We are close to reaching a significant landmark in our marriage: my wife’s student loans are very nearly paid off.
She is a stay-at-home mom to our three kids; she has many impressive talents that she has put to good use inside and outside the home, but, like so many people our age, she has not needed her degree for any of the wonderful things she has accomplished. For my part, I didn’t go to college at all. Yet we have used my income to pay for a college education that I never had and my wife never used. Money well spent, needless to say.
The only unusual thing about our situation is that we are a single-income family living on the income of the one who didn't go to college. But the fact that we are paying for an unused degree puts us in the same camp as the vast majority of people. Only about 27% of college grads are in a field related to their major.
I could go on for paragraphs listing all of the well-worn statistics proving beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt that college degrees are often a gargantuan waste of time and money. I could mention all the millennial college grads who live at home with their parents; the college grads who can't pay their own bills; the college grads who are unemployed or underemployed. We could even talk about the college grads who pimp themselves out to "sugar daddies" to offset their crushing debt. And so on.
None of this seems to matter. Student loan debt has reached around one and a half trillion dollars, with no signs of slowing down. We continue to filter our kids through this system, saddling them (or ourselves) with a lifetime of debt, as if we cannot possibly conceive of any other option. We are now advised to have about $60,000 saved up per child so that our kids can spend four years earning a degree that will serve no function other than to look pretty hanging on the wall.
This is madness.
Here is the truth that we are paying a massive sum to avoid facing: Only a small minority of the population should go to a four-year institution. Almost no one should go right after high school. College is a tool. It should be used to advance a particular end. A student who enters college should be able to complete this sentence: "I'm going to school so that I can ____." If he can fill in that blank with "get into medical school" or "become an engineer," then he is in the right place. If he fills it with "I dunno, get some kind of job I guess" or "figure out what I want to do with my life" or "learn how to do a keg stand," then the last place on Earth he should be, at this moment in time, is a university.
A young person with no money, no means, no assets, no experience, no resume, cannot afford to pay $70,000 and four years of his life to "figure out" what he wants to do. In what other scenario would we recommend that an 18-year-old spend five figures on something without having a clear idea as to how he will use it? What would you say to your son if he came home with a $50,000 telescope that he purchased because he might want to be an astronomer at some point in the future, possibly?
Here is what almost every 18-year-old should do instead of college: something. Do something. College is not doing. College is learning, allegedly. Learning in a formal, structured environment. If you are 18, you've already been in that world for basically your entire life. Perhaps you need some more of it. But you don't know because you don't know yourself; you don't know what your talents are, your passions, your vocation, your skills. You have no skills. Because you haven't done anything yet. So, go do something. Get a job. Any job, really. Get a job in your town, or in North Dakota, or in Japan. Go forth into the world, untethered.
Maybe you will discover, out there in the wild, that you really do have a passion for medicine. Okay, now you can pursue that path. You won't be "behind." There is no "behind." Existence is not a race. But maybe you will discover that you want to be a mechanic. Okay, good thing you didn't waste your time in college. Maybe you will discover that you have a passion for sales. Okay, then go sell something. Maybe you will meet the love of your life and decide that you want to dedicate yourself to being a mother and homemaker. Okay, now you get to begin that new life without $60,000 of debt.
It's easier to discover your vocation outside of the claustrophobic confines of a university, and, best of all, it's free.
Now, I already know all of the objections to this plan. I'll address each of them:
1. Objection: But you need a college education. Most jobs require it.
I submit that there is a big difference between "you need a college education" and "most jobs require it." It's true that many jobs require it, but that's only because many employers are too lazy and dumb to identify, assess, and recruit real talent. Instead they come up with arbitrary educational qualifiers and trust that whoever meets them must be suited for the job. As a result, many jobs are occupied by people who lack the ability to perform the task assigned.
It's a self-defeating model. It cannot last and it won't. Companies that create these pointless barriers, excluding talented and experienced applicants in favor of applicants with no talent and less experience, all because one has a piece of paper with the name of a school on it and the other does not, will eventually find that this system is unsustainable. I believe that many employers are already making this discovery.
Degrees are a bubble. Like BitCoin, their value is artificial. The more people who forgo the college path, choosing instead to forge their own, the quicker the bubble will burst. College will remain insanely expensive, and degrees will remain artificially "needed," as long as we all continue going along with the program. So, stop going along with it.
2. Objection: An education has its own value. It's not all about getting a job.
Yes, this is true. You cannot put a price tag on learning. The problem is that colleges do put a price on it, and the price is financial ruin. Why pay that when you can learn for free? Pick up a book. Go online. This is the Information Age, after all. You have the sum total of all human knowledge right at your finger tips, and it doesn't have to cost you a dime. For me, it costs about $20 or $30 a month in used books. I learn every day. I learn about history, philosophy, theology, literature. I've read three books already this year and the year is only a week and a half old.
The problem is that the quality of a college education has declined precipitously as the cost of that education has risen dramatically. Again, in what other situation, in what other industry, would we tolerate such a dynamic? Imagine if Chick-Fil-A announced tomorrow that their chicken sandwiches will be made of rubber and they'll cost $650. Would you still go there for lunch the next day on the basis that the only other option is starvation?
3. Objection: It's about the college experience!
Even if I were to agree that the "college experience" is desirable, what teenager can afford to spend $60,000 on an experience? An Alaskan cruise is also a nice experience but it should only be enjoyed by people who can afford it.
And what is the experience in most colleges? Stifling intellectual conformism, moral degradation, beer pong, casual sex, and probably one or two STDs. There may be some colleges that provide a more enriching environment (Hillsdale, Christendom, Franciscan, to name a few), but they are in the minority. A shrinking minority, at that.
For most colleges, the experience is the worst thing about it. Even if it tuition fell to ten bucks a year, I'd still recommend against college in most cases precisely because of the experience. It is simply mind boggling that any adult in the country, who has seen our culture and witnessed the sort of people these institutions produce, would still cite the formative "college experience" as an advantage of the university system. But every argument in favor of universal college attendance seems like this. Not only baseless but like it was formulated by someone who has not walked outside of their house or turned on the news since 1953.
Then again, what do I know? I'm just a dummy who didn't go to college.