Go to College, They Said

In the recent movie Ivory Tower, a father warily articulates the anxieties of many parents: “Is my daughter going to have a job … and not going to be coming back home after [college] is done?” He’s not alone in asking it: the perceived link between college and upward social mobility is as old as the American Dream itself.

Today, many are questioning whether heading to a four-year college is the right choice. This uncertainty is due in part to changing economic conditions, in a world that increasingly seems to reward entrepreneurship, independent-mindedness, and practical over classroom experience. For a new generation of young people, the choice to go to college isn’t nearly as obvious as it was for their parents.

You’ll Get a Job, They Said

Responses to a recent poll conducted by the Harvard Public Opinion Project (HPOP) reflect the dominance of the idea that education is tied to progress. Among respondents, all of whom were between 18 and 29, approximately nine out of ten believed that education is an important factor in realizing the American Dream.

As much as this finding reflects a general consensus among young adults, it also reveals some notable differences in opinion. Within the larger group of 90 percent, a third deemed education as merely “somewhat” rather than “very” important.

Young people also disagree on exactly how much education is needed for advancement. On a related question, 35 percent of all survey-takers determined that a bachelor’s degree was the highest level of education necessary to achieve the American Dream. Another combined 35 percent felt that only a degree from a high school or some college/community college was required. While some millennials view higher education as a prerequisite to achieving the American Dream, a considerable segment isn’t seeing a strong connection. This discrepancy in opinion might be due to the fact that college tuition is increasing at a rate that outpaces inflation, while student debt is climbing to numbers that exceed $1 trillion: it costs to follow a dream.

Meanwhile, a hefty percentage of well-qualified graduates are either not finding work or settling for a low-skill job each year. In the HPOP poll from spring 2012, a 20 year-old Hispanic female enrolled in a junior college gave her take on the American Dream, say it meant “having a stable job, food on the table every day, having a house, having a vehicle, and the whole family just having a good life.” But without many stable jobs to go around, this picture is quick to deteriorate.

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Without a Degree

In the midst of these challenges, an updated version of the American “self-made man” has appeared: the college dropout. Household names like Michael Dell, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg are codifying a new American tale, in which the knowledge earned from developing a project or launching a start-up far surpasses the gains of waking up for a 9 a.m. lecture. The Thiel Fellowship, a program started by PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel, shares this learning-by-doing philosophy. The organization pays fellows $100,000 to willingly drop their university studies and work on start-ups.

In 2010, Annie Wang, co-founder of the online magazine Her Campus, took a leave of absence from Harvard University, where she had been majoring in visual and environmental studies with a minor in psychology. This decision, which Wang told the HPR she “had no reservations about,” came soon after she and fellow classmates Stephanie Kaplan and Windsor Hanger won the Harvard Student Investment Award. Wang has not yet returned to school, though completing her degree is something she would like to do in the future. For now, she’s currently working full time as the company’s Chief Product Officer and Creative Director.

Despite putting a pause on her formal education, Wang feels that in the years spent growing and expanding Her Campus, she has received “a world of education from running a business … thinking on your feet, managing people, and figuring out a game plan and how to execute it.” According to Wang, these are skills that a person may “dabble in a little in an academic setting,” but without any added pressure to perform.

“The stakes are different,” Wang told the HPR. “You’re juggling more ideas, more people, more consequences, money … these are concepts and entities you just don’t interact with in a classroom.”  Even so, Wang acknowledges the sacrifices she made, including the “personal sacrifices that go along with…leaving the rest of your class.” When and if she returns, she will not enjoy “a typical senior year.” Nevertheless, it is not an exaggeration to say that these sacrifices have paid off. Wang was named one of Businessweek’s 25 Under 25 Best Young Entrepreneurs and Glamour’s 20 Amazing Young Women, among many others.

Learning in Reverse

Take a group of young adults who are deterred by rising costs and the prospect of post-graduate unemployment. Combine that with the added motivation they feel to break off on their own and follow in the less conventional direction of a new set of role models. Then, add in that well-worn doubt of your every-day college applicant: what do I want to do with me life?

Such were the concerns of Monika Lutz, who in 2010, after getting rejected from all of her top schools, took off on a series of gap year travels that carried her across the globe in the hopes of getting a few steps closer to answering these questions. “College is a huge investment, not only financially but also temporally, and I wanted to be a good investor,” Lutz told the HPR.

In total, she participated in 13 internships, including serving on a confidential assignment to Nancy Pelosi and on the economy and finance desks of the European Union Delegation. While some taught her what she might want to do for a career, others showed her what she did not like. Holistically, Lutz told the HPR, “Every single one of my experiences shaped me. I wanted to find what I care about, not only intellectually, but also in real life application.” To do this, she searched high and low: “is it public relations, is it fashion, is it China?” The questions went on, and she gave herself time to answer them.

Through her studies at the Harvard Extension School, Lutz now lives and works abroad “while learning from world-leading professors on the weekends.” Lutz called her experience “a form of reverse learning” wherein she went to the professional world, pinpointed the gaps in her knowledge, and returned to college to study and fill in those gaps. For those who still carry their doubts about higher education but can afford to be more financially liberal, these extended and exploratory gap years are on the rise as a popular option.

What Is Lost

Meanwhile, the bold re-writing of the American Dream happening among non-traditional and former college students is not without its flaws. How much of people’s success can we ultimately attribute to the path they took, versus the qualities, drive, and work ethic of those who selected that path? Furthermore, how can we account for some of the immeasurable benefits of immersing oneself in a college environment, such as personal growth and career opportunities that may result from expanding one’s horizons and interacting with classmates?

Regardless of these debates, the re-envisioning of the American Dream is likely to chug along. And as the image of the dream itself becomes hazier, a new promise is being delivered to young Americans: that there are multiple pathways to success.

Read more here: http://harvardpolitics.com/harvard/go-college-said/
Copyright 2017