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 ratemyprofessor.com. 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.