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Debt may dissuade some from attending college, although high-school students by and large don’t understand that a college loan is just that. “They don’t realize they have to pay it back,” McCarey says. She’s known more than a few who’ve dropped out of college after two years because it hits them — and their parents — that the money is not gratis. “I don’t think they get it until they get the bill.”

She says that the ones who’ll succeed in college are those in advanced-placement classes who have study skills and keep their GPA between 3.5 and 4.0. “The kids between 2.5 and 3.0, in the regular classes, they’re probably not going to make it.” McCarey is frank, some might say punishingly realistic, with her charges. “I tell them, ‘You might get into college, but the chances of you staying in college are slim to none. You don’t have the study skills. You’re barely getting by.’”

I ask McCarey if scholarship, fine art, self-enrichment, and the love of study appeals to any of her high schoolers. Out of the 1200 at Clairemont, she says, “maybe 5 fit that profile.” Job, job, job is the mantra — neither a degreed profession, nor love of learning, nor a beautiful mind is the goal. It’s odd, too, that with longer life expectancy and second acts encouraged in our culture, Americans equate higher education so thoroughly with employment — except perhaps in the case of a liberal-arts degree. A generation ago, such degrees were a common aspiration.

College avoidance may be cultural. McCarey notes that 53 percent of Clairemont high’s population is Hispanic, and for most, college is doable only if the campus is local (a situation that contributes to the proliferation of online classes). Hispanic kids, she says, often “do not go away to college. Their families don’t want their kids to leave, period. If they go [to college], they live at home and commute. It’s the only way, especially with the girls.”

Why the tether?

McCarey has a story. When she counseled at Hoover High School, a Hispanic staff member told her that parents in her culture didn’t want their kids to roam. That means working and not moving on to, or away, for higher education. It’s a “form of insurance. Many families don’t have insurance — they have children. Their children are their insurance.”

Moving out, and especially going off to college, suggests that the kids “may never come back, [that] in essence [they] may not be there to take care of the parents when they get sick and old.” Many families don’t want their children marrying their professions, thereby divorcing either their families or their communities.

In 2010, student debt in America reached the $1 trillion mark. The explosion of such debt is among the harshest types of economic indenture, afflicting the poor and the middle class, for whom college is an added — not a planned- or saved-for — expense. In the past three decades, while inflation has risen threefold and healthcare sixfold, college costs have shot up tenfold. Some bubble-wary economists believe that college-loan debt — the average in 2012 for a graduate was $26,600; 60 percent of those attending college borrowed; 37 million people owe, about one in ten — is a looming financial crisis on par with the mortgage crisis five years ago. Why? Student debt is now greater than the country’s credit-card debt.

Unpaid bills are just one of many bugaboos that beset Tyler Wayne Davis, who has myriad doubts about the worth of a college degree. He meets me one January afternoon at Lestat’s on Park Boulevard to talk about his blowing off college, something he’s been good at for the 12 years since finishing high school.

An Ocean Beach resident, Davis at 30 is open-faced and warmly relational, less jaded than I feared. He wears a green hoodie and a green hat. Above the hat’s bill is a button — a capital “A” with a circle around it, the insignia of the anarchist. He’s an unabashed champion of social justice who recently married his longtime girlfriend and is vexed that he’s educationally stuck.

Thirty-year-old Tyler Wayne Davis fears the debt that attending college would incur.

Any debt, he says, “really weighs on me.” He and his wife just bought a car, financing $18,000. This was the first real debt for either of them. Their avoidance was “partly out of fear, partly out of principle,” Davis says. “It’s scary. Hell, I can barely pay back friends who loan me $20, let alone pay back a credit-card company that has no remorse.”

We talk about the idea that one of the major problems with college debt — which he has so far evaded — is that it almost guarantees you’ll have to work at a job you won’t like to get rid of that debt. And yet, without a degree and the crushing college bill, you’d probably be working at a job you won’t like anyway.

Davis is not averse to hard work. For years, he’s found jobs, paid and unpaid, working with at-risk kids in summer camps and detention; he’s also worked with disabled adults. These days, he has two jobs: helping home-bound adults on public assistance and managing a group of merchandise kiosks at Belmont Park.

Tyler discusses college

How many times, he moans, has he, when applying for a job, faced the box on the form indicating “college education,” put down his handful of community-college classes, and then been told the cold fact that, learning-wise, he’s underqualified?

Davis tells me a story, one that’s “played over and over in my mind a million times.” While he and the woman who became his wife were living in Lawrence, Kansas, a friend from Austin, Texas, called and said he had the perfect job for him, one in which Davis would set up “social experiments with high-school kids” and create diversity-training programs to defuse bullying. He’s had ample experience in all these things, mostly with Anytown, a program for disadvantaged youth aged 14–18 that is sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice.

