He continues: “How many people can honestly say that they’ve had an incredible, amazing, inspiring, novel-worthy life? I would argue that that most” individual accomplishments “come from adversity, from taking risks, and not from going through the steps everyone else takes. They come from selling all your possessions and moving to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language — as an example.
“I’ve grown more character, humility, and understanding for the pain most people in this world have to go through than I ever could have experienced in high school or by going through college.”
It’s not so much what college provides that bothers him, but what it forestalls. As such, there’s a greater incentive for him not to go. Maybe he’ll want university later on, in his mid- to late-20s. But not now, not when in three years he’s risen to office manager at Canvass for a Cause, a gay-rights nonprofit, with 50 people working under him, “all younger than me.” He earns more than most his age. And he’s keeping his options open. He’s toying with the idea of applying to billionaire Elon Musk’s project of colonizing Mars.
D’Amico-Barbour realizes that his motivations are conflicted. On his own, he loves learning about “esoteric things,” but were he to enter university he hopes his teachers would focus on job skills, the relevant, the practical. Recently, he says, “I went back again, took a few classes, and I succeeded for a second. But then it just slowly faded away,” and he quit.
Instead, at Canvass, he’s acquired a satchelful of skills. Mostly self taught, he’s learned “Excel algorithms, data collection, office management, organizational development, payroll, and leadership.” His eagerness to succeed has been rewarded with six promotions.
College, he says, offers subject mastery in things neither he nor anyone needs in life: say, a course in algebra or the history of the Beatles. Such erudition, he believes, is a waste of time.
“There is nothing I learned in my job that I did not need to learn for my job,” he says.
According to economist Stephen Rose, the “BA wage premium” is 74 percent more than a high-school graduate will earn in his/her lifetime (roughly $1 million). What’s more, college graduates have an unemployment rate half that of those without a degree. Sounds like a good investment.
Yet the demand for educated workers keeps falling, replaced by a projected growth in unskilled and semi-skilled labor, which — surprise — runs against constant calls for an educated workforce. While it’s true that jobs for workers with master’s degrees in bioengineering and education continue to climb, the biggest growth in coming employment opportunities will be for those with a high school diploma or less.
“More than two-thirds of all job openings,” the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites for the decade 2010–2020, “are expected to be in occupations that typically do not need postsecondary education for entry.” Two-thirds. These vocations provide “on-the-job training,” no prior experience needed: personal care; home health aides, including medical secretaries; carpenters, plumbers, ironworkers, laborers; and so on. More openings are slated for pet handlers, sports trainers, massage therapists, housecleaners, and dental assistants, each of which requires about a year of training beyond high school. There will be growth in veterinary medicine, medical diagnostics, and occupational therapy, some of these jobs needing a two-year associate’s degree.
These positions are low-wage, non-union, benefits-lacking contract labor — and, if the population remains the same for immigration and birth, each slot will become increasingly competitive. By contrast, how many university grads have I run into lately who are enduring unpaid internships, nowadays one of the few ways into professions bulging with applicants?
The message: If it’s a basic job that pays a basic wage, why go to college, indeed?
The notion that four years of college is universally desired (President Obama often uses the phrase, “send your kids to college”) exists as one of the more dubious inducements foisted on the young and the restless. How and where to go is implanted — and worried over — when kids are high-school juniors and sometimes much earlier. So says Mary Jo McCarey, head counselor at Clairemont High School.
In a phone interview, McCarey tells me that her school provides ample materials to help kids decide on possible life paths. Among them is career and personality assessment software: find your aptitude, gauge your interests, see what’s available. “We tell them,” she says, “that it’s important to figure [out] what kind of career you want and understand how to get there — because nearly every job requires a skill, and after high school, you’ll need to go another two years.
“A lot dream — ‘I want to be a doctor, a pediatrician, a CSI, or crime-scene investigator’: whatever they see on TV.” But it’s the star they want to be, she says, not the professional played.
Do they know how to get there?
“They have no clue.”
Do their parents?
McCarey pauses, sighs wearily. Her voice has that landscape of frustration in it that arises after decades of explaining what few seem to grok.
“Maybe 15 percent of our kids have role models at home who support them to further their education.” For the rest of them, their parents may be “just as lost. [Some] don’t even talk to their kids.” McCarey believes that low-income families are primarily concerned with their kids’ earning money as of that bright June day when they graduate high school. These parents seldom “think of education as an investment, that [their kids] would make more money.”
One of the strangest problems McCarey has witnessed is how uneducated and college-averse parents — who do want their children to graduate high school — suddenly don’t want them to go to college. “It [a college degree] is a slap in the face. Their attitude is, ‘What I do — if it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for you.’” There’s no need for university if one’s sights are set on lawn maintenance or the night shift at Burger King.