A few years ago I attended the wedding of a very dear friend. I was living out-of-state at the time, but I was excited to make the trip and even more excited to reconnect with old friends. It was an important wedding for me, one that felt deeply personal and significant.
For more years that I’d cared to admit, I’d been pining away. I had imagined a future for the two of us, and this wedding was confirmation and closure that we would never be: the final proverbial nail in my coffin of hope and expectation.
Much to my surprise I didn’t know very many people at the wedding, so I wandered over to the reception hall. It took a few minutes to get settled, but there was a slight mix-up. I didn’t have a seat at the table.
Coming to the realization that college isn’t the answer felt much like this: deeply personal and significant. It was a visceral, gut-wrenching realization that what I’d always wanted (through college) wasn’t available to me. It felt like I was losing a lifelong friend. Through no fault of its own, it made me feel alone and alienated.
I’ve devoted my life to education. Almost every job I’ve ever had was in education. I’ve helped navigate hundreds of families through the search and selection process. I’ve believed in college so much that I even went 4 times (more on that later)!
I can accept that I may have gone to the wrong school, chosen the wrong major, or lacked a sense of purpose and direction. I can accept that my expectations of college were unrealistic, or that I was misguided and uninformed. But I’ve met far too many people like me, too many people who stayed “focused” and “on track,” who’ve come to believe that the myth of college is a dirty, expensive lie. I’ve met too many people who are in no better place since college, and whose debt from college has actually left them in worse shape than they were before.
1: College isn’t the answer because it’s become an enterprise. There’s money to be made in education. Privatization is en vogue, and policy makers and facilitators reap the rewards. Publishing companies, curriculum sellers, even makers of school uniforms can access and exploit associated costs.
Since 2011, student loan debt has exceeded credit card debt and auto loan debt in the United States. On average a class of 2016 college graduate has at least $37,172 in student loan debt. According to College Board, the average cost of tuition for a private institution is $32,405 annually. State residents at public colleges pay $9,410 per year. Out-of-state residents at public institutions pay $23,893 per year.
2: College isn’t the answer because it doesn’t deliver on its promise: a seat at the table. There’s no future I could’ve imagined for myself that didn’t include college. It was expected and required: part of a naturally balanced breakfast. More than that, it was an aspiration. It was something for first-generation attendees (like me) to ascend to, and I was passionate.
I understood that college could facilitate greater social mobility and greater professional opportunities, but I went because I really liked books and learning. At my small, private, liberal arts school, I learned very quickly that there weren’t many people with a background like my own. Students who needed scholarships were looked down upon. It seemed to me like those who had a seat at the table already owned the room. If I wanted to earn a seat, I’d have to befriend the host, pay the cost of admittance, or change my clothes.
If the question is “how can we close the achievement gap between students of color and their wealthier counterparts,” college isn’t the answer. If the question is “how can we achieve equity in education,” college isn’t the answer. If the question is “how can we level the playing field so that everyone has access to resources and opportunity,” college isn’t the answer.
3: College isn’t the answer because it widens the achievement gap, not closes it.
College is important. It can be a valuable experience and an opportunity to be challenged, inspired, and transformed. It can be a time to explore, to innovate, and to create. I believe this wholeheartedly, even though I didn’t enjoy my experience. I believe this wholeheartedly even though, and I’m embarrassed to say it aloud, I don’t think I learned very much.
We need advocacy and activism; we need viable economic options. We need reform. We’re capable of thinking critically and creatively about what problems exist and what solutions are needed.
College is important, but we need something more.