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Why My Sons Aren't Going to College

I majored in waiting tables (film), and minored in quasi-intellectual dinner party conversation (psychology). And it cost my family a fortune. So when you really break it down, my parents worked themselves silly so I’d know how to have an interesting discussion with a stranger, and bus the table afterwards.

There’s no one to blame for this but me. I was the second person in my family to go to college (my older brother was the first), and despite attending a “college preparatory” school, I was not mature nor intelligent enough to spearhead this highly important and costly decision myself. (Did the school administrators not notice that I scored a 660 on the PSAT?) So I chose a school—Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas—that a friend liked. He sent me a hat with the school’s acronym stitched in blue and red. I was sold. My college counselor was a Kappa Alpha who loved football tailgates and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Don’t get me wrong. SMU was great. The campus was stunning: Buildings adorned with Doric columns, a maze of walkways lined with huge oaks and cedar elms. Laura Bush’s name was on the library. Gerald Ford’s was on the football stadium. I made a bunch of friends whose vacation photos I would later like on Facebook. It’s just a shame I didn’t learn anything. And I went to class.

Now I have two sons who will begin their own college search in the next decade or so. Hopefully, during the interim, we’ll see some major changes. Because right now, higher education is a total rip-off.

As family income and jobs disappear, as the value of our homes violently fluctuate, as our retirement savings, stock portfolios and 401(k)s evaporate with no recourse, the cost of college has only risen and risen and risen. According to the College Board, Americans spent $461 billion on post-secondary education in 2009, a 42 percent increase from 2000. This year, California, which enrolls 10 percent of the nation’s full-time public four-year college students, increased its in-state tuition and fees 21 percent. Arizona and Washington increased in-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions by 17 percent and 16 percent, respectively. Keep in mind no one had bought a single Bic pen or textbook yet. (For more eye-opening info on this topic, check out the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.)

Why are we not putting colleges alongside banks, gas prices, and airline baggage fees for being the opportunist gougers that they are? Because education wears a halo and wings. Criticizing education is like criticizing babies or daffodils. For as long as I can remember, college education has conjured the same glowing images: A group of multi-cultural students sitting on a big green lawn, grinning into their steno pads, or a pair of goggle-wearing, laser-focused students hovering over a beaker or scientific specimen. Pure, joyous, rapturous learning. Can't you just envision those vignettes in stained glass?

At what point will we admit the obvious: The majority of teens go to college because that’s what our culture expects them to do. No B.A., no job. So four years later, the young adult comes home with a college sweatshirt smelling of patchouli (wait, is that patchouli?) and a degree in marketing (real estate agent), history (English teacher), English (history teacher), horticulture (Home Depot lawn center technician), and criminology (Gap manager). If you don’t believe me, ask the Bureau of Labor Statistics: 30 percent of flight attendants and 25 percent of retail professionals have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

And these kids are coming home deep in the red: College seniors now graduate with an average of $24,000 in debt. Thanks to the endless, unwarranted annual tuition hikes, student debt now tops $1 trillion (that's a T, people). According to the Federal Reserve, that’s more than all U.S. credit card debt. Again, why isn’t the University of Whereverville mentioned alongside Exxon-Mobil and Bank of America?

Let’s be honest about college: It’s not about the education. It’s about the socialization. Kids become adults during that two- or four-year stint. For most students, the college experience is about leaving home, feeding yourself, doing your own laundry, getting a part-time job, paying your own bills, seeing the country, getting to places on time, meeting new people, dating new people, finding your future spouse, and sharpening your social skills. It’s a four-year crash course in the rest of your life. It's not really about learning. Ask almost any history major who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, and 90 percent will get it wrong. Ask that same person to plan a party with two hours notice, and they’ll coolly reply: 70s or 80s theme? 

The illuminati are right: A college degree is a prerequisite in our job market. It’s just sad that what we spend comes down to a small row of text near the top of our resumes. That’s it: A thin line that includes your college, your major, your GPA, and any activities-clubs you participated in. It’s a line that lets the interviewer say “My niece went there” or “How was the Solar Energy Awareness Club?” Again, it simply comes back to socialization. To connecting to people. No one who ever interviewed me asked what I thought of Fritz Lang’s use of mise-en-scene in Metropolis.

It makes me wonder if we should rethink the real value of higher education. I wonder if they’ll ever come a time when a sharp, entrepreneurial candidate can apply for a job and know he’s being judged on his personality, intellect, potential, and career accomplishments, and not be disqualified because he’s missing two capital letters punctuated by periods. I wonder if we can rethink college as an option, not a cultural necessity. Sure, it’s easy for the president to say, “Win the future.” Ten years from now, he’ll be speaking at your alma mater for his standard fee of $300,000, which will be paid for by the student loans you’ll still be paying off.

When I was applying to college, my dad had his own ideas. He considered allotting that college tuition money to my brother and I to start an entrepreneurial venture. While we were in college, there was a mantra he’d repeat ad nauseum: “Take some business classes.” My brother and I would scoff. No way, Dad. But he knew. He saw the geology class—a science requirement—on my report card. He knew my brother was taking ultimate Frisbee for his physical education credit. My dad didn’t have a college degree, but he knew something wasn’t right. But how could something so expensive be so…cheap? It couldn’t be, could it? After all, my school had Doric columns.  

Now I’m the dad of two brothers. My wife and I are saving for their college funds. They will probably go to college. They will probably take geology and ultimate Frisbee. And we will smile and suffer the toll. While the colleges, universities and endowment funds win the future, we'll be busy losing the present.