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shirleyberan Aug. 14, 2013 @ 12:48 p.m.

I Love This Guy. Tell It Like It Is. Nothing wrong with learning on your own, duh. And how much debt to the bank are you willing to take on without a job, maybe not even prepared to work with college behind you. Can also be institutionalized stupidity - how many doctors do you know who understand integrative medicine or homeopathy?


Stephen Gallup Aug. 15, 2013 @ 9:47 a.m.

Here’s another thought-provoking article by Tom Larson, whom I recall also wrote about real estate just before everyone realized that had become a bubble. The guy who runs the Instapundit web portal often links to news items reinforcing his theme that higher education is the next such fiasco.

The topic has my attention, since I’ve got a bright middle-schooler whose friends all want to go to Harvard--and think she’s weird because she doesn’t. She doesn’t because she knows I’d be opposed even if it were free. And yet I think education can be a great thing, even for its own sake, apart from whatever it does for one’s earning potential.

Learning, of course, is always possible, via books, DVD courses, etc. A proper formal education, seems to me, would involve close relationships between eager young scholars and eminent greybeards who’re ready to share their perspectives. The reality in most cases is huge lecture halls with tests graded by TAs, and ever-increasing tuition fees to support expanding administrative staffs. Most kids seem to think going to class and completing assignments is enough. To be honest, at that age I did too.

Another argument for going, especially to the name-brand schools, is the prospect of forming alliances with that rare fellow student who’ll end up inventing the next Facebook, i.e., it’s the chance to piggy-back into a lucrative opportunity. Yes, but to me that still seems like a long shot, in view of the cost.

Factor in the inevitable courses that will be an absolute, blatant waste of time, and the reality that many graduates have poorer earning potential than a plumber or heavy-equipment operator, and it’s very hard to see why college should be in every kid’s future.

But on the other hand, the alternative, with its lack of obvious direction, can be scary. As Davis mentions in the article, life gets in the way of pursuing an education. That’s the best argument for going after it early, before things become too complicated. And even though it may otherwise be meaningless, having a degree does indeed mean a lot to employers. If you don’t have it, you’d better have some other accomplishment or quality that’s just as impressive.

Sure hope we get this sorted out before my daughter finishes high school.


Joaquin_de_la_Mesa Aug. 16, 2013 @ 4:29 p.m.

It's not about earning potential. It's about being an educated person.

Yes, earning potential has always been higher for college grads, because more doors are open to the educated. But higher earning shouldn't be the goal of education, it should be a pleasant result of being educated. See the difference?

Fact: less than 7% of grads work in a field related to their major.


Joaquin_de_la_Mesa Aug. 16, 2013 @ 9:51 a.m.

College used to mean something. Everybody who went studied Latin and often Greek. They studied They read the classics of Western Civilization in literature, philosophy, history, natural science, and theology. They studied mathematics. They came out well rounded EDUCATED people capable of thinking and feeling at a higher level than non-college grads.

Then colleges became super specialized with only lip service paid to core education. And then the silly majors started to work their way into the system... women's studies, ethnic studies, musical theatre, communications, et cetera. (There might be a place for those as part of a whole, but not as an education

So now, the only serious work being done is in the so-call hard sciences. But it's being done by a bunch of narrow minded wonks who aren't well versed in philosophy, literature, history, and theology. So they have no perspective for their work.

And college professors... once they were people devoted to the cause of knowledge. Now they're a pack of vultures fighting over the corpse of funding. They work short hours for long money, and their career advancement is based on publishing papers (of often dubious value) rather than on teaching. Half the time, their classes are taught by graduate students.

I haven't even started on the booze-crazed, sex-crazed culture of most campuses.

Why would anyone want to go $100k in debt for the above?


Reader2 Aug. 16, 2013 @ 2:22 p.m.

I love biographies so, for the record- Rosa Parks was educated although, technically, also a drop out:
Rosa's mother Leona McCauley, "a teacher, taught Rosa at home until 1924, when at the age of 11, she was sent to live with her aunt in Montgomery, Alabama, to continue her education. Rosa attended the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, an all-black private school where Rosa performed janitorial work in exchange for tuition. She began high school at Booker T. Washington High, but was forced to drop out to help take care of her ailing mother and grandmother. In 1932, Rosa met and married Raymond Parks, a local barber and civil rights activist. Raymond was a self-educated man with a desire to gain as much knowledge as he could. With his support, Rosa returned to school, and in 1934, received her high school diploma." (US History.com)


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