Opinion: Rejecting Educational Credentialism

News  /  Opinion

John Hazlehurst

Do we have an official national religion? No. Do we have a shared sense of values and beliefs? Not too many, in this era of angry political division. Yet consider the power of our de facto national religion: Educational Credentialism.

The EC faithful believe that without higher education, you can look forward to crappy jobs, basement apartments, thrift store clothing and poverty in old age. Don’t be tempted by the post-high school lure of freedom. Go to college, run up tens of thousands in student debt, go to grad school and bingo! a rewarding, lucrative career awaits, you’ll enjoy challenging work, great travel opportunities and plenty of money to pay off those student loans… right?

Maybe not. After listening to a couple of 22-year-old college dropouts who were kind enough to spend a few days with their aging grandparents, we saw the other side of the coin.

“I decided that I had the skills I needed to be entrepreneurial, make a decent amount of money and not be burdened by student debt,” said our granddaughter Hannah. She had dropped out after three semesters. As one of six kids,  she was used to hard work, collaborative effort and the unpredictable chaos of daily life in a big family. She went to work for Cutco, a 72-year-old direct sales/marketing company that offers American-made cutlery. To succeed in such an enterprise, you’ve got to get out and sell. She did, and loved it, moving quickly into management.

I was a little doubtful, remembering Glengarry Glen Ross, the 1992 movie about four real estate hustlers trying to sell some dubious real estate. Sales skills are fine, but don’t you need education to back it up in case your company goes belly-up? She was skeptical, sharing her experiences at a Midwestern state university.

“You were expected to join a sorority, do a lot of drinking and partying, decide on a major and stick with it,” she said. “After a year and a half, I decided that I wasn’t learning anything of value and that I was miserable. So I left, and I’ve never regretted it.”

Don’t be tempted by the post-high school lure of freedom.

It’s not news that elite colleges like Harvard, Yale, Wesleyan and Colorado College are under political fire from the right. That’s understandable — they’re rich, snooty, powerful, extremely expensive and left-leaning. What seems new now is that many would-be students like Hannah and her boyfriend Jared think that most college education has become irrelevant.

“Anything you need to learn is online now,” Jared noted. “It’s such a waste of time to listen to some tenured professor talk for hours when you could learn it yourself in a lot less time.”

Jared also works for Cutco. The couple plan to get married in the near future, and have made enough money to buy a house in Minneapolis, where they’ll rent out rooms to contemporaries.

“It’ll be great,” he said. “The house will be paying us, we don’t have any debt hanging over our heads and there’ll be other opportunities.”

Are Hannah and Jared outliers or signifiers? If college loses its cultural cachet, and is seen as an expensive waste of time, what will happen to the grandees at the University of Colorado Boulder? They’ll have to retool and expand their offerings of job-specific undergraduate degrees such as computer science and aeronautical engineering. Football will survive, but what about expensive niche sports? Universities everywhere are beginning to cut them.

Given that education is such an important contributor to our local economy, it seems inconceivable that UCCS and Pikes Peak State College could just disappear, leaving only shuttered buildings and semi-employed professors teaching remotely — a permanent educational pandemic.

Yet our city has seen businesses grow, prosper, dominate and then collapse, as their business models became irrelevant. Economist Joseph Schumpeter called it “creative destruction,” the fundamental process of capitalism. There were once dozens of tuberculosis sanitaria in Colorado Springs but modern medicine eventually ended TB’s scourge by the mid-20th century. The grandest sanitarium was Cragmor, which in 1964 became the first building on the UCCS campus. Today UCCS has more than 12,000 full-time students. The state provides very little funding (Colorado is 47th statewide in higher ed. support). Will it be swept away by a new wave of creative destruction, triggered by rising costs and skeptical students?

I dunno — but I hope Jared and Hannah do well! We might need a little help paying for a nice room in the retirement home.

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