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College, Interrupted

A serious discussion about the value and sequencing of a college education is long overdue.

As the class of 2010 graduates into the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, the prospects for employment are bleaker than in anytime I can remember. For high school graduates under 25 and not in college, the average unemployment rate is 22.8%, according to recent data.

The solution, we are told, is to send more of these high school graduates to college, where, having spent in many cases well over $100,000 for a degree, they face an unemployment rate of “only 9%”. Something tells me that the pundits are not paying the bill for Junior’s college education.

Leaving aside the question as to why the colleges and universities in our country can’t control their spending (as a parent of two boys who have graduated from top-flight universities in the past three years, I was continually mystified that while the number of official schools days grew shorter, the tuition rates continue to rise, even faster than medical care expenses), it’s time to talk about the collective wisdom in assuring our youth that prosperity is better assured by accumulating massive debt that will take decades to erase. I know, the overall prospects for college graduates are often hundreds of thousands of dollars—as much as a million dollars in some surveys—higher over a career than for their high-school graduate counterparts, but perhaps it’s time to rethink the when and the how of college education.

It’s a conversation that America needs to have, and we won’t see it started from our universities.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all in favor of a good college education (most of my friends call me a permanent student; I’m still in school these days, working on another graduate-level degree), but I wonder if right out of high school is the best time, and if the four-year slog is the best manner in which to receive this education.

When we read about the pervasive imprint of technology on our economy, and how more than 400,000 IT positions in America are unfilled today, and with electronic health care, green technology, and automation in virtually every information-related task in our society growing with near-exponential rates, tell me again why a four-year degree right after high school makes sense?

I know, this is a tough discussion, and the answers are still not clear. There are far too many moving pieces in the equation for us to make broad pronouncements about what Junior should do for a job and a career. We need high schools to produce graduates who can think critically, communicate clearly, analyze thoughtfully, and work collaboratively on meaningful projects that reflect the real-life demands of today’s (and tomorrow’s) workplace. Instead of years of social studies or electives of dubious economic (or even educational) value, perhaps it’s time to re-think the vocational education tracks we discarded in many of our schools.

In some countries, it’s not a matter of class warfare if a student’s aptitude tests reveal superior talent in information technology or some other craft. It’s not a bad thing to be a person with a craft, a skill or a set of professional experiences that sets he or she apart from others. So for those who so choose, consider entry into an apprenticeship program after the junior year of high school (surely we can get them up to speed in their reading and math skills in three years). Instead of the half-year of wasted time after the college application game is played in the first semester of senior year, high school students who desire careers in technology can begin their fourth year in intensive, IT-centered training programs (along with core courses in writing, reading and critical thinking) that equip them with skills that employers want on day one.

For progressive companies seeking longer-term employees (remember, we have this whole boomer population that will soon retire and cause a predicted worker shortage) willing to stay with a company, there can be educational incentives that reward longevity and productivity with options for continued and/or higher education. Now Junior finds himself at age 28 with a college degree earned at a slower, more focused pace, a career where his prospects are validated, his salary at or higher than his college-graduated colleagues, and little of the educational debt that the present system appears all too eager for Junior’s parents to embrace.

It’s a departure from our expectations, and no doubt there will be some who argue that this is a class-driven agenda. Indeed, a recent letter to the NY Times, responding to a thoughtful op-ed piece suggesting that the four-year college program might be delayed or even skipped (see Plan B: Skip College, by Jacques Steinberg), lamented that it would “sanction class distinctions that have accelerated in the wake of the recession.”

I think not. Let’s get Junior (and his sister Sally) into the best situation possible. If it takes breaking a mold controlled by those whose vested interests (and income stream) does not synch with America’s families, America’s future and America’s workforce needs, as they say, something’s gotta give—and it doesn’t have to always be the budget of our nation’s youth and their families.

Let’s keep talking about this, ok?

I’d like to hear some of your own suggestions about how to solve this difficult challenge. Our kids deserve our best thinking—after all, they will be driving the IT engine in the next generation.

About the Author

With more than 2,000 members, 3,000 academic and training partners and tens of thousands of registered users spanning the entire information communications and technology (ICT) industry, CompTIA has become a leading voice for the technology ecosystem.

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