The Higher Education Bubble, the Uncollege Movement and My Current Plan for Educating Three Children
March 18, 2012
A few years ago it occurred to me that college tuition had reached bubble territory. Why would anyone pay $50,000 per year plus living expenses only to find themselves waiting tables or working as a barista at Starbucks after graduation? And I don’t mean to imply that there’s something wrong with these jobs – there’s not. In fact, being a waiter can be a great experience because it teaches sales, customer service, communication and team work. But why spend 4+ years and $200,000 when the payoff might be a job that pays less than $10 per hour? At some point tuition reaches heights that forces you to re-evaluate the equation. I think we reached that point sometime in the past 5-10 years. When student debt is higher than credit card debt, when almost no one objects to the notion that a college degree is a good pursuit at any price and when it’s too easy to borrow money for college I think we have all the ingredients of a bubble. Parallels with housing – huge debt to equity ratios, everyone thinks owning a house is the only way to go and banks make it too easy to get a mortgage.
James Altucher does a great job of describing the problems with the current education system and what he considers to be better alternatives – 8 ideas here and 10 more ideas here. I asked him recently via Twitter if he thought that Community Colleges still represented a good bargain but he replied that community college is a waste of time as well and recommended that I take a look at Uncollege.org. James is a very smart guy and I can’t disagree with his analysis but something about telling my kids to completely skip college worries me. James might say that it’s the cultural brainwashing that has taken place over the course of my lifetime. But what if one of my children wants to become a college professor? Or what if her dream is be a veterinarian? What then? Then she has to go to college, right? Not everyone can pull off a Zuckerberg, Dell, Gates, or Jobs rise to glory. What if she doesn’t come to this realization until her mid 20s and by steering her away from college I’ve limited her options or cost her a ton of time?
My oldest is about to turn 12 years old so I have a little time to ponder the options but it will go by in a hurry. In the meantime I need to figure out how to prepare her for life in a time where Twitter trumps the telephone and I need to be prepared to provide decent guidance when she’s old enough to make her own decisions. It’s not an easy puzzle to solve but here’s my plan.
Step 1. Private middle school. The middle school years are terrifying. Kids are going through puberty, some kids are huge, some are tiny, 11-13 year old brains are ripe for learning but in many schools the lessons that get learned have more to do with social survival (fit in or forfeit) than they do with mathematics, science, language arts, history, geography or any other discipline. We made the painfully expensive decision to take our daughter out of the public middle school in our district and enroll her in a private Montessori school for 6th grade. She went from a 30-1 student to teacher ratio to a 7-1 ratio. That alone was worth the money to me but the philosophy of allowing kids to explore their interests more fully while continuing to develop core skills and knowledge appeals to me as well. I think I’ll keep her in a private school through 8th grade. But, the tuition is a killer and I have 3 kids so it’s not really sustainable financially to pay private tuition through high school and college. What next?
Step 2. Home school + community college instead of high school. When I look back on my high school years, we’re talking way back in the mid-80s, I have mostly pleasant memories of good times with great friends but I also feel like the time could have been spent far more productively. Moving through the halls between 50-minute lectures, completing homework assignments and studying for tests just to be sure I had good grades, taking classes that would look good on a college transcript instead of what was most interesting, having some excellent teachers and some teachers who were just playing the game until their pension kicked in. It was okay but it didn’t prepare me well for much of anything, not even college. Today, I think it’s even more of a waste of time, generally speaking, because the world is so different and yet the education system hasn’t changed much. And for some unfortunate kids on the wrong side of the “who’s cool” group it can create long-term damage. Instead of the traditional route, I plan to allow my oldest to begin home schooling using internet resources for curriculum along with some coursework at the local community college either via web delivery or in-person. At the same time, I will encourage her to pursue extra-curricular interests through the public school if available or on her own. Music, art, sports – whatever she wants to do. I also want her to find a part-time job or volunteer in some capacity during this time period. Again, she decides what to pursue but she has to choose something. In this way, I hope to start the process of teaching her to make decisions about how to spend her time and how to identify worthy goals to pursue.
Step 3. Work + part-time college. Once she has finished high school with either a standard diploma in hand or a GED or whatever I want her to choose a short-term plan to make some sort of living. I don’t care how much money she makes and I’m willing to supplement her living expenses so that if she chooses a path with minimal near-term compensation (but with a worthy long-term vision) she won’t need government assistance to get by. The main idea again is to force her to look within herself, identify a passion or at least an interest and pursue it on a full-time or near full-time basis. In parallel, I would like her to take 1 or 2 college classes per semester. Hopefully she’ll have accumulated some credits from community college coursework during high school years so she won’t end up being too far behind. Also, I will be flexible and listen to her. If she has identified a dream that requires a college degree or some other path AND she demonstrates that she’s really passionate about this plan and can articulate how it will advance her toward a happier life then I’m all for it and I will do whatever I can to make it work. The key is for her to make choices about how to spend her time. For me, I just blindly marched down the path – public high school then college but then after graduation I had no idea what I wanted to do next.
Step 4. Grad school, career, life as an adult. In step 4 I hope that she’ll be ready to spread her wings and fly on her own. I will be her safety net but she won’t be living at home rent free (she can live at home if it fits a well thought out plan and she contributes in some meaningful way) nor will I subsidize a few years of partying and wandering aimlessly. I don’t object to wandering aimlessly necessarily but she’ll have to do that on her own nickel. At this stage, my investment will have been made and the best thing I can do is become her fan club – cheering her accomplishments, offering comfort when failure comes along (and I hope it comes along early for maximum learning and minimum cost) and providing advice if it’s requested or maybe just listening when she needs to vent. This will be a tough step for us parents but I think you have to let go mostly at this stage or you risk having a child for life, instead of a mature adult. If she really has no idea what to do but wants more education, then I do believe in graduate school but only in the capacity as a research or teaching assistant where you don’t accumulate huge debt and have direct access to a tenured professor so that you benefit from a mentor relationship.
Well, that’s the plan. I don’t know if it will work but it’s the best I have for now. Please feel free to chime in with comments if you have some good ideas on how to improve the plan. I will definitely be glad to listen to any advice. Actually, I’ll be amazed if this plan doesn’t get revised a few times in the next few years. Regardless, I will have to come through for 3 different kids and I will only have 1 chance per child to get it right.