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Why go to college?

Q. Why should we go to college if it is so hard to find a job? Everyone says they can’t find enough skilled workers.

A. The more education you have, the more options you will have in the world of work. You will also find it easier to find a job, if that is what you are looking for. The real bonus to a college education is what no one talks about. A college education gives you a confidence as you enter the world of work that is the foundation of success, however you want to define success. You have to wonder why Shaquille O’Neal is pursuing his doctorate degree these days .

But, too many students are headed off too college in pursuit of fun and a degree. You should and probably will have fun in college, but you should stop going to college for a degree. You need “strategic knowledge” – not just knowledge to help you earn a degree, but knowledge that will help you provide value to a company or others. I am a big fan of education, even a liberal arts education, but, let’s face it, a lot of students graduate from college with good learning skills and a degree, but they also have a pile of not-likley-to-be-used knowledge. That isn’t very strategic.

I am also struck by how many college graduates have, after four or so years, developed a comfort level with college life, but very limited skill to approach the world of work. All colleges try to help students grow beyond this cocoonal lifestyle, but few do it very well. Perhaps Northeastern University with its co-op program is the most successful.

And, now that you are giving up just trying to get a degree out of your two or four years of college, I suggest you give up looking for jobs. I think “jobs” are very 20th century. In a challenging economy, companies aren’t looking for employees, they are looking for money, revenues. You should go to college to gain a lot of strategic knowledge that you can offer a company to help them make money, or reach their goal, if it isn’t to make money. Jobs are great. They provide temporary security and a paycheck and benefits, but looking ahead, you may need to think about yourself as the owner of your own knowledge or skill business. While you are in college, you need to buy or build the tools you will need for your business. Hopefully, those tools include “skills” and the knowledge to support, develop, and leverage those skills.

Since I have already told you to stop pursuing a college degree and to stop looking for a job, I might as well add that I don’t buy at all this idea that there is a great shortage of “skilled” workers, which is what many are saying these days. There is a shortage of “skilled” workers willing to work for the pay that these jobs are offering. Raise the pay of these jobs and you will have no shortage of workers. Which brings me back to why I am such a fan of a college education: more opportunities that will make you proud in your future, and better odds of reach them.

Bachelor's degree vs associate's degree

Q. Do you think that getting a bachelor’s degree is a lot better than getting an associate degree at a two-year college?

A. I do. But, I think that college degrees are overrated. Knowledge is what matters.

The issue in the 21st century is whether you will be smarter than a computer or less smart. You may have noticed that technology is playing an increasingly large role in our lives and economy. Computers are doing the work humans used to do. Computers are even putting some people right out of work. But, you already knew this.

So, that leaves two groups of people in this country; those without knowledge greater than computers, who will see their job opportunities decline in the decades ahead because of the growth of technology; and those you have the mental ability to do what computers can’t.

But looking beyond just who gets jobs, for years there has been the cry for more plumbers and more electricians. “We need them and their job pays well.” True, there will always be a need for plumbers and electricians, at least for another decade. But, when I look at all of the complex issues this world faces today – economic, environmental, political, international, educational, cultural, energy, and education issues – I see a need for very smart people. The great demand in the years ahead will be for people with the thinking skills and reasoning skills and creative thought and interpersonal skills and judgment and broad perspective to address these very complex issues. We may not have a choice about this.

Computer decisions are binary. They are either on or off, yes or no, one or zero. As Bowdoin-graduate George Mitchell struggles to make a better world in the Middle East, his decisions are not binary. As Steve Jobs struggles to create a better iPad, his decisions are not binary, even though his products are. As President Obama struggles to figure out how and whom to support in Libya and Bahrain and Yemen and Egypt, his decisions are not binary. These decisions are neither black or white, right or wrong, on or off. They are complex.

To answer your question. I like a bachelor’s degree better than an associate degree because it is more education. Are two years of post-secondary education great? They are. Four years are even greater. Whenever our economy gets bad, this country loses its courage to believe in the value of a liberal arts education – an education that develops a broad range of knowledge and thinking skills. Two years of post-secondary education may give you the skills to fix a computer. Four years may give you the ability to fix a computer and design a computer that is used in a new way that creates a new demand in new markets around the world. Is one more valuable than another? I don’t know. But, I do know that the real strength of this country is and always has been our ability to create and solve and innovate. Those are not binary. Whenever we lose our courage in this country, we start clamoring for more hard-skill training. “We are losing all our jobs to China or India or somewhere. We need better technical skills!” At the same time, countries all over the world are quietly sending their students to the US to gain the soft and higher level skills that our colleges and universities develop so well.

