Monday, December 3rd, 2012

Is Attending College a Mandatory Career Management Strategy?

As a high school junior, my son is starting to do research on college programs that are in sync with what he would like to study, computer animation. Even though computer and 3D animation are relatively new fields, there are some select colleges that offer degree programs in the field. But almost all the programs seem to assume that the person entering the program has an interest in animation but little hands on technical computer animation experience. The curriculum are heavy on theory and light on practical training. And as someone who has already been independently studying animation for close to 9 years, my son’s really not interested in spending four years on theory when he could be honing his technique and producing real work. And for good reason. For my son, the last 9 years have been a waiting game. Waiting to finish school with all its academic requirements and finally having the opportunity to spend his days working on the projects he has known for so long that he wants to do.  I’ve run out of reasons  for why he needs to take endless English, history, math, science, and language classes. I’ve never been able to justify the 4 hours of homework assigned each night. My son figured out long ago that he will never use most of this information to form the life he wants to create.

Just as all this has been weighing on my mind, The New York Times published an article about the growing trend towards questioning the value of a college education and profiled students who are forgoing the college degree and opting for work, entrepreneurship, self-directed learning, and general life experiences as a substitute. And who can blame them? The Internet has revolutionized and democratized the sharing of information. Plus, there is a whole new college drop out role model courtesy of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell and others. And then there’s the whole issue of student debt. The New York Times article mentions that according to the Student Body Scholarship Association, there is now $1 trillion in outstanding student debt. And according to a College@home infographic, 53% of  18 to 24 year olds live with their parents because they can’t afford to live on their own.

I meet recent grads from well-known schools and not so well-known schools.  Some have 4.0 GPAs; some have 2.0 GPAs. Many are having a hard time finding work because they frequently have majors that either don’t translate easily to a profession or are in a field that is already saturated with applicants. Or they have little in the way of internships, summer jobs, or a strong network to support their career target. The proof of success demonstrated by the attainment of a college degree is no longer a strong enough differentiator for employers. College certainly makes sense for students wishing to pursue certain fields such as medicine, law, or engineering, but it just doesn’t seem to make sense for everyone.

My son recently showed me a link to an intensive one-year online computer animation program that offers hands on practical experience in all the nitty-gritty technical things that he is hungry to learn more of but is having difficulty finding in a traditional 4-year undergraduate program. It sounds amazing but at the same time it sounds scary and feels reckless to invest in something that is so different than what we have grown accustomed to equating with education and I struggle with the perceived repercussions of giving up the traditional 4 year degree.  But each day I have a harder time justifying the merits of a traditional 4-year degree and wonder if others have the same doubts for their children. It will be interesting to see how the 4-year degree is perceived by hiring authorities in the next 5 to 10 years and if the tide will shift. What are your thoughts?