Enough With College Bashing

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Anyone else aware of the increasing level of college bashing going on lately?  I'm not talking about college scandals, but whether college is necessary, important, or worth it.

This past week, CNN aired a documentary "Ivory Tower" focusing on issues including whether college remains relevant in today's tech-driven world, whether students who wish to succeed (i.e. make money) need to attend, the sky-rocketing costs associated with attendance...it provided a look at college through a multi-faceted, albeit narrow lens.

Just this morning, a commercial touted the fact that college is not necessary and there are other ways to succeed.  Now I admit that I'm biased in that my work revolves around education and ensuring that all children can succeed, and while I certainly agree that college is not required -- or in the cards -- for everyone, I finally said to myself...enough with the college bashing already.

Like every institution, there will be different perspectives depending upon the experiences of those providing them.  Not right or wrong, simply different.  And while I support taking all insights into consideration, there's a big difference between sharing ones thoughts, feelings, and perspectives and basically trashing the institution entirely.

No question about it -- the institution of college has reached a tipping point particularly in terms of costs and access.  Yet to state or infer that college has long overstayed its welcome or to convey to young people that it isn't worth their time or investment (defined many ways) and discouraging them from pursuing the goal and attending is quite another thing. 

I know few parents who, in their children's earliest years, did not already have the hope for college on the horizon, and many started stashing away what cash they could while their children were just learning to read.  Mattered little whether it was community college or a four-year university, whether after a gap year or a few short months after high school graduation, college has been -- and continues to be -- a goal shared by millions of parents and their children.  And why shouldn't it be.

Let's be honest...no parent (including this one) wants to see their child in debt that they'll be struggling to pay down until they reach retirement.  Few parents send their children to college expecting four years of binge drinking and failing grades.  And most parents raise their children to understand that anything worth achieving requires hard work and sacrifice.  Yet the choir seems to be singing the tune that college isn't worth it.  Any of it.

Here's how I see it.  College is the time in a young person's life when they're encouraged to explore new areas, to challenge their assumptions, to engage in discussions that stretch their thinking and prompt questions, and to collaborate with people -- professors and students alike -- who expand their horizons.  It's a time when learning occurs in ways that exposes young people to experiences that form the foundation for what comes next...life.  And it's when children grow into young adults in ways that cannot be measured by a paycheck.

There's no question that college isn't for everyone.  Many successful people do well without it and many make other choices.  A man I worked with many years ago personified success -- several homes, foreign cars, vast travel, philanthropic efforts.  And late one afternoon, he shared with me his greatest regret in life even after achieving what most of us would call the pinnacle of success.  Not attending college.  No matter his achievements, and there were many, the fact that he didn't attend college was the thing that overshadowed all else.

Every person has a different life path.  College has been and remains one aspired to and chosen by many.  Of course the "real life" issues of cost and expansion of access requires our immediate attention, but losing sight of the things more difficult to measure and quantify...that college prepares young people to enter and sustain an educated, diverse, capable, flexible, and collaborative society, is doing them a terrible disservice.

It's true that not all goals are achievable.  Yet some goals and the experiences that come with achieving them frame and remain with us forever.  The people we become -- our jobs, titles, and income, may define us well into adulthood, yet college sets the tone for what comes next.  Few other things in life have the same lasting power.

-Debra I. Schafer, CEO