I first started noticing it about a year ago: My ‘90s college education is nearly obsolete.
I can tell when I talk to Silicon Valley types brimming with resources and well-being and wisdom. They have never heard of Harold Bloom or dialectical materialism or the Oxford English Dictionary. Americans are thriving without even passing acquaintance with the totems I once thought you had to master before you could amount to anything in America.
Mention collegey topics in tech circles—the Bible as literature, say, or symbolic anthropology—and they look at you with appalled sympathy, like those haughty Genius Bar people. You're still running iOS 5?!
And that's what got me thinking. Imagine if it completely didn’t matter where—or whether—you went to college. And where or whether your children went.
Allow yourself, for now, to hold that idea in your head.
In this world, it would still matter, same as it always has, whether you can read, write, be compassionate and grateful, code, assemble Ikea furniture, dilate on current events and history, exhibit self-control, navigate, meditate, make friends and sleep well when you want to.
The skills of our modern world would still be necessary. And by that I mean that, if you found yourself deficient in one of these areas, you’d have to either learn (school of hard knocks, church, YouTube), or compensate (audiobooks for reading, Craigslist for Ikea-assembly, GPS for navigation).
But at the same time it would be utterly meaningless—like just shy of pure gobbledygook—to say, ever, “But I went to Groton and Swarthmore! Cranbrook and Stanford! Darlington and Auburn! Crossroads and USC! St. Mary’s and Miami-Dade!"
In young adulthood, you’d make friends, acquaintances and misspent-youth memories in the workplace, online and in service to community, cause and country. That’s where you’d also acquire polish, a work ethic and a conscience.
You’d bring glory or ignominy to your family the old-fashioned way: through your contributions to society and your interactions with your fellows. The glory/ignominy die would not be cast when you were 17, by a letter of admission or rejection. Imagine.
You’d read, do problem sets and hear lectures as needed or desired—in reading groups, at workshops, on the road, at community programs, at corporate programs, at museums and libraries and above all on the Internet. You’d study not to get a credential; you’d study to improve your mind or acquire a skill, the same reason you go to karate, yoga or mandolin class.
If you happened to be the rare type who loves nothing more than to study liberal arts—if you were scholarly and somewhat monastic by nature—you might raise the money and enroll in an affordable college with some like-minded students and a good library. This choice and expense would no more reflect on your social status than it would if you went to an ashram, a kibbutz or the Marines for a few years.
Rather than rely on the shorthand (“Georgetown,” “Syracuse”) that was once supposed to be a stamped ticket to the professional class (but never was), prospective employers would devise their own tests to find viable hires. Many already do. (“I’ve never had a job in journalism that required me to show my diploma,” said Fruzsina Eordogh, a 20-something reporter for the Daily Dot, told Reuters earlier this year. She’d quit Loyola University Chicago in her senior year—to get a head start on paying her $50,000 student-loan debt.)
Last year, after all, more than 50 percent of recent college graduates were jobless or underemployed. A college degree may still be the subject of widespread idolatry—evidently worth the mass sacrifice of human childhoods—but it’s a guarantee of nothing.
In this utopia, you’d never have to go to a frat party or an anti-frat party. Best of all, you wouldn’t have to spend your best years as an underemployed zombie casualty of the higher-education bubble. You wouldn’t have your wages garnished into your 40s to make payments on an “education” now mostly remembered as binge drinking or trying not to binge-drink.
In the schools-don’t-matter world, the bygone facts of the 2012 education bubble—insanely expensive colleges, skyrocketing student debt and widespread joblessness—would sound to you like the Dutch tulip bubble. Huh? Why did people hijack their lives for tulips—or college?
And no one, in this universe, would talk about having been to Swarthmore or the University of Chicago or Alabama or Princeton as though it spoke to their moral character or sense of style. Or their class status. Or their intelligence or worldliness. It would just be an odd biographical detail.
I can tell when I talk to teenagers who want, above all, to learn computer code. Computer programming—that unwholesome hobby of layabouts who failed to read the urgently important “Grapes of Wrath” for English class. Who’s laughing now? The English majors, like me, who aspired in college to write front-of-book copy for Mademoiselle (RIP) or the coder dropouts who make games at Electronic Arts ($4.1 billion net revenue last quarter)? At 18, in my college town, I couldn’t think of a single person who hadn’t finished college and gone on to a productive life. Today’s kids have the opposite problem: Their heroes are all dropouts. They have Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. What do they need with Uncle Fred, who went to Brown and is now the regional manager of a log-homes company?
In other fields, too, it’s not just George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Thomas Edison, William Faulkner, Robert Frost—the college-free supermen who used to be cited as the exceptions to the rule of mandatory college.
There are dropout role models everywhere. An exceedingly short list would have to include Julian Assange, Donna Karan, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sean Parker, David Karp, Jane Jacobs, Wolfgang Puck, Kristen Wiig, Doris Lessing, Annie Leibovitz, Steve Martin, William Safire, Maurice Sendak, Ted Turner, J. D. Salinger, Coco Chanel, Warren Buffett, Carla Bruni, Chelsea Handler, David Bowie, Richard Branson, Sergey Brin, Zooey Deschanel, Barry Diller, David Geffen, Whoopi Goldberg, Donald Barthelme, Ellen DeGeneres, David Byrne, Paulo Coelho, Michael Dell, James Cameron, Tyra Banks, Beck, and Woody Allen.
It’s clear, too, that attitudes are changing when you talk to lavishly educated parents whose children are defying their influence and choosing to take gap years, drop out or stretch four years of college over a decade or more. According to the "Pathways to Prosperity" study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2011, only 56 percent of college students complete four-year degrees within six years. At two-year colleges, only 29 percent finish in three years. (The grim coda: Young people who drop out end up with massive debt and no degree.)
Parents, then, have no choice but to slowly adjust themselves to their kids’ improv approach to college, itself an adaptation to the slow-mo crisis in higher education. The parents, too, are learning to drop the creed we grew up with: Four sequential years of lockdown in a residential college you could brag about—or bust.
And I mean bust. I really think I thought people just died if they didn’t finish college.
That kind of crazy superstition is how bubbles are made. For a time, we collectively seemed to believe that people might die if they didn’t own their own houses. So we plowed money and faith into that conceit, and look what happened.
But we haven’t learned. We’re plowing money and faith into the conceit that brand-name colleges win you friends and happiness and fulfilling work and life’s cash and prizes. Even though we know it’s not true. And too many of us are still raising children to believe that their existences (not just their educations) rise or fall on their (rigged) admission to one of these debt factories.
As Steve “Stu” Burguiere, the radio personality and producer, has bluntly put it: “We’re damning our children to hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Before they work a day in their life. And they spend over half the time [in college] in recreation. It’s insanity.”
Just think if the world were different. If the labels of schools didn’t matter—or, rather, if the premium-brand schools were like yachts or Ferraris, only for the ostentatious rich. Decent schools that offered merit scholarships were for scholars, and certificates from them proved nothing more or less than completion of a very specific course of study. And the rest of us stopped crowing about, or worrying over, the name on our college sweatshirts, or our kids’ college sweatshirts, or any of our LinkedIn profiles.
We might find more interesting things to think about. Like actually learning. Or becoming better people.