Rebel Yell: Why Traditional College is for the Birds

Rebel Yell: Why Traditional College is for the Birds

Picture this: a reasonably intelligent girl growing up in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania. Even among her working class neighbors, most of whom do not have college degrees, she and her family are considered poor, with piles of garbage outside their dilapidated house and the requisite broken-down car in a dirt driveway teeming with weeds.

The girl’s father abandoned the family when she was 12 and the girl’s mom can’t hold down a job, getting fired from Kmart, Burger King, and the local gas station that doubles as the Friday hangout spot for local teenagers. It’s never meant to be the hangout. Instead, it’s where local teenagers convene in order to plan for the evening, although everyone knows they’ll stay all night because there’s simply nowhere else to go.

The girl knows there’s only one way to escape and not, as her brother had, become a teenage parent: get a college degree. She remembers her grandmother, an immigrant from Eastern Europe and Holocaust survivor with no more than a grade school education repeating the mantra, “Get your degree. Before you do anything else in life, you must get your education.”

The girl in this story is me, and that’s exactly what I did. I held down three jobs in my first semester of college while shouldering a full-time course load. While my new friends imbibed obscene amounts of alcohol, I got paid minimum wage through the school’s work-study program to man the front desk of what unfortunately happened to be the coolest dorm on campus, Jennings. Every Saturday night, attractive and easygoing freshman sauntered by my desk with various levels of pity crossing their faces. I buried my head behind a book, wishing the floor would do me a favor and swallow me up.

Four years later, armed with a Bachelor’s degree, the world opened up to me. I served in the Peace Corps, studied in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and went on to earn a Master’s degree from Columbia University. Yes me, the girl with freezer lying in the overgrown grass of her front yard earned all A’s and four A-‘s from an Ivy League institution. On the day I picked up my diploma, 10 weeks pregnant, I thought about my grandma and how proud she would have been.

Now that I’ve told you about the role education has played in my life, it might shock you to hear this: I’m not excited about my daughter eventually attending a traditional four-year college.

No one is more surprised by this development than me. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for my education. College was about more than tests and homework, theories and ideas; it was where I developed relationships that propelled me into a whole new life trajectory. I gained a broad swath of knowledge about a variety of fields and become more aware of history and my place in it. I took important steps towards my independence and, in at least three classes over four years, I challenged myself to think deeply and creatively.

But that was 16 years ago, and a lot has changed since then.  Most colleges, either awash in endowed cash or totally broke, are using a 19th century education model to tackle 21st century issues. Professors with barely any pedagogic training are preoccupied with publishing, tenure, bureaucratic nuisances, and the hotness scale on While students in China are laying the groundwork for fruitful futures in technology, engineering, science, and medicine, our graduates are finishing their undergraduate careers with a crippling amount of debt and no serious job training.

With Higher Ed looking as bad as my front lawn circa 1990, it’s time to acknowledge that the traditional college experience is not adequately preparing our children for a modern and global marketplace. Therefore, if my daughter has the choice someday to earn a Bachelor’s degree through the customary four-year track or gain experience and training that she can combine (over a longer period) with challenging online and classroom college courses, I may encourage her to choose the latter. There would be drawbacks, of course. But with social media reinforcing and expanding social ties, strong connections in the community, and a couple of parents who are passionate, life-long learners, I think she’ll be fine.

Yes, she might miss a game or two of beer pong and avoid the freshman 15. She may not discover, during a traditional full-time college experience, a yen for prehistoric dinosaur fossils, poetry, or Picasso. But perhaps, without the coddling of a dysfunctional university system, she’ll gain so much more: an ability to learn and explore myriad topics independently, specific and marketable skills, and an intrinsic curiosity unfettered by grades, homework, and university politics. Even better, with direct and relevant experience, she may have a greater chance at snagging a job that would allow her to grow and discover long after those tedious commencement speeches are over.

