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Get a Job, Start a Business or Go To College?

Bucking the college trend may be the best option for some families right now.

The average parent in the Chathams can expect to pay approximately $30,000 a year or more for their child’s college education in 2012. That’s after the endless dollars spent on ruggedly demanding camp in Maine, the Haitian humanitarian venture, the gap year researching the mosquito on Nantucket, the pre-college math camp at the University of Southern California and the unpaid internship in New York City.

These are all admirable attempts to simulate a relevant life, and makes for great college essay topics and interview conversations. John Dewey, the 20th century advocate of learn-by-doing education reform, would be pleased with the active learning opportunities of privileged kids today.

“Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living,” said Dewey. Interaction was a major tenet in Dewey's education philosophy. 

Massive lecture halls, classes taught by teaching assistants instead of professors and passive research reports define a dull experience for most college students today. In fact, many education reform advocates dispute how much learning actually takes place in college these days.  

College does arguably expand a typical graduate’s opportunities and professional networks. However, in the current economic environment, the cost of a college education can be crippling. College tuition has quadrupled since the 1980s and has significantly outpaced inflation over the last 40 years. In 2010, college loan debt in the U.S. surpassed credit card debt.

Recent data from the Federal Reserve shows that student debt is quickly approaching $1 trillion mark, and that this debt will be responsible for what some economics are expecting to be the next bubble to burst in the U.S. We are all familiar with the mortgage-lending crisis, and the student-lending crisis is anticipated to be the next huge debacle to affect the country's economic recovery.

Education is prioritized and budgeted for accordingly in the Chathams, and many parents plan and save for their children's college careers for years. But as college costs soar, the value of a degree has declined. Many graduates will have difficulty finding fulltime work in the field they studied in and will pay off their crushing student loans by waiting tables, bartending, delivering pizzas and pursuing careers in retail sales, sometimes with an annual salary far less than their total debt.

Despite this grim outlook, a person who loves to learn should not refrain from getting a degree. Likewise, individuals with ambitions to be doctors, lawyers and engineers are wise to begin undergraduate studies sooner than later. Yet the expectation that every student should and must go to college only helps to fuel the education bubble. It’s like saying everyone should be vegetarian, and then requiring them to pay highly inflated prices for their groceries.

In the current economic environment, high school graduates in certain demographics should no longer feel pressured to immediately embark on a traditional college experience. Delaying college, or opting out altogether, can be a viable option. Informal, incidental and self-taught learning methods, revered as effective facets of acquired intelligence by Dewey advocates, can offer substantial value compared to formal education alternatives in today’s marketplace.

This era before the education bubble bursts may present an opportunity for the young and vibrant to acquire practical learning experiences from employment, an adventurous start-up, engaging in nontraditional classroom studies, such as “DIY U,” or a combination of options.

Beyond the prestige of the Ivy Leagues, the perception of college seems to be changing. While still socially important, higher education is undergoing a metamorphosis, with debt and online education changing the game.

Pursing a sense of purpose, and boldly going outside of the realm of formal education can have its benefits. A future trend in employment classifieds may very well be “must be currently employed” rather than “must have college degree.”

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