Can you gain these higher-level skills in two years of college? Of course you can, but more education gives you more ability to build higher-level skills from a solid foundation.

I know. Now, you are going to remind me that college is expensive, and two-year community colleges are usually a lot cheaper than four-year colleges. This country likes to whine about outrageous debt for college graduates. So, let’s talk money. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that someone with a bachelor’s degree earns on average about $14,000 each year more over a lifetime than someone with only an associate degree. Maybe a year at a community college costs about $4000. Maybe a year at a public university costs almost $20,000. I encourage you to attend whatever college offers the best program to help you pursue the career that interests you most, but before you argue that a two-year college is better than a four-year college for financial reasons, do the math.

Whatever your job, you will spend a lifetime learning. Some people choose to load up with two years of knowledge before they enter the world of work; others choose four or more. The more knowledge the better, and the better chance you have of ending up on the winning side of technology and the better chance we all have of ending up on the winning side of complex local and global issues ahead of us.

College: right for everyone?

Q. Do you really think that college is right for everyone?

A. Do I think it is good for everyone? I do. Do I think it is right for everyone? I am not sure I know what that means. Do I think that age eighteen is the best time for all people to go to college? I do not.

Sometimes I think we make too much out of the idea of college. I am a fan of education. It is a good thing. Generally, the more education, the better. I don’t run into many people who are over-educated. Some people do find that they have a job that they like, and further education may not increase their satisfaction with their work significantly. Many people learn a lot outside of more traditional academic institutions. Many people learn a lot at work – from practice and from others. Sometimes colleges are places where people with knowledge gather to share their knowledge.

Almost all the research shows that a college education will often help you do better in your career, it will give you more opportunities, it will give you more confidence in the world of work, and the average graduate from a four-year college makes about $19,000 a year more, over a lifetime, than someone with only a high school diploma. More talent. More opportunities. More confidence. More income. Everyone can benefit from those.

What about all the students who just go to college and party and waste their parents’ money? I agree. Unfortunately, that happens much too often. It has been that way for many years. Perhaps it happens more often today. Even the biggest partiers will learn something, maybe even a lot. Would they learn more and get a greater return on the investment of their parents’ money if they went to college later? Very likely. So, we need to be cautious with our message that college is the answer to everything and everyone should go. I would argue that everyone can benefit from a college education, but right out of high school may not be the best time to do it. But, many people who graduated from high school, got a job, got married, had kids, and then tried to go to college will say to any students who will listen, “Go to college and get it done before your life fills up with 100 other responsibilities. You will be glad you did.”

But what about plumbers and electricians and carpenters and cooks? We need them. They can make a good living. They don’t need to go to college. Absolutely true. But, what about colleges like the University of Southern Maine or Clarkson University with majors like electrical engineering, electrician, industrial electronics, and power transmission? What about colleges like Southern Maine Community College or the University of Maine with majors in plumbing, pipefitting, property management, or mechanical engineering? What about colleges like Central Maine Community College or Colorado State University or Wentworth Institute of Technology with majors in carpentry or woodworking or architectural engineering or construction management or civil engineering or CAD or construction site management or structural engineering? What about going to Eastern Maine Community College or Washington County Community College or Johnson & Wales University to study culinary arts or restaurant management. More talent. More opportunities. More confidence. And, very likely, more income.

A good, well-chosen college education can be great for everyone, at the right point in their life when they are eager to learn and know why they want to learn. Perhaps some feel our economy needs more plumbers and welders and electricians. I say we should focus on creating as many opportunities as possible for our youth. “Our economy” will be theirs soon. We should help them build one that is full of opportunities.

I am a fan of knowledge and education. So, I like college.

Liberal arts? Good? Bad?