Regardless of what she chooses, since in the end we know it all comes down to her goals and aspirations, I hope every once in a while she remembers how an eagerness to learn – and not just a piece of paper – transformed her mom’s life. Someday, I plan to take her back with me to visit that little town in Pennsylvania, to see the old house and the gas station that doubled as my inevitable Friday night hangout. Because regardless of her mom’s naïve wishes and dashed dreams, whatever choices my daughter makes about her future are hers, and I’m just along for the ride.

* The pic comes from an April article on the Daily Kos, where I discovered that 50% of college graduates under 25 are either unemployed or underemployed.

Filed under: family

Tags: college, cost, education, kids, learning, parents


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  • Wendy - I hear you. College isn't always a guarantee of a transformative experience.

    I'm an older student who has returned to school in the last year, but some of the concepts you talk about are universal.

    Some thoughts:

    - Having one school for four years may not make sense in this era. Perhaps she can take care of some of the basics at a City College campus, and look for that interesting/challenging school to join in year 2 or 3. It's more cost effective, and in some ways breaking it into segments will get her used to the job market - where people change jobs and forge new collaborative environments on an average of every two to three years.

    - If it's physically and economically possible, I'd wholly encourage her (and you) to embrace the idea of her doing internships in the fields she's interested in over the summers/winter breaks. It's not just enough to have a piece of paper at the end of the day these days - it's the contacts and relationships and what she makes of them.

  • Such great advice, heyyou! I worry about kids who don't have the luxury to take on internships because they have to work. If I was going to school in 2012 and not 1992, I don't know if I would have been able to manage it all.

  • Ah, another bandwaggoner "what did college do for me?". Yes, I know in 2012 America it is cool to "hate" on education. Heck, it's even trendy right now to spout off about the "evil" of education (gasp!) But your new cause de jour is so dangerous I have been compelled to sign up and comment.

    You know Wendy, doctors, teachers, engineers, etc. NEED TO BE EDUCATED. To that point, I'm getting so tired of the anti-Intellectual movement in this country. And by the way, it's a bit contradictory for an Ivy League grad to now dispel the notion of the importance of education. No matter how much you want to pretend your success can be contributed solely to do with your career skills, it would be disingenuous to not state your degree opened doors. As do all degrees that are sought after by employers. The name gets you in, you sell yourself.

    To that point, you people and the "college did nothing for me" crowd are killing the economic future of this country. And even though I know it is "cool" to be on this current cause, we already have a shortage of physicians and engineers. So, yes, if you want to work at Wal-Mart a degree is not necessary. Those who want to go big, need a professional degree. And Wendy, you can't get a professional degree without a undergrad degree (just in case you have forgot).

    So, thanks for speeding up the process of "Idiocracy". You are making it easier for my children who will be attending college and following in the educated footsteps of their surgeon mother or psychologist father. Heck, with attitudes such as yours, my kids will have it easy achieving their dreams.

    Now, if you want to write a column on the abuses of the higher ed system in financially plundering the youth of this county, I'm with you. However, this attitude against higher ed is so misguided and frankly dangerous.

  • In reply to Jeffrey B:

    Wow, Jeffrey B, such strong and passionate opinions, I love it! When you dig a little deeper, you'd actually find our perspectives are not so disparate. We both recognize the path to success in this country is through a combination of in (or web-based) class learning and out of class training. As a psychologist and surgeon, I imagine you and your wife had to do both to prepare for your careers.

    (And, as a psychologist myself, I imagine you also learned ways to express yourself that didn’t involve accusing another person of "idiocy." But let’s save that conversation - the one about empathy, thoughtful dialogue, and constructive communication - for another day.)

    So, to rebut a few of your points:

    - I have to giggle when you accuse me of being anti-intellectual. As I mention in my post, I plan to spend the rest of my life engaged in learning. If I could live in a library with stacks of books towering around me, I’d be as a happy as an intellectually curious clam.

    - I state quite clearly in my post that college transformed my life. But if I was 18 now and not back in 1992, I would not have been able to get through a traditional 4- year college experience. In part, it’s because of what you allude to at the end of your comment about finances.

