Plain thoughts about alternatives to college

Minister and blogger (and friend) Adam Tierney-Eliot looked at his family’s finances and so addressed one of the great taboos of the educated middle class: that there may be an alternative to college for his children, that blithely opting into college surely come with a mountain of debt, and that the alternatives might be demonstrably better. The influence of homeschooling and related questions about the cost of ministerial education surely play into a larger discussion.

I’m glad that Team Eliot has some time to make plans.

A college education, to my mind, provides at least the following five benefits, which need to be addressed in a plan to “un-college” a youth.

  1. Content information in a field of study
  2. Character development, including manners and professional or academic habits
  3. Habits for further learning, including disciplined curiosity
  4. A social network
  5. Identifiable credentials

Of course, other experiences provide these; military service is an obvious alternative. Also, not all college student acquire these five, or do it well. But so long as there’s a presumption that one’s middle-class standing is tied to a post-high-school college education, then it makes sense to address all of these intentionally — at least to relieve the anxiety that the experiment is foolhardy and detrimental. The goal, I think, is not to ape class prescriptions, but to guide a young person into a confident and competent adulthood without hobbling him (I’m still speaking here of the Eliot boys) though decades of student debt.

I work in the HR and financial end of a savvy nonprofit organization, and I see the effects of high student debt every day. Avoid it if you can. And now the question of how. (I hope to return to this subject, but I would like readers to comment at length, too.) But I’ll start here:

  • There needs to be a plan, with measurable goals. Making plans and meeting goals, and the peril in failing to do so, is itself a basic life lesson.
  • The plan should include independent study and networking and compensated work and travel and public service.
  • An internship, including one or more of the above, should be a part of the plan. It — or they; multiple internships are not uncommon — has, since my own college days, become essential, and may matter as much or more than the degree to some employers.
  • The most valuable skill is the ability to write and speak in clear, convincing and jargon-free English.
  • The second most valuable skill, I suspect, is the ability to manage money, including the ability to read (and perhaps draft) budgets. Personal ones, at the very least: it’ll also make the prospect of self-education seem wiser.
  • If a degree turns out to be essential to follow a career path, then distance learning, based on credit by examination might be an option. I tested out of about two quarters of classes that would have otherwise bored me, and let me graduate with two majors in four years.