College: To go or not to go?

It's the season for college applications and while we have a couple more years before we need to worry about them, I've been watching my friends at that stage of life with more than a bit of trepidation.

There are something like 4,500 institutions of higher learning here in the United States and choosing one that is right for you can take a fair bit of searching.

The best deal is usually the publicly funded university in the state where you live. To attend the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill would cost residents like us about US$8,000 (S$10,265) a year in tuition. We are lucky it consistently ranks among the best value for money in college listings.

If we were made of dosh, Duke University in Durham next door was judged the nation's eighth best by the US News and World Report this year. Its sticker price for tuition alone is US$47,000 a year.

They are very different beasts. UNC is sprawling, with more than 29,000 students. Duke is elite, with a student body of 6,600.

Between those bookends are a myriad choices of all stripes and persuasions - public, private, small liberal arts, community colleges emphasising vocational training - with their own areas of excellence and character.

There is probably an experience to suit every type of child who has the ability and the opportunity to get a tertiary education, though whether you'll ever find that perfect match is another matter.

Even more mysterious to me is the fee structure. I have not even begun to wrap my head around that, but there are loans, scholarships and financial assistance from different sources that you apparently can tap. No wonder college counselling is a lucrative career for some.

In order not to be running around like a headless chook at the last moment, parents must not only engage in financial planning early, they must also get inventive, researching schools, combining holidays with college visits and perhaps doing yoga to reduce stress.

I think I am in denial about the whole thing.

It was so easy in Singapore back then. Your pathway was charted for you - PSLE being the first hurdle, then streaming at the end of Secondary 2 into either science or arts, followed by junior college, then the National University of Singapore, for most of us (the Nanyang Technological Institute hadn't yet grown up to become Nanyang Technological University).

What was never in doubt was that a university education was the end goal of that journey. My parents did not have the means to fulfil their own aspirations, but they never saw any other future for their children.

Today, however, here as well as in Singapore and other places, the wisdom of a college education is being called into question, as there seems to be too many graduates chasing too few jobs.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says only 27 per cent of jobs require at least an associate degree (an undergraduate degree, including from community and technical colleges) in a country where 47 per cent of workers have at least such a degree.

Would we end up with too many bartenders with bachelor's degrees?

Perhaps, but economists say there is such a thing as upskilling, when overqualified workers bring their skills to a job and give an instant fillip to productivity. Presto, the whole job is redefined in the best case scenario.

The bureau's statistics simply state the minimum qualification for a job and does not visualise a future of paradigm shifts.

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce called its statistics dangerously understated; arguing that the wage differential still commanded by degree holders over non-degree holders for the same job, for example in nursing or manufacturing, indicates that employers still want graduates and they are under-supplied.

The analysts say the message being sent - don't bother to get a degree, there won't be a job waiting for you - hurts poor families most, where already, young people don't expect to go to college. This gives them even less incentive to do so.

Whether college prepares you for a real-world job is another question.

But I think the aim of such an education is not simply to get a job afterwards. There is a whole dimension of personal growth and development that should not be under-estimated. You go to college, again in the best-case scenario, to learn from better minds how to think better and to live with your peers in a hothouse that can never again in your life be replicated.

By all means, be pragmatic and don't over-emphasise paper qualifications, but it would be utterly wrong if we were somehow to be telling our children not to aim as high as they can because, truly, the world is not immutable. They will change it.

This article was first published on November 2, 2014.
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