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Monday, July 14, 2008


I skipped college. At some point while I was in high school, probably when I spent one whole Sophomore gym term filing university promotional materials alphabetically in the guidance counselor’s office wearing a full-leg cast, I realized this was probably not for me. Too many smiling faces, too many pretty campuses, too many state-of-the-art sports complexes. I wouldn’t have minded dressing like a prep and lazing around the yard studying with friends, pondering life’s deepest mysteries in the golden autumn sunshine like everybody seemed to be doing in the brochures, and it would have been fun to be in a dorm with roommates and parties and frat boys, but I could not think of one good reason why I needed to be there. I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet and going just to get my requirements out of the way, hoping that something would click while I was there seemed like a waste. It wasn’t about the money either (though it still seemed like a fortune then), I’d been offered a scholarship to a pretty good out-of-state university based on my SAT scores and my grandfather would have been pleased to help out and have me as a legacy at his or my grandmother’s alma maters. When the time came to commit to one school or another and I still couldn’t think of why I should go or what I wanted to study, my mother in desperation suggested I go to a local “college” and learn to be a travel agent, based entirely on my interest in traveling. That’s when I knew it was pointless, that college was no more than job training. I could pass tests, I have always been a natural born test-taker, both the fill-in-the-bubble and the B-essay type (I once scored an A+ on a written exam about Anna Karenina without knowing a thing about the book -- it’s only been in the last few years I found out how it ended), and I knew that all I’d get out of it after jumping through the hoops and passing the exams was a piece of paper saying so. There would be no deep philosophical discussions, no real education. If a diploma was what I needed, I’d buy one from the back pages of Rolling Stone, maybe make myself a minister while I was at it. If I wanted to travel, I’d pack my bags and go. If job training was what I needed, I’d get mine on the job.

And I did. Years later, after an easy acceptance by a Florida university -- my application submitted to staunch the parental badgering that “you’ll never amount to anything without some kind of degree” -- and another case of cold feet, I took a job at a theme park in security, moved into marketing, promotions, public relations and concert production, and then when my boss left for a bigger and more exciting opportunity with a Broadway producer, she took me with her (dependent as she was on my skillful rewriting of her correspondence.) She, and most of the staff at my new job, were all Gators, and while there was probably some nepotism, not having a diploma did not limit my potential in the company, in fact, it was probably better for me that I had not pursued that second-chance diploma as it would have branded me a traitorous ‘Nole.

Along the way, I met and married Jorge, a college-drop out with strong entrepreneurial skills and a real estate license, who has been doing well running his own business for twenty years or so.

Our girls have been brought up to understand that they can do pretty much what they want to do, and that most of that does not require a degree. My mother is still pushing college, working on the next generation now, but it falls on deaf ears. These kids have seen first hand that college is not the one-track path to success.

In Australia, at least in Queensland, kids may begin apprenticeships or certificate programs in year 10. There’s no stigma attached to the vo-tech path, it’s not a last ditch effort to keep bad kids in school. Students come out of the various programs highly skilled and ready to work. There’s no need to spend years chasing ever higher academic credentials in competition for good-paying jobs. They get on with their lives. The ones that want degrees for advanced studies and choose to go to uni take an exit exam in year 12. Those scores indicate which colleges and professions are available to them. Pretty simple. No padding your high school qualifications with AP classes or club memberships, no SAT prep classes or pressure to be the valedictorian just to get into a “good” school.

I agree with the Gates Foundation’s aim that children should have a basic education and graduate high school with a grounding in citizenship and the skills to continue on to college should it suit them. To imply that college is the be-all-end-all of an education is misguided. It’s one thing to insist on standards, it’s another to inflate them. We need more options: more job training and practical skill development opportunities, more focus on entrepreneurship and innovation, more employers to drop the phony, puffed-up degree requirements. To say that every kid needs to go to college is almost comical. As Syndrome says in The Incredibles, “...I’ll sell my inventions so that everyone can have powers. Everyone can be super! And when everyone's super -- [chuckles evilly] -- no one will be.

Check out the other posts on this topic at the Thinking Parents Wiki.


sheila said...

I tell all the nieces and nephews who will listen (if they can unplug their iPods and get off their computers long enough) that they should stop living off their parents and attending classes they neither like nor work hard at at the local university and do something practical, like be a plumber or something. No one does that anymore here - they could call the shots, make a fair bit of money, and have the world as their oyster the rest of the time. But no, their parents are stuck on the degree, even if it is a general BA with no distinctions and no furthering abilities attached. And the kids like having mummy and daddy pay the bills. Waste of time, IMO.

JJ Ross said...

LOL! From a Gator living the past 20 years among the 'Noles . . .