Tuesday, June 12, 2012

To College, or Not to College

If there is one central theme through all of the posts I have written, it may well be a call to action for all parents to spend some time thinking and learning about what kind of parents they actually want to be. It is easy to merely parent the way society expects us to, the way were raised ourselves, or the way we see on sitcoms. But parenting, of all pursuits and endeavors, really requires that we make conscious choices and decisions. To do that requires that we learn, watch, listen, and grow. There is no more important role than the role of a parent, and we cannot merely switch ourselves onto autopilot and go through the motions.

As a father and as a writer, I have addressed issues like co-sleeping, spanking, letting kids "cry it out," learning, and a host of other traditional parenting paradigms that should be addressed in order to avoid switching on the autopilot and try to be the kind of parents our kids deserve. Now I need to address one more - college.


Jeff and School (Not for the Faint-of-Heart)

I was one of those kids who drove his teachers crazy. I could discourse on a variety of topics for hours on end, but never did a lick of homework in any class because I just did not see the point. I always tested well if I enjoyed the subject, and tested poorly if the subject was uninteresting and therefore unworthy of my focus and energy. Since that's not really how formal school works, I graduated from high school with a 1.7 GPA, a nice solid D+. I was fine with that.

I tried to go to college right after high school, but it was clear almost from the start that college was not a particularly good fit for me. I did exceptionally well in the classes that interested me, like Theater Arts and French. I enjoyed those classes because they challenged me, inspired me, and focused on things that I enjoyed doing. With each class, I could almost feel myself learning and growing, able to immediately apply what I had learned to some practical purpose that filled me with joy. I was laser-focused, never missed a lesson, never missed a class, never missed an opportunity to soak up more and more. When I think of learning, at its most pure, that is always the image I get in my head - someone who enjoys the topic or task so much that it takes a Herculean effort to pull them away.

Sadly, college (and most formal schooling, for that matter), is designed to "pull you away" from the subjects you love in order to make you a more well-rounded person, whatever the hell that means. My college experience was no different; my class schedule was such that I had a few classes I loved, and a few classes about which I could not have possibly cared less. So while I started with the best of intentions, I was unable and unwilling to remove my focus from what I enjoyed learning to what they thought I should learn. And I flunked out. Several times, over several years.

Then, when I was in my late 20s, I decided that I wanted to be a lawyer. For the life of me I cannot recall why I ever wanted to do that, but I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time. To be a lawyer, I needed to go to Law School (which actually is not true, but it is the customary path these days.) To go to Law School, I needed a BA in some sort of social science. So I went and got a BA in some sort of social science. Some classes I loved, some bored the hell out of me, but I got through them all (with honors) because I was committed to getting the degree. It was hard work, not ever really exciting, but it seemed worth it to me.

Then about five years later, I decided to go to grad school. I really wanted a PhD in Business so I could teach at a Business School, but I was rejected by every PhD program I applied to. Penn State asked me if I would consider coming to get my MBA, which was never really a goal of mine but which seemed like a possibly reasonable step toward getting into a PhD program somewhere down the line. The MBA program was fine; I learned a few things, made some great friends, and found a few new interests and passions. The PhD dream died, the MBA paid off, and here I am almost ten years later, fat and happy and with $50k in student loans. But at least I got the degree. I guess that was a good thing.

My College Experience in a Nutshell

When I net all of that out, it looks like this:

I started to go to college because everyone else did.
I only succeeded in the subjects I enjoyed learning about. 
I completed college when it became important to me to do so. 
I went to grad school so I could earn more money, not to learn. 

Meh. But, I suspect, pretty typical of most people.

What Learning Can Be

If I had to do it over again - knowing full well the benefits, risks, and rewards - I would redesign the entire experience to focus on a few simple things:

Learn what you love, learn the way you learn best, learn without borders or coercion, and learn without judgment.

