Last year I had the privilege of exchanging letters with the students in an English class at Charles Bass Correctional Facility. A friend of mine was teaching there, and I enjoyed writing back and forth with some of the students about why they were seeking out a college education from behind bars, and the ways it was transforming their lives. They spoke about their past mistakes, and some told me what they were in for. They wrote about the empowerment and pride they felt in bettering their lives through education, getting to express themselves and have their opinions heard.
They brought up some of the best things about college -- things I enjoyed about the experience myself, though I come from a far more privileged, less tumultuous background. It's a wonderful opportunity to learn, grow, and gain valuable skills and self-confidence.
That said, I don't think that college is for everyone.
My belief that not everyone should go to college does not mean that I think it should belong only to a privileged few. I don't think that it should continue to adhere to the Oxford and Cambridge model, when Universities were primarily training for the gentry or the clergy. It means that anyone who wants to go to college should be able to, but that it shouldn't be something we all have to do just to get our resumes into the Yes pile on a recruiter's desk.
My best friend doesn't need her history degree to be an amazing office manager, but she would never have been hired without having it on her resume. Another friend is continuing to work at the same accounting firm she's been with throughout college, although she just graduated. She clearly didn't need her degree to have that job.
Yet four-year universities and bachelor's degrees have become a kind of Grade 13, a requirement that employers ask for without much thinking about it, even as it aligns less and less with the actual work we do.
Here in the Deep South, as in other places around the country, there are many students at my local state university who are still the first or second generation in their family to go to college. My classmates often see college as the one way out of small towns and limited opportunities, something there is a lot of pressure in their families to accomplish in hopes of a better life, of having and doing more. Four-year colleges are still seen as a ticket to the big city and a bigger paycheck. It's a sensitive subject that comes with a lot of expectations.
However, it doesn't always pan out as anticipated. Build Me a World, a documentary on my hometown's hard-struggling Howard High School, showed young students sold on the dream of attending college, only to struggle with their grades and finances. In too many cases, these students paid a lot of money to drop out or flunk out.
The incarcerated learners I corresponded with, years down the road from the students in the documentary, echo that feeling that they were set up to fail. College isn't always a fast track to success and financial stability. Anyone who graduated with a pile of debt during the recession can tell you that. That's one reason so many alternatives to college are now popping up.
Community colleges have quickly become a popular alternative to the traditional four-year university. I am one of the only kids in my generation of my family who went straight into a four year university. Most of my cousins went to community college, then finished up at a four-year school, or took their time taking classes while also working, feeling out relationships, and getting their young lives sorted out.
A lot of people still see that as a cop out, as lacking the prestige of “a real university.” I wish that what is often a more practical route to getting a degree, whether it's vocational or simply for the pleasure of learning, didn't carry such an unfair stigma.
There are also alternative opportunities like the Thiel Fellowship, which gives $100,000 to students to drop out or opt out of college education to self-teach, pursue their research, and gain business experience more along the Steve Jobs track than the four years and a master’s degree track. There's UnCollege, which was inspired in part by the Thiel fellowship and offers a different kind of curriculum that encourages more self-directed, roll-your-own learning.
These aren't for everyone, either, but they do show how we are increasingly coming around to the idea that college should be an option, but not an obligation. It's not the only way to succeed, and we shouldn't feel ashamed about that.
I love that the students at Charles Bass I corresponded with had found pride and self-confidence simply by working towards something they'd never thought possible. I'm glad that they were inspired to take classes by setting new goals for themselves and envisioning new futures.
I love that the students at my hometown's most troubled school dream big enough to try for college, to make a change for themselves and break negative cycles. Everyone should be able to do that if they want to.
However, when we view college as the only route out of poverty and as the only way of overcoming racial, class, and gender barriers, we are making it harder for everyone to find the path to success that will most work for them. We aren't all smart in the same ways, and there are many different ways to be educated.
My father is an English professor, well-respected in his field and an amazing teacher. His brother has a bachelor's degree and works in a mysterious position within a big telecom company. My uncle hasn't spent the same number of years in school, and he might not have that much to say about postmodern literary criticism, but when the zombies come, or the power grid shuts down, or the tap water is poisoned or even just if a polar vortex comes through, I want to be on his team. My father and my uncle are educated in different ways, but they are equally smart, and equally valuable. I wish more people could see that about different kinds of education.
Despite my two bachelor's degrees and just having started on my master's, I feel woefully uneducated in most other areas of my life. I may have read "Great Expectations" cover to cover, but not even once has Charles Dickens shown up when I need help with an oil change or repairing the gutters on my house. I did a senior thesis on international food aid during the Cold War, but I had to Google how to can my own tomatoes and grow potted herbs from tiny seeds.
I remember reading the "Little House on the Prairie" books as a girl and being amazed at everything the characters could do-- make butter, build a fire, sew a complicated dress, craft hinges for a door. I wish I could do even half of those things. There are so many people who are more educated than I am in so many ways, regardless of degrees and concentrations and honors and tassels.
If we're becoming more generally aware that there are ways to succeed without college, why are we putting students through an intellectually rigorous system for rote positions, and completely ignoring the myriad skills people need to better run the other half of their lives?
I believe wholeheartedly in the value of the liberal arts to teach us critical thinking, how to read and write and process information. Those are undeniably valuable skills, especially in so-called knowledge work, but there has to be a better way to earn them and a living. If we could disentangle universities from the tight knots of expectation and privilege and classism they are stuck in now and create viable vocational alternatives outside the traditional university system that are seen as equally valuable and worthy of pride, it would be better for everyone.
Until we all question the biases and prejudices and hang-ups that contribute to college being seen as this one size fits all solution, we can't change the system. It's not simply about creating alternatives in the form of grants and other programs. It's also about acknowledging other types of success and education as equally valuable, whether it's certification in electrical work or plumbing, or successfully creating a salable app, or opening up a mechanic shop or writing a dissertation on Faulkner.
By changing our ideas about what qualifies as success, we can help more people find ways to be financially comfortable and personally satisfied. No big change can occur, no innovation can take place, until we all make small changes within ourselves and learn to see the world differently. After all, isn't that the true heart of all forms of education?