Looking at higher education today, one of the most common discussions center around college affordability and whether or not a college degree is worth the cost. However one thing that these discussions often seem to assume is that entrepreneurship and/or self-directed learning is the alternative to college. A smaller portion of discussions promote the idea that students are better off learning a trade. However I won’t be addressing that option in this post, because the reality is that it is becoming increasingly rare to acquire these skills outside of a post-secondary educational program; whether it be a certificate or associate’s degree program. These programs also tend to be offered by private and for-profit institutions, and can cost more than a more traditional associate’s degree program (since many financial aid programs are not open to these courses of study).
Hopefully it is not big surprise that a high-paying, “dream” career is not handed to you just because you earn a college degree. Instead, your college education is a two-way street, where you are presented with 4 years of opportunity to grow and refine yourself. It is up to you, and no one else, to take advantage of this. Plenty of people who are bad employees, cheaters, lazy, and downright stupid have earned college degrees. So why even bother and spend so much time and money earning one?
Well it comes back around to the magic word: opportunity. Let’s look at the reality that comes with living in America. This country very separated along socio-economic lines. Our already troubled public education system serves a growing proportion of children who live in poverty. These students are very limited in regards to resources and exposure to opportunities to grow academically. Their parents do not have the extra money for them to participate in the extracurricular activities that their schools do have, much less programs and activities offered outside of school. For example, the high school that I attended had a program where you could spend the second half of the school day taking AP courses at the local college for credit (as long as you passed the examination). I would have been very interested in participating. The problem was that the courses actually had a fee connected to them. It was much cheaper than the full cost of a college course. But it was still to expensive for my family to pay out of pocket. I just had to wait until I enrolled as a new freshman in college (along with the financial aid I had to pay my tuition) to start earning college credit.
High school graduates from middle and upper income families encounter more opportunities to become successful by the nature of how they live their lives. They personally know entrepreneurs, self-made individuals, and can participate in programs that are cheaper than a full-fledged college degree program – but present just as much opportunity for success. For example, this $12,000 program that can teach you how to be a Ruby On Rails software developer. The same goes for many business that you can start yourself…such as an insurance agency, a restaurant, or a daycare center. All options where while you do not need a college degree, you do need some sort of start-up capital and the money to get yourself licensed. While this amount may be no big deal for middle to upper income students to collect, it is almost impossible when you are low-income, and you do not have the collateral or established credit history needed to secure a small business loan to get you started.
Of course there are exceptions to this. I personally know of a couple of individuals who grew up in low-income households, on welfare, skipped out on college, and today they are quite successful. All of these people had amazing, above-average personal drive. In the majority of cases, they also had some good luck…where someone else came along and served as a mentor to help lift them up to that “next level”. Yes it was up to them to keep the momentum going…but the truth is, they didn’t totally get there on their own.
So what are the pros vs. the cons in regards to college for poor high school graduates? Well let’s see….
- College presents a more level playing field than most public schools [that serve low-income students] do, and presents more opportunities for the student to grow personally and professionally
- A college degree helps reassure potential employers that you are competent and capabile and have a well-rounded education
- Depending on the college, a college degree can make you stand out as a desireable employee from your peers; especially if the school has a highly regarded academic reputation
- A college degree is often a pre-requisite for many government positions and positions in education and academia; jobs that are known to help social mobility.
- The cost of college can be prohibitive; requiring the already poor student to take out a large sum in loans…betting against anticipated future earnings
- Many low-income students struggle with both the financial and social demands that college can place on them
- The college completion rate for low-income and minority students lags behind the already low college completion rates for US students overall: approximately 40% vs. 60%
Even though college degrees are becoming more and more expensive, and supply seems to outpace demand right now; it is still one of the best opportunities to improve the economic status of a low-income, above average student. For low-income high school graduates, the chips are stacked against them in almost every way. However with the availability of financial aid and various support programs that are offered by the college themselves, there is an escape to living in a vicious cycle of poverty.