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Is This Finally the Great Reckoning for Higher Education?

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AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Is this the great reckoning for higher education?  Did it take “Aunt Becky” from “Full House” to finally wake a generation to the idea college – especially expensive, elite colleges - are nothing more than the educational version of time shares in Cancun?


Let’s hope.

Years ago, I remember discussing college plans with my friends and parents.  I was an aspiring radio personality.  My focus in high school was exclusively media and performance.  As I look back on that time, I remember EVERYONE telling me why I HAD to go to “BIG COLLEGE X” because EVERYONE knew that’s where you HAD to go if you REALLY wanted to succeed in media.

What did I know?  I was a dumb kid.  I believed all that advice.  The reality was my parents simply couldn’t afford “BIG COLLEGE X.”  They said I couldn’t go.  It wasn’t possible.  I was embarrassed and completely bummed out.  How would I ever make anything of myself without a degree from “BIG COLLEGE X?”

By the way, I was lucky.  At least I knew what I wanted to do.  I had a focus of study and a direction in which I wanted to head.  When I think about the millions of kids over the last thirty years or more who’ve been funneled into the “BIG COLLEGE X” system without a single objective or goal, only to assume huge debt in the process? 

It’s sinister.  It’s borderline criminal.  It must stop.

Listen, I understand people feel warmly about their alma maters.  As do I.  I met my wife and some of my best friends in life there.  I got amazing opportunities through my broadcasting/journalism department.  At the time, it was a relatively unknown, small, Division II school that was entirely realistic in price and size for me.


Still, some twenty thousand dollars in debt followed me to my first job in radio.  If you have a kid in college or college debt yourself, you’re thinking, “chump change,” I know.  Nevertheless, I made nineteen thousand dollars the first year out of school to begin servicing twenty thousand in debt. 

The stories I hear today of that student-debt-to-first-income chasm are staggering.  You’ve heard them too.  The social worker, or the journalist, or the forest ranger – sometimes hundreds of thousands in debt to a university while earning barely enough to make their student loan payment.

How does it happen?  Culturally, of course.  “You have to go to college” has been a refrain since the Greatest Generation started having kids.  But that familiar song sung to high school students ought to be evenly challenged in volume by someone who has to first explain whether it makes financial sense. 

If kids want to be doctors, and lawyers, and such – I get it.  I still think the cost is debatable, but that’s between you and your university.  But for those Mike Rowe, “Dirty Jobs” cowboys out there, they’re being lied to and we owe it to our culture and our nation to celebrate them and nurture them.  Not feed them full of the same “you have to go to college to amount to anything” propaganda we’ve been pushing for generations. 

A relative of mine heads a construction firm.  Business is booming.  They need skilled laborers for work on their projects.  They’ll take high school graduates, pay to train them in a particular trade and put them to work.  Salaries of sixty to seventy thousand dollars to start before they’re twenty years old! 


The relative I mentioned also shared many high schools won’t allow her in their doors to recruit because it interrupts the education factory flow.  High schools get recognition based on the number of kids sent off to “BIG COLLEGE X,” not the number of kids sent to build our buildings or repair our cars or fix our homes.

I explained this phenomenon to my fourteen-year-old son a couple of years ago when calling on an electrician to install new porch lights on our home. The wait would be a couple of weeks because they were very backed up with work.  The cost would be a few hundred dollars for what amounted to less than an hour of work.

Seeing the quick work completed as I handed the electrician his money, my son was dazzled.  That was big money, fast!  I explained to him all the many things his old man can’t do himself and how few people can fix stuff anymore.  We discussed supply and demand.  We discussed the many fields that dynamic is playing out right now in areas like HVAC, plumbing, electrical, building trades, and so on.

While my soon-to-be high schooler is a good student, he doesn’t particularly enjoy school.  He once said, “I can’t imagine actually PAYING for another four years of this.”  Of course, most kids aren’t ecstatic about school.  But the statement really stuck with me.  If he felt like this four years from now, will I be shouting, “TOO BAD!  YOU HAVE TO GO TO COLLEGE” in response?


Some parents tell me it’s not a choice.  College is a must.  I know parents who just can’t wait to send their kids to the school they loved so much.   Even if it means staggering personal costs or debt to them and with literally no thought as to whether the kids themselves will be interested or ever earn enough to pay it back. 

We learned this week even famous, well-heeled parents are willing to do extraordinary – if need be criminal – things to get their kid into the “very best” schools. 

Huge debt.  Even potential jail time.  For a college?  Meanwhile there are trades people getting ready to tow their boat to the lake this summer after an endless season of well paying work in demand.

It’s pretty clear smart isn’t always found in a framed degree on the wall.

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