Is Higher Education For Everyone?

I just read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about college professors becoming distressed when their kids didn’t want to go to college and/or didn’t succeed in college.

This coincides with a conversation I’ve been having with my students this semester about college sports. After reading Michael Lewis’s The Blind Side, in which some athletes bend the rules in order to go to college, and others work the system to have the easiest education possible. In one particularly sad scene, more than a dozen senior football players at Ole Miss walk off the field after their last game and right off campus–forever. Getting a degree is clearly meaningless to these players. So I asked my students, Why should athletes have to go to college in order to play in NFL? Most of them were adamant that the current system of trading tuition for athletic ability is fair. But I can’t help but wonder, if the students aren’t getting anything out of their college education, why not pay them to play and instead of forcing them to attend classes?

I loved college, and I want everyone in America to be able to experience it. Like many college graduates, I got a lot more out of school than the opportunities the degree offered–lifelong friendships, inspiring mentors, experiencing life in a city for the first time, and the ability to feed my curiosity about a variety of subjects.

At the same time, there’s some people in my life who have shown me that college is not for everyone. My friend J. works in the educational field, of all places, and she’s only halfway through college, which she’s been attending sporadically for years. A family member, B., has hated reading and school his whole life. Without a clear sense of how getting a degree would help him fulfill a particular goal, he couldn’t motivate himself to keep attending school. These two people are smart, committed to their own happiness, and they care about the state of the world. They want to make money and be secure. Another family member, V., never went to college, became a plumber, and made enough money to buy a house far before my college-educated husband and I could afford one. Another friend, F., dropped out of school over a decade ago and came back to finish his degree when he was emotionally ready and financially motivated. He did great, and is enjoying life in the white collar world now that he’s finished. But he did it on his own time.

I’m sitting here in New York, talking to my chef brother-in-law Dan, and he said he didn’t regret going to college, even though his art history major didn’t directly apply to his career, he valued his education, his relationships, and his first experiences living with people other than his parents. Still, his career wasn’t necessarily enhanced.

As people who’ve pursued education to the nth degree, it can be hard not to judge those who don’t like or aren’t fulfilled by formal education. As my husband said, “not doing well in school is not the same as sucking at life.” Us doctors and future doctors do well to remember that.

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