(This post is part of the series on postsecondary education.)
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Check out Darwin's take at DarwinCatholic. I'll probably have comments later in an update, but I have to go read a bedtime story.
Every once in a while, a critic will say of some hawkish Senator, "Well, is he going to send his kids off to war?"
This rhetorical device annoys me, because in this country, no one sends his own kids off to war. Adults (and sometimes older teens) decide for themselves whether or not to enlist in the U. S. armed forces and to accept the possibility of combat. "Sending someone off to war" is the purview of the DOD, not of parents.
When we imagine helicopter parents, we are generally not thinking of Black Hawks.
A better question would be, "Well, is he going to teach his own kids to value the contributions of the U. S. military and to consider it as a potential calling or career? Is he going to communicate to his kids that the choice to serve in one of the branches of the U. S. military is an honorable one, that to take on the risks of combat is brave and selfless, and that he would be proud to call a sailor, soldier, or officer Son or Daughter?"
But somehow the critics never phrase it that way.
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As Mark and I have been writing our pieces on postsecondary education questions, I find myself imagining an imaginary reader challenging us,
"Well, if college is such a bad deal for America, and if there are as they say too many college students, are Mark and Bearing going to keep their kids out of college? Are they going to send them to trade schools instead, or send them off to one of the other alternatives Bearing mentioned?"
And of course we can't keep our kids out of college, even if we wanted to, because eventually they'll be adults. We can't send them to trade schools either. (Although we could offer to pay for one and not the other).
But a better set of questions might be:
Are we going to encourage our children to take a broad view of "post-secondary education" that includes alternatives to college?
Are we going to encourage our children to view all kinds of productive human labor as honorable and their practitioners worthy of respect?
Are we going to give them a chance to work with their hands during childhood as well as with their minds?
Are we going to encourage our children to consider the costs as well as the benefits of the different educational paths open to them?
Are we going to encourage our children to delay spending money on education until they have a plan for how to establish themselves, and eventually a family, in favorable financial conditions?
Are we going to encourage them to have a backup plan, or an escape hatch, in case their first plan unexpectedly becomes untenable?
Are we going to try to communicate to them that our approval and love is not contingent upon the "status" of their chosen profession?
Are we going to try to raise them to strive for excellence, and not limit "excellence" to mean only academic achievement or prestige?
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As Darwin points out, it's pretty likely that each of our children will have the inclination and the necessary preparation to attend a four-year college right out of high school. Mark and I both graduated from college, and I hold an advanced degree; we directly supervise their education and are inclined ourselves to make that education a college-preparatory one; we have some funds to support post-secondary education, including college; in short, we come from a "college culture."
But we want to avoid the pitfall of assuming that four-year college will be the default choice, or even the best choice, for each of our children.
In his post, Darwin has identified some bad outcomes of this assumption.
(1) Many people start college who are not actually able to finish, and these people "end up with debt and lost time, but don't have appreciably higher income and lower unemployment than those with only high school [diplomas]."
I add to that: it's not just "lost time" -- lost time in the workforce represents lost wages, lost savings, lost interest on those savings, lost experience that could have been leveraged into higher income now. It's not just that they failed to gain economic benefits. They really lost an economic good.
(2) Those who graduate but who were in the bottom quintile of academic ability also end up with debt and lost time (and lost wages, lost savings, lost interest, lost experience....) but are unemployed at rates similar to those with only high school diplomas. These people also really lost an economic good. You might well argue that as a group they would have been economically better off if they had dropped out (like the group in point one), also known as "knowing when to quit," because they would have sunk less of their time and money into an endeavor which wasn't paying off.
(3) "Borrowing tens of thousands of dollars is a bad way to avoid making decisions." Darwin is referring to graduate school, not undergrad, but I think the point stands for undergraduate education as well, because many people go to college after high school only because they have to do something while they figure out what they want to do with their lives, and college is the default option. How many people start their college career with their major "undecided?" How smart can that be? Wouldn't it be better to do something that made money instead of cost money while you are trying to decide what to do when you finally grow up?
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And here are some more pitfalls:
(4) If you assume that four-year college is the best choice, then you won't devote much time to learning about other kinds of careers and training paths. If you are ignorant of these, you may miss something that would have been a perfect fit for your personality and talents.
(5) Assuming that four-year college is the default choice, especially insisting that it is the only acceptable choice as many families do, communicates that people who choose different paths are less worthy. Darwin implicitly identifies this when he points out that people make "unspoken assumptions" about those who don't have college degrees. It's true that we have to teach our children to navigate a world that makes value judgments about people based on their occupations and education level, but we don't have to contribute to it.
(6) Assuming that four-year-college immediately follows high school -- the so-called "traditional student model" -- is to reject a number of viable paths in which alternative education precedes or leads into a bachelor's degree from a traditional institution.
For instance, Darwin writes that "urging [kids] to skip the college degree they want and get a certification in some skill like plumbing or welding instead is probably not a good idea." Well -- who says it has to be "instead?" A welding certificate could be the means to earn a high hourly wage with which to "work your way through school." It could be the backup plan so you know you'll always have a skill to fall back on if that English degree doesn't work out. (Most students don't graduate on time anyway -- why not spend one year getting a certificate and four years getting a degree, instead of five years getting a degree?) Or it could be the first half of an associates degree in welding, which itself could lead to a bachelor's degree in welding engineering from a traditional four-year university.
UPDATE FROM THE COMMENTS: " I just wish I had felt like there were other options for a nice upper middle class girl."