“They will come to learn in the end, at their own expense, that it is better to endure competition for rich customers than to be invested with monopoly over impoverished customers.” — Frederic Bastiat
The other night Glenn Beck had a full hour program dedicated to the cost and value of a college education today. In studio he had about fifty guests, all of college age, who were either in college or recently graduated. Most of the guests he interviewed were very discouraged over the prospects of obtaining employment after graduation and were disappointed with the tools that they had gotten during their years in college.
While watching the program and listening to the plight of Glenn Beck’s guests heard a common theme of young people that had been sold a bill of goods by society and the colleges that the only way to succeed in life was by spending thousands of dollars for a college education that did not live up to their expectations of instant success and prosperity after graduation. They felt a sense of entitlement due to the money and time they spent pursuing that college diploma. They believed hey were owed something by society.
I am not anti‑education by any stretch of the imagination. Benjamin Franklin went and got his education as an apprentice. There is such a thing as getting an education other than through the gates of a university that are charging our youth (and their hapless parents) $100,000 to $150,000 to $250,000 just to be able to have a certificate that doesn’t necessarily mean anything to them. There are all ways and means to get an “education”. Learning is not the sole domain of the universities and colleges just ask Newton or Einstein. Most of our founding fathers were not university educated and they did a pretty good job at devising a system of government that the world had never nor yet to see.
I believe there are two reasons to pursue an education beyond K-12. One is to pursue a career in academia and the other is to learn a trade. Colleges and universities don’t like the word “trade” as they feel that is insulting to their self-importance, but trade is what it is. If the word trade makes you uncomfortable you may substitute the word “profession”, but remember you are not a professional until recognized by peers as being one. The title professional does not come with the diploma, it earned through hard work, experience and recognition by the public and peers.
So what are the trades I am talking about? Well, just about every form of human endeavor from doctors, lawyers, engineers, surveyors and airline pilots to plumbers, carpenters, helicopter mechanics and journalists. All of these trades require some degree of advanced education, which can be obtained in colleges and in many other ways. But no matter how this advanced learning is obtained internship, apprenticeship and mentoring are the most important. You may note that I neglected business from my list because business, while a preferred major by many college students does not require a college degree. It requires entrepreneurship, risk and capital, all of which come after one decides what business he or she wants to pursue.
Let’s take the example of the doctor. First the potential doctor is required to attend pre-med undergraduate school where they learn things like chemistry, anatomy medical history, English, Latin, physiology and other things. Then they go to medical school where they learn more anatomy, more chemistry, how drugs work on the body and hey get to cut up dead people. Once they graduate medical school the intern for long hours and little pay at a hospital where they work under the tutelage of professional nurses and doctors for several years learning trade. Once their internship is completed they will act as a resident doctor in a hospital with patient responsibility until such time they decide to open their own medical practice and hang their shingle out to the public. In this scenario I have made a case for the “book learning” aspect of a doctors education and I realize that colleges play an important role her, but how many high school graduates go on to become doctors.
Now let’s take the case of the engineer, specifically the civil engineer, something I know a great deal about. A high school graduates enters into a college to study civil engineering so he or she can build roads, dams, bridges or water systems our civilization need. They learn advanced mathematics, physics, chemistry, geology, statics, CADS, hydrology and hydraulics. All of these subjects can be learned through other sources and studies. They are not the sole property of the colleges. There are many for profit schools that offer these subjects where a student can learn while working at another job and it will not cost him or her fifty or sixty thousand dollars.
Once the student graduates he or she will get a job with a civil engineering firm where they will in essence become an apprentice working under the tutelage of professional and experienced engineers. Once they have enough qualifying experience they will be able to take the state licensing exams and if they learned well, had good mentoring and worked hard they will pass the exam and the state will issue them registration stating they have exhibited that they have the minimum qualifications to practice their profession and will not endanger the safety of the public. During my 55 years of working in the field of civil engineering I knew many great engineers that did not have a formal college degree, but had learned their profession through other means of study and apprenticeship along with very good mentoring.
