I am your worst nightmare classmate. I force my group-mates to push past the basic requirements for projects, I want deadlines to be deadlines and I want my professors to have high expectations.
I am not under the impression that I’m better or smarter than other students. I don’t think I’m book-smart and others are a different kind of smart. I don’t think that I was “made for college” and they were made for workforce training. I think somewhere between becoming a parent early in life, loving my area of study, a few wonderful teachers, and a family who values education, I grew up with a conviction that college is inherently valuable. I believe deeply that education is why I attend college and the degree represents that education.
When I have seen the value of college degrees devalued, I went to battle. Now, I am battle-weary as I near the end of my education and find a black hole of opportunities for teacher’s pets like me.
For decades, the economy in this country has been robust enough to allow randomization in the relationship between time spent in college, quality of education, and professional opportunities. Sufficient jobs rewarded students who barely scraped through their program. Student loans were seen as an investment on which a person could not possibly rank an overall loss. Now, as the job listings I read require experience more often than a degree, I see my high-school-then-workforce peers as the applicants whose resumes actually reflect their experience and employee value. As one panel member says in the podcast, “If the only thing you know about a person is that that person has a BA, you don’t know anything.”
I am thinking about all of this as I drive to my internship — the one I do for free because no one will hire me with eight years of schooling and little work experience — and keep coming back to the question: Will my kids go to college? What will college mean in fifteen years?
Of course, despite the last 10 or so paragraphs, my gut reaction is, Of course my kids will go to college! What I felt was the weakest argument by the panel defending college — that the nostalgia of football games and beer pong is why parents impart on their children a desire for the college experience — remains the impetus for my defensiveness of the hypothetical college lives of my children. For me it isn’t keg stands and sororities, but the nostalgia of poetry workshops and student-run literary magazines. The motivation is the same: I wonder what will take the place of those experiences if The Four-Year College continues to tank.
Do we fight for colleges? Do we let the adolescent trajectory evolve into something else? Tell me: are your kids going to college?