Because there’s nothing magical about college

Why does it bother people so much that my daughter isn’t going to college? She doesn’t want to…she wants to dance. So we said, “Go for it. You have a gift. Do what you have to do to try and make it happen.” I even suggested auditioning for a ballet company in Eastern Europe where she went with her high school company last summer.

And what if she fails? What if she spends the next 5 or 10 years trying and never really makes the cut? What will that leave her with?

I don’t know…maybe independence, a strong work ethic, life experience, new friends, adventure stories, and a better sense of who she is and what she wants to do for starters.

I have spent 15 years in ministry to university students, several years in grad school learning alongside undergraduate students, and now teach college courses as an adjunct instructor.  Very few of the students I have met exhibit those desirable attributes. A small number actually show up with such characteristics; a few more gain some of them during college; but so many more just acquire a pile of debt and a sense of entitlement.

But what about income differences? People with college degrees are more successful on average, right?

Can we be honest about statistics?

Comparing wages by level of education actually tells us very little about any individual’s prospects for several reasons. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) can tell us average incomes for graduates, but those base line statistics don’t make it clear that “Bachelor’s Degrees” include engineers and programmers making about 100k annually.  The BLS shows those with a BA averaging about 60K. When we consider all the engineers, nurses, and other specialized graduates making 70-125K annually with Bachelors degrees, we must remember that there are plenty of others with Bachelor degrees making significantly less that 50K a year and carrying college debt that eats away at about $5000 of that income annually. A degree is no magic bullet.

The other thing the statistics cannot account for is personal motivation. Obviously on average people with a degree make more money than those without. But it may not be the degree that determines that fact. Consider that when we as a society tell people from age 5 that to be “successful” they need to go to college, what should we expect but that most motivated people will go to college. Need I say it…”correlation is not causation.” It is quite possible that more college graduates earn higher income precisely because motivation to “succeed” pushes the choice to go to college. The fact that barely half of 2014 graduates have jobs that require a degree and also that about a third of graduates are in jobs completely unrelated to their college major may support that interpretation.

Furthermore, success is an elusive concept. I have started this discussion by noting the problem with BLS income statistics. But as Christians we ought to be bothered any time income is the measure of success. There is nothing in the BLS numbers that say anything about the intangibles of life. (Why is it that over a third of college graduates wish they had majored in something other than they did?)

The reality is that most people don’t work for money. No doubt there is the random miser who holds onto money for its own sake (though that is debatable since what the hoarded money likely buys them is a sense of security), but most people work for what they think money can buy–happiness.  Recognizing that, we Christians should be cautious when we allow a worldly system and its motivation to dictate what we do. We of all people should be sober about the promise of “success” that is too closely tied to money…or even to some vague concept of happiness. (“Follow your heart” is no better or more Christian than “Show me the money” as a proper motivation for vocation.)

All of that said, I do not intend this as a mere denunciation of higher education. Rather, I would simply offer that we as Christians ought to seek to discern vocation and not simply accept the cultural narrative about education put upon us by a fallen culture. Too many of us simply accept the “normal” process–a process that often promotes debt and  corrupts morals (something frequently as true about “Christian” colleges as it is state universities). We forget that we serve a creative God who promises to give us wisdom when we ask, and instead we subject ourselves to a bloated and broken system that seeks to inculcate values often in opposition to the Gospel.

Maybe it is time that more of us encourage our kids to take a year or two and work or go on a meaningful adventure or volunteer or do a combination of all of those. Maybe they should intern or apprentice with someone in the career they intend to study for before they go to school…even if they have to do it for free. There is a real life education to be had out there, and very few students get it at college.

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One thought on “Because there’s nothing magical about college

  1. Thank you! This needs to be heard. Someone reminded me recently that the Bible calls children a blessing and debt a curse. So why do we follow our culture and intentionally deny a blessing while applying for a curse? Strange how we insist on thinking like the World in so many ways. Lord, help us have the mind of Christ. Oh, by the way, grey hair is honor. Hee, hee, hee.

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