Q. What is liberal arts, and would a liberal arts education make it harder to get a job?

A. “Liberal arts” is a semi-well-defined term generally applied to colleges. A liberal arts education is intentionally broad and tries to cover a lot of subjects in the humanities, arts, and sciences – that’s like studying why and how people and things work within the world, used to work, and maybe will work in the future. It is probably easier just to explain what “liberal arts” usually doesn’t include. A typical liberal arts college, like Bowdoin, Bates, and Colby, offers Economics courses and English, History, Sciences, and weird humanities courses like psychology and sociology and philosophy and anthropology and psychobiology and ethnomusicology, but they don’t usually offer business and accounting and engineering and culinary arts and poultry science and forensic entomology and turf management and other “preprofessional” courses that help you prepare for a specific job. In truth, the large majority of universities offer all of the above; they have a liberal arts program among many other “preprofessional” programs. Interestingly, many community colleges, which have in the past been focused on preparing students for a particular trade, are now expanding their liberal arts programs, and will continue to do so, if they don’t loose their courage.

So much for my more boring answer to your first question. To me, the second half of your question is much more interesting. At least to me!

If there is a subject within a liberal arts education that interests you a lot, I encourage you to pursue that. You will be more successful in college and in your career if you are working on something you care about.

Honestly, a liberal arts education is usually closer to subjects you have studied in high school, so if you really need a change of pace, you may want to pursue a more preprofessional program that seems more useful, and interesting, to you. But, if you announce that you plan to pursue a Peace Studies major instead of Molecular Genetics, be prepared for the adult world (which includes many parents) to groan a collective sigh covering over “how’s that kid ever going to get a job?”

You spend sixteen or seventeen years in education, if you go to a four-year college, and the adult world falls apart if their child can’t find a job in the first month after college. If finding a quick job is your priority, a liberal arts curriculum may not be the way to go. Liberal arts majors are generally slower to get jobs, but usually end up making more money over a lifetime. There is research on this, but it is complicated. A liberal arts education will help you integrate many different sets of knowledge to solve complex problems of the world, of a business, of your career. A good liberal arts education will help you reason and analyze, but if that doesn’t “float your boat,” you should pursue something of greater interest and a more immediate return, like naval architecture.

The “most liberal arts college in the country?” I cast my vote for St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. Least liberal arts college? I will split my vote between NASCAR Tech and Cosmotech. But even Cosmotech has a course on theory. That sounds very liberal arts!

The hardest colleges to get into?

Q. What are the hardest colleges to get into?

A. It all depends.

If you are a boy, the hardest to get into are probably Wellesley, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Scripps, and Bryn Mawr. If you are a girl, I would say Hampden-Sydney, Deep Springs, Wabash, and Morehouse.

If your favorite classical composer is Justin Bieber, it would probably be Juilliard or Curtis Institute of Music. If your mother is the only one who has ever said anything nice about your drawings, it could be the Rhode Island School of Design. If you dress like the average male high school guidance counselor, it could be the Fashion Institute of Technology. If you don’t have a car, it could be Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, known as being the highest (altitude) college campus in the country.

I remember years ago pulling on a huge wooden door to get into the Dartmouth admissions office and thinking, “This really is a hard college to get into.”

Other than those, the colleges that I think are the hardest to get into include (in alphabetical order): Amherst College, MA; Brown University, RI; California Institute of Technology, CA; Columbia University, NY; Dartmouth College, NH; Duke University, NC; Georgetown University, DC; Harvard University, MA; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA; Princeton University, NJ; Stanford University, CA; Swarthmore College, PA; University of Pennsylvania, PA; Williams College, MA and Yale University, CT. Bowdoin, Bates, Colby, Pomona, Claremont McKenna College, and Carleton may be a little easier to get into, but not by much. The University of Virginia, William & Mary, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are also hard schools to get into for out-of-state students.

Not by my design, but over the past twenty years I have ended up helping a lot of students get into these very selective schools. I guess I must not be as smart as they are. For at least fifteen years I was thinking that you needed to be really smart to get into these schools. I finally realized that what they all had in common was that they just got the job done. When they knew they needed to write a great essay, they just worked at it until they got it done. When they knew they needed an A on a test, they just did whatever it took to get that done. When they needed to get to class, to practice, and get application materials in by the deadline, they just got it done. It was as if no one had ever told them that they couldn’t get it done. They just did it. They got it done. I don’t know whether or not they were “smart.” Maybe they thought Mr. Jones, their high school guidance counselor, was a fashionistus. Maybe they thought Justin Bieber wrote the national anthem. I just know they made the effort and they got it done.

There are 4000 colleges in the United States. If you plan ahead, and make the effort, you can get into them all . . . almost.