Is college the right course?

Perhaps young people should be looking at other options

The author teaches writing at Butte College and is a freelance writer, editor, tutor and social-media consultant.

Should high-school graduates attend college? Would it be better for them to learn practical skills, such as producing food and building the local economy? Should college change to include more instruction of practical skills?

Young adults are waking up and smelling the mocha, as it were. At some level, many know something’s not right with the world they’re entering (see The New York Times article “The Class of 2012,” June 4.)

Growing up, I believed college was a must, but I’m no longer sure college is the best path for all young people to take. For now, there’s still reason to earn a degree, as college grads succeed in the labor market more than their peers with lesser credentials. I wonder, however, if a college degree will indefinitely prove optimal for young adults. I also wonder if what colleges and universities offer may need to change to more accurately address the economic realities that are unfolding.

I raise such issues because, ultimately, the most important aspect of education is learning to use critical-thinking skills. All young people face a reality of dismal economic conditions; one begins to understand why some question the long-term value of college. I hear many ask: Will I be able to get a decent job after such an investment of time, energy and, especially, money? Some students leave college saddled with as much as $250,000 in student debt.

I would never discourage anyone, young or old, from furthering his or her literacy skills, but that doesn’t have to happen within a purely academic environment. Maybe young adults should look ahead to the questionable future that awaits them and scrutinize how best to spend their precious time.

In April, Chris Martenson, noted economics commentator (, wrote, “…I was asked by a high school teacher if I had … ideas … why students today seem so apathetic when it comes to engaging with the world around them. I waggishly responded, ‘Probably because they’re smart.’… We’re asking our young adults to step into a story that doesn’t make any sense.…What do we say to our youth when they ask what role they should play in this story—a story with a plot line they didn’t write?”

I feel bad about the earth-ravaging, debt-creating, economy-destroying story my generation has written for today’s young people. I can only encourage them to truly critically examine their options as they move forward.