Alternatives To College: Succeeding Without Higher Education

My late father had a collection of mugs on his dresser from all the universities he and my mother, their three children and our spouses attended. He could have sipped his morning joe from a Princeton mug, or one from Stanford, Harvard, The University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern, Ithaca College, or The University of Rochester. Our family has amassed two PhDs, two MBAs, two master's degrees and a CPA. School was what we did, and we did it well.

I don't write about this to boast. I write about this as I ask you to imagine how I felt when one of my sons decided not to go to college. Any college. I ask you to imagine how my courageous son must have felt telling us "It's not that I won't go to college, it's that I can't."

As is the case with many families today, college attendance was a given in our household, like brushing your teeth or taking out the trash. Our kids were free to ask why we expected them to do these things, but their approval of our reasoning was irrelevant to us. They had to do what they had to do, and college was at the top of our to-do list. If help was needed to achieve this goal, my husband and I were always available to help.

Help was desperately needed for our middle son, Andrew. Diagnosed with severe ADHD and learning disabilities at a young age, school was torture for him, except for the socialization part, at which he excelled. My son suffered no end of criticism and ridicule from teachers throughout his secondary school education. One even called him stupid.

As concerned parents, we went on overdrive trying to turn Andrew into the kind of student we "knew" he could be. We put him in private school where classes were smaller. We spent a fortune on tutors and psychologists. We medicated him so he could focus at school, but he was a zombie with no appetite the rest of the time. We hired a college counselor to help him with the excruciating process of applying to colleges that accept kids with his unimpressive GPA, unimpressive being a euphemism for horrifying. We did everything we could think of but allow him be him.

One day, about six weeks before he was due to arrive at college, he asked my husband and me to have lunch with him, and, over burgers he dropped the bomb. We had a decision to make and it was one that had to be made in a split second. We could register extreme disappointment and push him one more time as we had pushed him all of his life, or we could accept his decision and by accepting that, we could accept him for the smart, funny, loving young man he is. We chose to do the latter.

Andrew did not become the belly-scratching, gum-chewing lout many people unfairly visualize when thinking about those who forgo a college education. Au contraire. He obtained a license to sell commercial real estate, found a job in a reputable firm and made a success of himself. That job led to another, and he is now thriving in New York City, one of the largest corporate real estate markets in the world. Did I mention that EVERYONE likes him?

We are blessed that Andrew doesn't hold his childhood against us. In between all those tutoring and therapy sessions there were family vacations and a whole lot of soccer and basketball and baseball. I suppose that counted for something.

President Obama, for whom I voted and for whom I will vote again, wants to raise America's college graduation rate to 60 percent, a noble goal to be sure, but I believe an impossible one. Money and room are the two factors most often cited as the barricades to success. They are huge factors. But there is another obstacle to achieving this goal, a personal and unquantifiable one. Not everyone is cut out for college.

Linda Lee, in her book, "Success Without College" writes, "Here is who belongs in college: the high-achieving student who is interested in learning for learning's sake, those who intend to become schoolteachers, and those young people who seem certain to go on to advanced degrees in law, medicine, architecture, engineering, and the like. Here is who actually goes to college: everyone."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 25 percent of college graduates are currently in jobs that do not require a college degree.

Charles Murray, political scientist and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education "It has been empirically demonstrated that doing well (B average or better) in a traditional college major in the arts and sciences requires levels of linguistic and logical/mathematical ability that only 10-15 percent of the nation's youth possess. That doesn't mean that only 10-15 percent should obtain more than a high school education. It does mean that the four-year residential program leading to a BA is the wrong model for a large majority of young people."

Of freshmen at four-year colleges who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their high school classes, two-thirds won't graduate from college even if given eight-and-a-half years.

Dropout rates are ridiculously high, particularly for public universities. Only 33 percent of freshmen entering the University of Massachusetts in Boston graduate within six years. The economist, Mark Schneider refers to colleges with these dropout rates as "failure factories," and they are the norm. While American high schools graduate about three quarters of their students in four years, American colleges only graduate 50 percent in six.

A large number of our young people are wasting valuable time and money in college when they could be learning a trade, working as apprentices, becoming entrepreneurs, or working in community service. Increasingly, large companies today offer programs to teach employees the skills they need to perform in the jobs for which they are hired. But young people are told over and over again by politicians, the media and their own families that failure to attend college means failure to thrive.

It is true that college graduates generally earn more over the course of their lives than those without diplomas. But our materialistic culture has pushed our youth into what can be for some an agonizing four-year ordeal that can, in the long run, lead to failure anyway. For those who don't love to learn, going to college is simply about earning potential. But even that is likely to change.

If current projections are correct, my six-month-old granddaughter will cost her parents $500,000 for a degree from a private university. The same degree from a public school will cost $150,000 if she can manage to be cherry-picked from the throngs of students who will vie for an insufficient number of slots in lower-priced institutions. A cost/benefit analysis will become ever more crucial for every student as time goes on. Even if jobs for graduates pay more, will they pay enough over a lifetime to justify the debt most students will incur?

While we strive to build an educated workforce, we must recognize that those who don't meet higher education norms are equally deserving of the training required to make them employable. We must provide top-notch vocational training. We must support community college programs that prepare students for a wide range of jobs in areas that do not require a four-year college degree.

Would I be happy if my son had graduated from college? Of course. But it wasn't to be, and I won't write him off as a failure. I can't. He's too successful.

Until evolution produces humans with perfectly coiffed hair, we will need haircuts. We will probably always need to have our cars repaired and our computers updated. For the foreseeable future, women will need mammograms. And as long as people work, we will want good take-out.

Believe it or not, there are plumbers who can afford to take their families on vacation. Computer technicians own shops and earn more than some lawyers who work for other people. And some young men with smarts and learning disabilities can sell office buildings. I wish my two degrees could have taught me that before my son did.