Why College?

UMass Amherst.

Q. Is college a good idea?

A. Two-thirds of the time, the answer is no. Only one-third of Americans attend college in their lifetimes. And one out of five of those people graduate worse off than the average high-school graduate. Even if you graduate and get a good job, you’ll likely spend 35% of your salary on student debt.

Q. Doesn’t college train you for a job?

A. No. College takes four years. The job you want may not be there in four years. College trains you for a career. So, you can train for a career in chemistry, but there’s no guarantee you’ll find a job in chemistry. Less that half of Ph.D.’s get jobs in their fields.

Q. How do I train for a job?

A. Ask someone who has the job. Sometimes, there’s a short course you can take. For example, you can get your real estate license fairly quickly. Other courses include stock trader, bookkeeper, accountant, EMT, electrician, plumber, computer programmer, and lab tech. Some of these courses are more difficult than college (like becoming an electrician). Most jobs can be done well without a college degree. Sometimes, community college is the best option. A city bus driver makes more money than a college professor.

Q. So why does anyone go to college?

A. Mostly to enter into or to remain in the professional-managerial class. That’s the 20% of American households, families who make more than $173,000.00 a year, and have one or more members with a college degree. To achieve that, you need serious training. Or you may have been born into a family that put you on the fast track.

Q. Besides money, what else can college give you?

A. Three things:

1) A network. You can meet people from all over your state or region, people who can help you in later life. Also, you’ll be around thousands of people your age. So it’s a great opportunity to make friends and perhaps to meet someone you want to spend your life with.
2) Opportunities. In your town, you may never get the opportunity to work a printing press, build a computer from scratch, run a magazine, be a DJ, compete in high-level sports, or meet leaders in business and industry. In college, you can stumble across the thing you’re born to do.
3) An education. Education is something you do after work. It’s more than a hobby. Education shows you how to think methodically about numbers, ideas, literature, music, dance, physics, and much more. It helps with everything that isn’t your bank account. Some people have enough self-discipline that they can educate themselves. They don’t need college. But some of us need the discipline of a classroom, with tests, exams, and papers.

See some pictures of life at UMass Amherst.

Facts and figures are from Joan C. Williams, White Working Class (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017).