One of the cultural divides that confronts immigrants to the US and possibly other Western nations is the perspective on career choices when it comes to their children. When I was growing up in Kenya and what happens to this day in India is that children are inculcated with a mind-set that one’s choice of college and educational pursuits is a blend of innate ability, spheres of interest and most importantly, the potential the course of study offers to find a job upon completion of college.

This came to mind because of two news events: first, there is mounting concern about the huge student loan debt, in some instances guaranteed by the US government, which now amounts to over $1 trillion …… and to make matters worse is that even as the burgeoning debt reaches levels that creates exposure to the entire US financial system, the employment opportunities for college graduates is increasingly tenuous which makes it difficult for these debts to be repaid thereby leaving both the individual student borrowers vulnerable as well as the US government which has underwritten some of these loans. Keep in mind that an undergraduate degree from the better known colleges costs well over $200,000 with very limited financial assistance other than student loans that have to be repaid.

The second news item pertains to a feature on “60 Minutes”, a well known and reputable TV program in the US about an entrepreneur who offers enterprising young men and women “seed” money of $100K to start a business instead of going to college. In effect, he discourages some of these students from going to college and incurring substantial debt to finance their college with little prospect of adequate employment opportunities paying enough money to actually live a comfortable life and repay their student loans. Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook has created fellowships to give students who are under 20 years old, a chance to ditch school and, as he says, begin to build the technology companies of tomorrow. Thiel’s approach has stirred considerable controversy since it goes against conventional thinking that the way to assure oneself a bright future is to get a college degree!

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In fairness, Thiel does not suggest that dropping out of college or not pursuing college is the route for everyone. But he does argue that there is an excessive emphasis on college degrees and the pay-back that results is not commensurate with the cost of college. He argues that many students are better off pursuing training that will enable them to achieve qualifications such as becoming plumbers, electricians and other similar vocations …… fields of employment that would ensure a decent living without incurring substantial debt that would merely lead to occupations that offer limited potential in terms of future earnings.

More specifically with regard to those he provides with “seed” money to start a business Thiel says of the more than 400 applications well over 24 people have received Thiel Foundation grants. He goes on to say about those who received the grants:

“They’re all really impressive people. Just to illustrate with two of them: there’s Eden Full is a 19-year-old woman from Canada who’s passionate about alternate energy and making solar power cheaper. She has worked on a technology that enables solar panels to rotate less expensively. And she began developing this idea when she was 15 years old.

“Jim Danielson is a student at Purdue, sophomore. He’s designed a new electric motor for building more efficient electric vehicles. And one of the challenges he has is if he stays in college, a lot of the intellectual property would actually go to the university.”

Thiel himself took the more conventional approach and attended Stanford. He says:

“I think I benefited and certainly we’re not saying that everybody should stop out or drop out. If I had to do it over again, I probably would still go to Stanford Law School. It’s a little bit different from when I went 25 years ago because it’s gotten so much more expensive. The one thing I would do differently would be to think a lot more about it.

“The way I was thinking about it when I was a 17-year-old senior applying to college was I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life. I’m just going to go to college. When I was a 21-year-old senior in college, it was I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ll go to law school. And there was a way in which education and the university system was sort of a substitute for thinking about what I would do with my life.”

Some of Thiel’s comments are thought-provoking and it brings me to one of my own pet peeves about the education system in the US … and possibly elsewhere in the West. School counselors and college counselors, in my opinion, do a disservice to children in guiding them into courses of study that often have very limited potential in terms of employment after they graduate. I found this to be the case with my own children and those of other children of friends – though, for whatever reason, my children were persuaded that future job prospects were an important component in deciding their college majors. Now admittedly, part of my point of view is the result of the cultural divide that I referred to in the first paragraph of this post, based on my own upbringing. My parents and, for that matter most Indian/Asian parents, emphasize that the purpose of obtaining a higher education is to make one more marketable in terms of their skill set in order that they can be gainfully employed. School and college counselors encourage children to pursue whatever field in which they are interested and for which they have a passion ….. with minimal emphasis on whether the pursuit of that field of study will offer employment prospects down the line. In the process they encourage and guide young students into educational pursuits where they end up incurring substantial student loans with limited opportunities for gainful employment that would enable them to pay those loans off and achieve a comfortable life-style.

Given the current economic conditions in the US where jobs earning a decent income are increasingly limited, I have listened to CEOs’ of major companies lament their inability to find recruits for the many openings in their companies because of the lack of the right skill sets. There are numerous opportunities in engineering, the oil industry, information technology, etc and a dearth of qualified candidates and as a result companies end up recruiting from abroad ….. and, in fact, if they were not able to seek talent abroad, their operations would be severely impacted.

In the sixties, when I was a young man, most Indian parents would encourage their children – almost to a point of coercion – to become engineers, doctors, lawyers and chartered accountants (CPAs’) because there were excellent employment opportunities in those fields. Today, in India, the focus is in encouraging their children into the above professions as well as information technology. Of course, the pursuit of fields of study that one has no interest is not desirable but at the same time the current and past focus in the US on pursuing one’s passion without regard to career opportunities upon completion of college is leading to a generation unemployable or under-employed individuals and to make matters worse they have a mountain of debt to repay in the pursuit of their college degrees.

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One Response to “To go or not to go to college ….. that is the question”

  1. puta says:

    certainly like your web-site but you have to test the spelling on several of your posts.

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