The second reason for a college education is to enter the realm of academia. People who chose this path will forever be the teachers and not the doers. They will be the ones who will live in the secluded world of academia and play the game of publishing unreadable dialogs and theoretical treatises on subjects they have no life experience in. Some will be enlightened scholarly works while many others will be regurgitations of the same, old tired doctrines they have been indoctrinated in. These will be the people who will spend the rest of their lives living in the world of tenure. They will be the ones seeking government grants to support their positions and departments. They will be the consultants to government and the ones who will advocate more government interference in our lives.
Many high school graduates enter college today not having the slightest idea of what they want to do with their lives. They would be better served by taking a few years working at McDonalds and gaining some life experience so they could figure out what they had a passion for. Yes I said passion. Passion plus personal entrepreneurship plus finding a good mentor equals success in your chosen profession, trade, business and life. No one knows this better than I.
At the risk of sounding supercilious and to illustrate my point I will tell some of my personal story of education, mentoring, imagination, entrepreneurship and passion. Between on sophomore and junior years in high school I got a summer job as a surveyor’s assistant. It was a good job where I worked outdoors and got to travel around the city quite a bit. I liked the work and was fascinated by the technology and mathematics of the profession. Upon graduation I went to work full time for a civil engineering and land surveying firm. I did not go to college as I had no money or scholarship. This did not bother me as most of my friends did not go on to college. This was 1954 and college was not for everyone.
I worked for a supervisor who would become my mentor for three years. He not only taught me land surveying bit also taught me of life and what it took to succeed. I worked for this mentor as an apprentice surveyor for three years all the while attending night school for science and advanced mathematics. Eventually I was offered a position as a crew chief at another firm with higher pay and more opportunity. I accepted this offer and worked for this firm for five years gaining knowledge from my more senior co-workers and experience by doing the work.
After five years with this firm my wife and I decided to relocate to Southern California where I took a position as an engineering technician with the California Division of Highways where I was involved in the design, surveying and construction of freeways. During my tenure with the division of highways I attended night school where I took courses in civil engineering and photogrammetry. I also completed a two year correspondence course in highway engineering and land surveying while I was doing the actual work in the field.
I was able to advance to the position of supervisor with the division of highways (now Caltrans), bought a home and had three children. I also took and passed the surveyors California licensing exam and was qualified as a professional land surveyor. Life was good, but I wanted more. I wanted to my own land surveying and civil engineering business.
I used to mow my backyard lawn and to relieve the boredom I imagine owning my own business. I would even imagine what my clients and office would look like and they type of work I would be doing. I wanted to do big projects.
Finally after 10 years with the division of highways the opportunity came along to go into partnership with two other civil engineers, an opportunity I readily took. After ten years of building his business to 100 employees the great recession of 1981 hit our business hard and we had to downsize to an unsustainable size. But, another opportunity popped up in front of me and hat was to merge our business with another similar firm suffering the same effects of the recession. By pooling our clients, projects and resources we believed we could not only survive the recession, but flourish, which we ultimately did. I had more partners to share the load and wealth with, but we also had more to offer our clients. At the time of the merger, in 1982, and the time I retired in 2007 we had grown to 850 employees with offices throughout the western United States.
During my time with the new and larger firm I had the opportunity to do projects in Germany, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Central America and Venezuela. My wife and I raised three children, all attending private school, and looked after my parents until they died. My wife and I traveled the world with numerous trips to the United Kingdom and Europe taking he children with us most of the time.
All the time I kept learning and advancing my knowledge of engineering, land surveying, project management and business. I never lost my passion for my profession and never grudgingly went to work. I did all of this without a formal college education. If I could tell young people today I would convey to them that passion for what you do, imagination and personal entrepreneurship far outweighs an expensive college education.
From grade school through high school parents and children have been sold a bill of goods that a college education is the only road to success. The colleges and universities have been implicit in this fraud. We have a president and some left-wing governors like Jerry Brown of California, harping that every child deserves and is entitled to a college education. The Department of Education promotes student loans for expensive college educations that many students will take years, if ever, to pay back. It’s time to teach our children that passion for a dream and entrepreneurship outweighs the fraud perpetrated by many of our colleges and universities.