A story traveled around the Internet not long ago that had everyone talking. It was the kind of thing that seemed to confirm our worst suspicions about the state of higher education in the new millennium. The story concerned a high school student from Memphis, Tennessee named Ronald Nelson. Ronald graduated with a 4.58 GPA and a 2260 score on his SAT. He's also the president of his class as well as a national merit scholar. Because of all of this, when the time came to apply for college, he found himself accepted to all eight Ivy League schools. All eight.
But Ronald chose not to go to any of them. Instead, he opted for the University of Alabama, which is by no means a bad school but certainly isn't one that creates the immediate opportunities and fast-tracks that an Ivy League degree does. The reasoning behind Ronald's choice? It all came down to cost. He did the math and realized that while he'd have access to aid at an Ivy, he'd still have to take out a hefty amount in loans--and carrying the burden of that kind of debt into his post-collegiate life would be debilitating. Alabama was offering him a full ride. His family wanted to save money for medical school. The decision was obvious.
The hurdle that stopped Ronald Nelson from going to the school of his dreams is the same one that's leading more and more young people to question the necessity of college altogether. If you head out into the world with cumbersome debt already attached to you--debt you may be saddled with for decades--you have to wonder whether it's worth it to bother even getting a college degree anymore. Over the past quarter-century, the cost of going to college has gone through the roof, rising a whopping 1,120%. The average student loan debt is now around $35,000 per person and the top schools in the country cost well upwards of 60-grand a year. The ideals our parents sold us on and the notion that going to college was simply a must-do has suddenly become, for many, a can't-do--or even a don't-want-to-do.
It's for this reason--the very real problem of cost and debt--that more and more we're seeing articles like the one published in "Business Insider" a few years ago, that claim to illustrate why the diminishing financial returns of a college education and its mounting costs prove that a four-year degree just doesn't have the kind of currency it used to. Whether it's that column; the one in "Readsource" which dismisses college because not only is it too expensive but knowledge is now at your fingertips via the Internet; or the one in a recent "LA Weekly" which warns that even if you manage to graduate unburdened, you'll still need a starting salary of $85 thousand-a-year to live in L.A., where we grew up, the message is clear. That message: skip college.
And yet we just saw the annual ritual of students finishing up their undergraduate programs, receiving their degrees and ostensibly heading out into the world, usually to a little last-minute advice from one famous commencement speaker or another. These are students who ignored what might be the new conventional wisdom and took the chance of saddling themselves with potentially crushing debt in the hope of ultimately making better lives for themselves. And you know something? They were right to go to college. They and their parents and any who cared about them were right to want to see them graduate and get that degree--for the simple reason that a degree is more than just a piece of paper. College, no matter how you cut it, is maybe the most clear-cut illustration of the journey being as important in the long run as the destination. The experience of college is as vital to creating an intelligent, well-rounded human being who can function at high levels within society as a college degree is to simply getting a good job.
What you're reading here was written by two brothers who created an organization called the Foundation Boys seven years ago with the personal and organizational goal of bringing philanthropy to the next generation. We've helped to facilitate over one million dollars in grants to local non-profits and we've tried to educate fellow young people as to their potential to change the world for the better. We worked hard and that hard work thrust us into the adult world in ways many teens may not have the chance to experience. Despite this, however, there's no doubt in our minds now that none of it would have amounted to a full, enriched future without the impact college has had on us. Each of us is now enrolled in college, one a rising senior at UC Berkeley and the other an upcoming sophomore at Johns Hopkins, and while we're well aware of the financial burden of going to school these days--as well as the notion that not every kid is given the opportunity he or she deserves to pursue a higher education--it's difficult to overstate the positive impact daily collegiate life can have on young minds.
It seems like every day we hear a new story about a young person doing something extraordinary, particularly in the world of innovation and technology or through civic engagement and social and racial justice. But these effective ideas have to come from somewhere; the minds that create them often have to be massaged and the people behind them need to be put in a position where they can safely come out of their shells and into their own. College does and is all of this--and more. It's an environment that fosters the self-assurance and ambition that leads young men and women to take the kind of risks that benefit not only them but the rest of us as well. College is a place where the innovators of tomorrow have the opportunity to be introduced to those who've come before and are still making a powerful contribution to their chosen fields, giving students advice and intellectual nourishment they likely won't get once their out in the real world. This is essential to getting ahead in the today's competitive job market.
But more than what can perhaps be quantified, there's the intangible life experience a student receives from college--the personal growth he or she undergoes in what's essentially a weigh station between youth and adulthood--that can make all the difference in that person's future. The years prior to college are simply too constraining and confusing, as you try to figure out who you are and what you want to be. You're not able to break free and become who you really believe you can. You're not able to find your true passion and let it guide your journey. For both of us, college is where we first had our moral compasses tested as they came into contact with those of others. We were able to see if our values were in line with the values of our contemporaries and whether what we believed deserved a serious reexamination. We were forced to think about whether we should calibrated those compasses in relation to what our peers or professors thought or whether our beliefs should indeed stand. This is essential for creating balance within a person--to have the worldview he or she has held throughout youth challenged and to come to understand that he or she isn't the only person on earth.
The rapid maturation college often brings with it can change the way you see the world in a flash. Maybe as a high-schooler you're not able to truly comprehend and appreciate the experiences of those around you, to examine your own place or privilege. But after a year at Johns Hopkins, one of us truly understood the injustice of the death of Freddie Gray and took part in the protests in Baltimore that followed his death. What changed? Was it just the passage of time? No, it was the result of an environment that promoted conviction and a sense of purpose as well as learning and true understanding. The opportunity to, maybe for the first time, engage with people whose experience is different from yours is invaluable. Sure, you can get some of this same growth without college, but we believe that dedicating four years to interacting with people who think differently than you is something you just can't find in a more concentrated dose anywhere but college.
There's a reason many people consider college to be the best time of their lives. It's those interactions, the ones that have a lasting impact and that can't be duplicated anywhere else because they're a product of the exact time and place in a young life. All of that matters. All of it makes a difference, either positive or negative, and all of it helps to shape both a robust intellect and a quality citizen of our American society. Even romantic interactions carry more weight and can lead a person to have a greater respect for those he or she--or any gender identity in between or beyond--might want to consider for a life partner. Those without a college degree are ten percentage points more likely to divorce, both because a degree often means more money--which means less stress--and because there are valuable communicative skills to be gleaned from an environment of higher learning.
Bill Gates is often cited as a reason college isn't important, given that he dropped out and went on to become one of the wealthiest and most innovative people on the planet. But what those college detractors often forget is that while Gates has stated, correctly, that American schools have to change and that all kinds of young people have potential skills to offer in terms of business and innovation, the college experience has the ability to breed optimism. Giving up on that optimism is a shame. It's a dereliction of duty to those who will act as the custodians to our future to preach against the good of the college experience and to prevent young people from getting into the school of their dreams. We're cheating our kids by telling them that college isn't worth it anymore. We're cheating them by making higher education an untenable burden. More than that, though, we're cheating ourselves. The Ronald Nelsons of the world--and the world they will create--deserve better.