Saturday, March 6, 2010

Thoughts On Higher Education – Part 1

It’s hard for me to believe that I am less than two years away from making a decision about college for my oldest child. In all honesty, it doesn’t seem like that long ago that I was receiving my own college degree.

For many years, the question of higher education for my children had a known formula – get a college degree, find a good job with a stable company, earn a comfortable amount of money, and take care of their family above all else.

So why am I suddenly having serious doubts about this plan?

I think the root of my concern is twofold: 1) I believe that the “value” of a traditional college education has been fading over time, and 2) I see many university programs as being fundamentally anti-God. Do I really want to pay thousands of dollars to an institution that would purposefully try to lead my child away from God’s eternal reward? And then place them in a career where they work, not for God’s kingdom, but for man’s - for half of their waking hours?

I truly believe that the value of a college education, seen even from a worldly viewpoint, is quickly eroding. Things are not the same as they were in the world of business twenty years ago, when I graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. To be sure, my university experience taught me much in terms of social skills, working with others, and how to live with another human being in a twelve foot-by-twenty foot space for a year (a skill I'm not anxious to repeat, but I leave that to God). But those lessons can also be learned outside of the college campus – and you don’t have to pay $10,000 a year, or more, for the privilege.

During my four years of university, I also learned how to manipulate thermodynamic equations, take Laplace transforms, and calculate the magnetic field surrounding a charged Gaussian sphere. And yet, in over twenty years of employment for various technical and engineering-driven companies, I have never had to perform a single one of those exercises. To make the point even more plain, I left college with no clue as to how to wire a simple three-way house electrical switch (the kind used at the top and bottom of a stairway), even though I accepted my diploma – in electrical engineering. This is not to say that I’m ungrateful or spiteful of my college education. I'm thankful for how God has blessed me through the education I received. It has served me and my family well for twenty years. God has blessed us tremendously through my career (and He has divinely intervened at least a couple of times…but that is another story).

My degree got me interviews with big companies, even though my practical knowledge was very limited. That model works well when big companies exist to hire college graduates. The model worked like this – you pay your money to a college institution - who gives you a piece of paper after four or five years of modest effort – and that piece of paper becomes your “ticket” to interview for the world of big business.

But this model has less value if the goal is to work in smaller business or, better yet, if you want to run your own business. If business ownership is the goal, then practical knowledge and a grasp of how to manage a startup is what is needed. And fortunately, starting out a career saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt is not required to run your own business. That money (the money that the parents and student have saved for a college education) could be directly applied toward a business startup, preferably after a period of industry mentorship and training.

Think about it – if you have $50,000 saved or purposed for higher education, you can: 1) pay it to a university, get a degree, and jump on the big business bandwagon, or 2) spend some time in a mentorship or training program (while likely earning some money) and then use the $50,000 as seed money to get your child started as the owner of their own business….having already been exposed to the career they will pursue. How many of us have wanted to start our own business at one time, but lacked the money to do so? Would it have been a better investment of that money to apply it directly to our dream, instead of indirectly through a university? For some, I'm sure the answer is "Yes".

These are hard words, full of risk, for those of us who face the decision about higher education. But keep this in mind - isn't the ultimate desire for Christian parents to keep their children directed toward a godly purpose? As long as we keep that final goal in mind, and dutifully ask for God's wisdom, we can count on His intervention to make the right decision...and take the right risk.

To Part 2 – Why Not to Work for a Big Company and What To Do About It

Related Reading:
Washington Post article – College Costs Rise While Educational Quality Suffers

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