- - Monday, February 23, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

At one time in American history, “Go West, young man” described the idea that the frontier was the place to build a new life. For the past few decades, we’ve settled instead for the far less pioneering “Go to college, young man.” Not nearly as exciting, is it?

For decades, it’s been implied — strongly — that a college degree is necessary to be successful. After age 18, students are supposed to “continue their education,” as if an apprenticeship, a career and life itself cannot do that. The thinking has been that without that college diploma, how can anyone get a job?

Unless, of course, they make their own, like Mark Zuckerberg. The billionaire did attend Harvard but never graduated because he was learning more in his dorm room starting Facebook than he was sitting in his Ivy League classes.

The same could be said for other successful people who either never attended college or didn’t finish. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and founded Microsoft, and Steve Jobs spent only six months at Reed College before leaving because his parents couldn’t afford it. Instead of getting a degree and a nice, respectable job, he eventually co-founded Apple. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the Republican presidential primaries’ rising star, left Marquette University his senior year of college. Too bad he missed out on months of professorial indoctrination as well as the “college experience.” If he becomes president, he’ll follow in the footsteps of Harry S. Truman, whose parents couldn’t afford tuition. Don Peebles, a real estate magnate and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, dropped out of Rutgers because he was already making a decent living in Washington, D.C. “Going to college was a step down for me, to a degree,” he was quoted as saying in The Real Deal this year.

This is not to dis college, which is clearly a good thing for many. The unemployment rate for 2013 was 7.5 percent for Americans with a high school diploma and 4 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, average college graduates earn $830,800 more over their lifetimes than average high school graduates.

On the other hand, that Fed study found that all of that comes after age 40, when the average college graduate who paid $20,000 a year in tuition finally “breaks even” on the investment. According to financial aid consultant Edvisors, the average college graduate leaves school with $33,000 in loan debt.

Of course, most people — college graduates and non-college graduates alike — won’t found Microsoft, Facebook or Apple. Non-college graduates can, however, enjoy rewarding careers that often pay more than dead-end jobs for philosophy majors.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 260,000 Americans with college or professional degrees were making no more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour in 2013. I wonder what they thought about their college experience?

Meanwhile, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported in 2014 that during the previous 20 years, 31 million college students had started school but not earned a degree. They had the debt but little to show for it. Too bad they didn’t go to NorthWest Arkansas Community College. In 45 weeks, students there can learn to run proprietary software used by Wal-Mart and its vendors, a skill that virtually guarantees them a job as they walk out the door with “only” a technical certificate.

Generations of American laborers worked hard so their children could go to college, move up in the world and have office jobs. That’s still a path to success, but not the only one, and for many Americans, including myself, not the best one. It could be that two years from now many of us will use our iPads and Microsoft devices to go on Facebook, all made possible by non-college graduates, and link to a video of the president of the United States, another college “dropout.”

Amazing what you can learn without a diploma, isn’t it?

• Noelle Nikpour is a national political fundraiser for Republican candidates and the author of “Branding America” (Amazon Digital Services, 2012).


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