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December 22, 2011

The College Degree Myth

SchoollessEducational institutions have it all wrong. 

If you go to college, you will earn more money than if you did not. College admissions departments send collateral that show increases in income levels for those who earn degrees. Teachers, undoubtedly with the best intentions, hoping to find something that will motivate their students to learn the material they're being taught, repeat the same chorus: "If you don't pay attention now, you will not be able to go to college. If you don't go to college, you won't be successful."

They ask you to look the other way when they teach you about people from this august list.

  • Benjamin Franklin
  • George Washington
  • Abe Lincoln
  • Frederick Douglass
  • Thomas Edison
  • The Wright Brothers
  • Steve Jobs
  • Bill Gates
  • Michael Dell

None of them earned college degrees. All were brilliant. All were succesful. And in case it's not clear from the list, several in the group had to overcome modest -- even oppressive -- circumstances of their youth to achieve great things.

There may be an explanation for this. In his classic book, How to Lie with Statistics, Darrell Huff suggessts that the premise of the statement is the child of a post-hoc fallacy, that presumes that because many people who have degrees are successful, the degree must have caused it.

"Actually we don't know but that these people are the people who would have made more money even if they had not gone to college. There are a couple of things that indicate rather strongly that this is so. College get a disproportionate number of two groups of kids: the bright and the rich. The bright show good earning power without college knowledge. And as for the rich one... well, money breeds money in several number of ways. Few sons of rich men are found in low-income brackets whether they go to college or not." 

People like Lincoln, the Wright Brothers, Douglass, etc., weren't stupid on account of their lack of a degree, and they weren't self-made men. They were "Open-Source Learners" -- people who tapped into the resources of their age to improve their understanding about how some part of the universe works.

How much more should we in the 21st century, who can write and talk with and see people halfway around the world in an instant -- for next to nothing -- be able to improve our understanding of how some useful part of the universe works, and with the tools at our disposal, put it to good use?

A little background

My brother Gannon ran into a motivation wall when we were kids. Convinced by the world that he needed to go to college to be successful, once he got it into his head that he could neither afford college nor earn a scholarship, he lost hope, checked out mentally, did as little as he thought he needed to in order to stay eligible for sports and bided his time until he could graduate and join the Marines.

And he was smart. One semester in high school, he dedicated himself and got straight As. Just to prove that he could. After having accomplished that, not believing the effort was worth it, he fell back to Bs, Cs and Ds.

Since then, I've watched his very intentional transformation from a amatuer hobbiest illustrator to a master craftsman. (You can follow some of his work on his blog). His skill can't be chalked up to superior genetics or fancy schooling. It is a product of reading, collaboration, and 5 years or 10,000 hours of practice.

How to Pursue a Degree Without Going to College

In his book, Schoolless (Available on Amazon in paperback and for the Kindle), Gannon doesn't argue that college isn't useful repository of excellent learning tools, or that people should eschew a college degree... Rather, it is a celebration of alternative learning strategies that don't cost $27,000 (the average cost of a 4-year college degree in 2005).  

Wondering how you're going to possibly send your kids to college? Lost hope in ever getting a degree without a mountain of debt? The good news is that you have options. There's still time to get this book for Christmas! Do it today. - Cam Beck

 

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