    Financially, it would have been impossible for me to graduate (magna cum laude, see what an intellectual snob I am? I even wrote an honors thesis) with only 5K debt. Instead, if it were today, I’d be likely to have 10 times that much (and be under/unemployed). With college so expensive, it's time to explore options that don't financially cripple an entire generation. Not all kids today have surgeons and psychologists as parents! :)

    Lastly, I am quite aware of the fact that we need people to go to college. And I want my kid to get an education. I’d just like it to be in a system that isn't using a 19th century model to tackle and solve 21st century issues.

    Thanks again for your comment!

  • Wendy, I agree that it’s time to take a good hard look at traditional college education. I’m with you on the point that many professors can’t teach and are far too preoccupied with their research and commencement speeches are generally terrible. And of course the debt is a serious concern. I disagree, however, with saying the traditional college experience is not adequately preparing our children for a modern and global marketplace.

    I went to a typical four-year liberal arts university and it was there that I learned not only about what I wanted to learn more about, I also learned about “softer skills” such as time management, being curious and exploring my interests (intellectual and otherwise), and developing my own opinions. These skills are invaluable in today’s global marketplace and this is what makes Americans stand out in it.

    I just wrapped up an 18-month stint in China on an assignment for my company and I can tell you that while they are teaching all the hard skills to be successful engineers and doctors, critical thinking is not encouraged in Chinese education. Critical thinking is perhaps the most important “skill” anyone can have and traditional colleges excel at bringing this out in many (but certainly not all) of its students. I would even argue that my experience at college set the table for my enthusiasm and willingness to take on said overseas assignment, which has undoubtedly helped my career.

    What’s more, I got my job at my current employer, eight years ago when I was just a year out of college, in part because my educational focus was not on hard skills. My major was in languages and history and many employers today (myself included) look for people that have studies in topics other than the profession in question as these people typically bring a unique perspective to the job (I realize that this doesn’t work for a number of professions).

    I’m not saying a traditional four year education is for everyone, and in certain cases may be seriously detrimental either for one’s career or bank account, but I do think the discussion must include all the elements (benefits) a traditional college education provides especially if the end game is being competitive in the global marketplace. There’s a reason applications from China (and other countries) to American universities is at an all-time high. I’d suggest reading this article and others by its author:

  • Thanks so much for your thought-provoking comment, Graham.

    I agree with much of what you’re saying. My experience in Poland sounded not so dissimilar to what you observed in China: that learning is about more than memorizing facts, it’s also about thinking creatively.

    I also see the need for a balanced education, one that leads to a successful career such as yours. Yet I can’t help but wonder whether you’d achieve the same success if you were graduating in 2012 and not 2003. As a mom who’s watching many talented grads move back home or wait tables at the high end barbecue restaurant down the street, I fear that my daughter will struggle to find a job. With a degree in science or engineering, she has a greater chance of gaining employment right after she graduates.

    Here’s an article from the NYTimes that supports both our points: It states that science and engineering degrees are more in demand, but managers are complaining that employees lack the “softer” skills that you mention.

    Here’s another article that I saw yesterday, talking about how Silicon Valley needs humanities majors, that speaks to your point. In this article, they talk about how most CEO's of tech companies are not engineers. But again, would the world have companies such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft without those engineers who built and than ran (and are still running) them?

    Another point I feel compelled to make is that college is not always the lofty experience we hope it will be. Have you heard of Professor X, an author and commentator for the Atlantic?

    Anonymously, he writes about being an adjunct professor at the “college of last resort.” As you can see from his anecdotes, students enter the college system so far behind that, according to Professor X, they will simply never catch up and it’s practically a crime to even try.

    Having seen this myself while taking a class at a city college in NYC, I worry that our system is becoming even more two-tiered, with the “haves” going to decent schools and having the luxury to study both the harder and softer subjects, while the “have-nots” graduate with thousands of dollars debt, barely any "hard" or "soft" skills and no good prospects for unemployment.

    Thanks again for sharing, Graham.

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