It's ironic, when you think about it. I remember when my kids were just babies, barely able to crawl. When they got a new toy, they would spend hours with it, using it in ways that I never would have imagined. They learned, and loved it, without borders or coercion or judgment. Almost every parent acknowledges how important that is, and allows the kids to play and learn that way, and becomes an active participant down on the floor helping and watching and learning right along with their child. And then some day, somehow, we allow the "system" to take so much of the joy out of learning, setting up a series of expectations and demands that are in many ways counter to the innate joys of learning a new task or skill or bit of information. Sad. Common, all too common, but sad.

So Why Go to College?

In truth, I know exactly why I went to college; after all, I went about seven times, I should know by now. The real question is "why do other people go to college?" I suspect that it boils down to one of three reasons.

College as the "Next Step." I believe that most people go to college because it is expected of them, and because it is simply what one does. When one considers the financial implications of college, this is obviously a bad choice. But the emotional and spiritual implications can be even worse, as this approach essentially forces someone into another five years of studying things that are likely to bore them and have no bearing on their interests and passions. In other words, it's another five years of time and money spent in the pursuit of a piece of paper that guarantees nothing and promises little more.

College as a Learning Experience. Hold your hats for this next one: Some people, even those straight out of high school, actually go to college because they want to learn something. Believe it or not, there are some remarkable learning opportunities in college. How cool is that. Of course, it helps if you know what you want to learn, the way you 'll learn it best, and what you don't care to learn. Colleges aren't really set up to do that all that well, so you're forced to take the good with the bad.

College as a Job Preparation Experience. Some people go to college specifically to prepare themselves for jobs they love. Let's face it, some jobs do require formal post-secondary education. Rocket scientists. Vascular surgeons. School teachers. Accountants. That kind of stuff. If that kind of job just thrills you to death, then off to school with you, when you think you're ready and prepared to put up with all of the other classes and requirements that you don't care about. Because, really, you're not going to escape those. Unless, you know, you just go to college for a little while and then drop out to go do something else. Like Steve Jobs did. Or Bill Gates. Or Michael Dell.

There are probably other reasons people go to college, I'm sure. But what if . . . what if I told you that there is a different way to accomplish some of these goals?

There Can Be a Better Way

What if I told you that there were a number of ways to learn that were more effective than college, that could put you into contact with leaders in your chosen field and provide opportunities that colleges can only dream about - at a fraction of the cost, if not altogether free? What if I told you that you could learn more by following your passions than you could in all of your common core classes put together? What if I told you that you can create your own job, create your own learning, and create your own network of people to help you, without ever having to sacrifice your spirit on things that bore the hell out of you?

You might think I was an idiot. Hell, you might think that anyway.

"Better Than College"

So please, don't take my word for it. Listen to Blake Boles.

Blake has just written a life-changing book, "Better than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree." I had the chance to offer my thoughts on some of his early drafts, and as a college grad I admit I was somewhat skeptical. But the more I read, the more I thought, and the more I considered, the more amazing this book became. It is readable. It is logical. It focuses not on throwing college under the bus, but on practical tools, tips, and inspirations designed to provide the benefits of the college experience without the negatives of the college experience. Simply put, it is thought provoking; and like all good thought-provoking books, it also provokes change and action.


Blake wrote this book for young adults, and that audience needs to hear what he has to say. But I'm thinking bigger.

I think anyone considering a career change should read this book.

I think anyone who is unhappy in their current job should read this book.

I think every parent who grew up with the paradigm that kids should go to college should read this book.

I think every school teacher, administrator, and guidance counselor should read this book.

And, of course, every parent who wants to encourage their kids to dream for themselves, think for themselves, decide for themselves, and consider what could be instead of what cannot be, should read this book several times.

"Better Than College" is an important book, on a critical thought, at a crucial time. Buy it. Buy it now. Your child's lifelong happiness could depend on it.

1 comment:

  1. I think you sold me. I am very interested. Sounds like soemthing I would love to read, too, but especially my older kids.

    ReplyDelete