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3 Reasons Not to Go to College

In the Chinese church I grew up in and later pastored, I remember mentioning to a group of high school students that going to college is not the highest priority. One of them snickered, "Some kind of pastor you are - telling us not to go to college!" In another instance, a couple of parents complained that preaching in the English ministry was decidedly anti-college. Now that I no longer pastor there, I can fully flesh out my thoughts without recrimination.

The value of a college education is one of the unassailable tenets of affluent Asian American culture. Having one's child obtain a bachelor's degree is a given for Asian immigrant families arriving in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly those coming to Silicon Valley. Outside of family, there is hardly a more a sacred cow than getting a university education. It's like a fish learning how to swim. You are not fully alive if you don't have a bachelor's degree.

I grew up never questioning these assumptions. I never questioned my K-12 public schooling until I became a parent. I sat in the classroom of our parent participation school and realized Judy and I could do better (OK fine just Judy). So we embarked on the adventure of homeschooling and it remains to be seen how well that decision turns out but it's been a good ride. And since we're out slaying cows, I might as well set my sights on this plump one. 

As the holder of a master's degree and a bachelor's degree from arguably the world's finest public institution of higher learning, I'm saying a college education is not all that. It is absolutely not required to fully function as a citizen, a follower of Jesus, or even a successful economic participant. I make this argument from a Christian perspective. There is no eternal value in a college education in itself.  The point of this post is not to persuade people to forgo college but rather to carefully evaluate what one intends to receive out of a college education and to pursue learning accordingly.
1) College is not worth the money: I'm not saying college is a complete waste of money. Well OK, some majors are. I'm saying there are better uses for your money.  College is a great investment you pursue it wisely. The problem is the higher education system is moving away from a classical model of learning while the expense of a college education is growing. If your parents are willing to pay for college, then you don't lose as much if you attend. However, if you're paying for college on your own in full or in part, you should absolutely weigh the cost of a four-year degree against the opportunity cost of working. For example, if a four-year degree costs you $150K and you're able to make the same amount of money over four years working full-time, then you are $300K in the hole. Over a career spanning thirty to forty years, $300K is not actually that much money but if you have more ambitious goals like financial independence by age 40 and/or need to care for family, starting out in that big of a hole is something to consider.
That's where community college and other low-cost education options are attractive. These options don't carry the same social status as four-year institutions but if your interest is in learning and not the appearance thereof, then affordable college equivalents are worth considering. I have a friend who never went to college and makes great money as an programmer and entrepreneur. He was homeschooled and taught himself how to code. He was an auto-didact like Alexander Hamilton. This is arguably the greatest gift of homeschooling - the ability to teach one's self and the confidence that comes from doing that often in every new area. 

In any event, if you do pursue higher education, the most important question of college is what you intend to get out of it. What is the purpose of college?

2) Spiritual formation happens more effectively outside of college: You might argue the goal of a college education is to become a stronger believer in Jesus - to be grounded in the gospel, have one's values drawn from biblical values, and to learn and adopt the Christian world view. I don't believe that's the point of higher education but I'll save that argument for last.

First, if you see the main goal of a Christian education as providing a moral foundation for your children, then you do not understand the gospel. In 20+ years of vocational and lay ministry, I've witnessed many parents send their kids to church because they see church as a third parent that teaches kids ethical values and helps them make friends - all for free. But as my non-Christian friends contend, you do not need religion to live a moral life. And most importantly, the goal of the Christian life is neither behavioral modification nor holy living. The goal of the Christian life is to know Jesus and the power of his death and resurrection. Holy living and moral behavior are byproducts of believing the gospel and not its goal.
So, if in fact your greatest interest is in your kids knowing and following Jesus, then once you model this for them in childhood, there are many organizations - churches and parachurch organizations - that do a far better job in fostering spiritual growth than colleges, Christian or otherwise. You might check out Discipleship Training School or Ravencrest or Master's Commission. These schools are shorter in duration, far less expensive, and more intentionally focused on discipleship than a four-year university. I have friends who participated in these programs and though they are a self-selecting population, it's hard to over-state how much these schools have helped young people fall deeper in love with Jesus. These programs will alter one's life trajectory towards eternity and yet do not masquerade as institutions of higher learning. Their goals are specific and explicit. 

It's also easy to argue from personal experience that because spiritual formation happened to you during college, it's a great spiritual context. Perhaps. But that's not my point. There are superior contexts to grow as a follower of Jesus than paying tens of thousands of dollars to listen to lectures on evolution and feminism, play console games all day, and get drunk. Perhaps you grew to love Jesus in spite of college more than because of it.

3) Most colleges fail to meet higher education's primary purpose: There's a lot of confusion about education's primary purpose. Some might say you need a degree to get a job. Other might say college is helpful in "finding yourself". Going away to college also teaches independence - how to cook, do laundry, and live on one's own. College is also a great place to meet people and find one's future spouse. Those things are all true but that's not higher education's primary purpose.

After the spiritual rationale, the real reason affluent Asian Americans go to college is to secure a well-paying job. Educated Asian Americans view college as an economic necessity. It is the socially acceptable pathway to a stable financial future. If you want to be a lawyer, doctor, or engineer then a four-year degree is a mandatory stepping stone for one's vocation. I get that. After all, the stuff you learn in school directly relates to your future career. Biology is a prerequisite in the study of medicine. Understanding math is crucial to be an engineer. But equipping for a specific career is not the same thing as an education.  

The purpose of higher education is to learn how to think. It is less about learning what to think (indoctrination) than how to think (reasoning). I see so many people who do not know how to do this. They read the clickbait title of an article, make snap judgments about the subject, and demonize the person or group the article targets. They might read a study about the increased meat consumption in China's middle class and it's link with a greater likelihood of heart disease but because they cannot distinguish between correlation and causation, don't know how to factor in food processing, urbanization, a sedentary lifestyle, and pollution. A pro-life Christian might read Psalm 139:15-16 and cite it as evidence of life beginning at conception without recognizing the theme of the psalm is God's intimate knowledge of us and that poetry does not place its highest value on precision. You might also interpret that response as indicating I'm pro-abortion but that does not have to follow logically - just because I don't fit in your category doesn't mean I belong in the other one.

How to think is the ability to evaluate ideas. Stanley Fish argues "education's primary purpose is to advance bodies of knowledge and equip students to do the same". With respect to that definition, a university exists to equip students to evaluate ideas so that in every area of study, its respective body of knowledge is advanced. The scientific method is a lens - a set of criteria - to evaluate the material universe. Therefore, the study of politics is not about adopting a given political position as much as about comparing and contrasting political systems and their consequences. 

Colleges inadvertently focus on the narrow task of increasing one's knowledge (what to think) while losing sight of the bigger and more important questions. You will be taught a political position but be ill-equipped to evaluate the merits of any particular position and ignorant of the history of political thought. As a business major, almost all my classes were either vocation-specific or totally unhelpful. The vocation-specific skills I could easily pick up on the job (and later would through employee training). The only learning-oriented classes I took were economics and statistics. They offered a different lens with which to analyze the world. 

If you're intent on going to college, I would suggest focusing on the greater task of learning how to think - that is how to evaluate ideas. I didn't learn how to think in college but I got a taste of it from people who did. During my senior year, I took classes from the most well-known and best professors - Chinese law and African American history - both examples of ways to view the world through a non-white lens. My best lessons on thinking came after college, through the influence of mentors and having intellectual discussions. College started a journey in thinking critically that is is only now gaining momentum today. And this intellectual progress came more in spite of college than because of it. 

And yes, I will ask my kids to read this post. 


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