Original photo: Mary Helen Cochran Library via Flickr
Original photo: Mary Helen Cochran Library via Flickr
Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Don’t Go to College. Do This Instead.

Campus Week: Five alternatives to wasting your time and money on a worthless degree

Liel Leibovitz
October 19, 2018
Original photo: Mary Helen Cochran Library via Flickr
Original photo: Mary Helen Cochran Library via Flickr

Who cares that a trio of merry pranksters, say, managed to fool a peer-reviewed journal by successfully submitting an article about canine rape culture? We rarely bother with the foibles of hematologists or dentists or poets. So why do we treat associate professors and their troubled flocks at American universities any differently?

The answer is simple: It’s because the modern American university was designed to be the Great Turnstile through which millions squeeze on their way from the outer boroughs to catch the subway to Manhattan. That was the whole point of the GI Bill, which imagined higher education as an engine of social transformation. “If the trained and disciplined efficiency and valor of the men and women of our armed forces can be directed into the proper channels,” thundered the Senate’s Finance Committee upon unanimously recommending the bill, “we shall have a better country to live in than the world has ever seen. If we should fail in that task, disaster and chaos are inevitable.”

Higher education, as we’ve understood it for the last 70 years, was how America got and stayed ahead, in an era when a college degree was a ticket to the middle and professional classes. But the social tremors we’re seeing now represent a second, equally seismic shift, away from meritocracy and toward a new sort of intolerant and discriminatory elite. That’s why we can’t get enough of campus news: The follies, we understand implicitly, are portents of a dark future in which a college degree is a ticket to nowhere.

The stories, then, are meant for young students, their parents, and everyone else who is planning a future predicated at least in part on a college degree. If you read them correctly, they all have one simple moral: Get out.

I am not recommending forgoing a college education lightly. Most of my adult life was spent in preparation for what I’d hoped would be an honorable and fulfilling life pursuing knowledge and imparting it to others. I received my doctorate from the Ivy League, and taught at several of our more vaunted universities. But when the time comes for my young children to graduate from high school and contemplate life on the cusp of adulthood, I pray that they choose other options than the academy. And I pray that your children do, too.

Why, exactly? It’s tempting to start on a utilitarian streak and name the many and the moneyed who skipped class and dropped out en route to fortune in the new digital economy: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs. That’s why billionaire Peter Thiel, one of our most acute futurists, launched an initiative that pays a few bright minds handsomely to forgo the quad and enter business instead.

But the reasons to say no to college run deeper than the blunt arithmetic of profit and loss. As these dispiriting stories we read every day remind us, American universities, with a few negligible exceptions, have become a hopelessly expensive and intellectually corrupt country club where the practice of unfettered intellectual inquiry has been abandoned in favor of an incoherent mix of resentment and rage and one-upmanship by privileged twits who use poor people and members of historically oppressed groups as ammunition in their wars against rival groups of twits within an elite class whose collective death wish is all too obvious.

Most Americans, as studies now clearly show, want nothing to do with this nonsense, but change in academia is unlikely to come anytime soon. Tenured professors train likeminded fanatics, and students are punished or rewarded for their willingness to pledge allegiance to their loony dogma. This leaves the rest of us little choice but to look elsewhere for self-improvement. The only question is where.

Higher education, as we’ve understood it for the last 70 years, was how America got and stayed ahead.

If you, too, are fed up—and you should be—here are five things you can do rather than paying a fortune for the privilege of having mediocrities lecture you about trivialities:

Read: I first realized it was time to quit academia when a colleague asked me what books I had assigned my students to read. I replied that, being a professor of communications, I tend to begin each semester with Plato’s Phaedrus, as great a treatise as any ever written about the challenges of getting through to other people. My colleague looked at me as if I had just cheerfully endorsed Mein Kampf before lecturing me on just how important it was to choose exclusively from a list of pre-approved authors whose racial backgrounds and sexual preferences fit in with the bon ton. Once devoted to the Great Books, colleges have become hotbeds of illiteracy. If you graduate from my alma mater—a school tens of thousands struggle each year for the privilege to attend—you’re much more likely to read the incoherent and sentimental Third World drivel of Edward Said than a transcendental masterwork like Middlemarch. And if you do get to George Eliot’s book somehow, it’s probably only to read it as a critique of gender inequality, or income inequality, or any of the other inequalities that pave the single track of the minds of moderns academics. Instead of bothering with such mindlessness, why not devote four years to the best books we humans have produced in our few brief millennia on this planet? A single academic point in Columbia University will set you back $1,822—you need 124 of those to graduate. A lovely apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota, on the other hand, goes for $1,193 a month; it’s $982 in San Antonio. Rather than pay $5,466 for a three-point undergraduate course to have some drone tell you that Jews are inherently bad, you can spend five months reading In Search of Lost Time, Daniel Deronda, Epictetus, and the Talmud. It will make you not only smarter but happier as well.

Give: As both your rabbi and science can tell you, people who give back to their communities live longer, happier lives, which should be painfully obvious. Sadly, people in debt rarely have time to indulge in such niceties. And as many as 68 percent of American college students are in debt, borrowing an average of $30,100. Instead of paying money to major in grievance studies, imagine actually spending two or three years working with the genuinely aggrieved. You can help tutor children in Carbondale, Illinois. You can assist a doctor in Mali, West Africa. You can travel to Chalkida, Greece, and help distribute food to the Syrian refugees huddled there. You’ll feel better and make a real difference, two things that cannot be said for a bachelor’s degree in gender studies.

Do: If you are practically minded, your main concern with the possibility of not attending college probably has to do with your chances of finding gainful employment. You may feel troubled by the fact that college tuition has skyrocketed from about $18,574 in 2000 to $38,762 in 2015, a 209 percent rate of inflation, which is 71 percentage points more than the overall rate in the same time period. Still, you may think it’s all worth it, because that B.A. probably means big bucks. It doesn’t: In 2016, for example, 45 percent of college grads worked in jobs that didn’t require any college degree. Combine that with the fact that we’ve more than 5.5 million unmanned jobs to offer, including many in high-paying fields that require some training but not a college degree, and you begin to see the potential. Data scientists, for example, can receive the sort of qualification they require from a brief online course, and then enjoy a median base salary of $110,000. You hardly have to be a professor of economics to understand that not getting into debt and earning good money instead is a good path to affluence.

Learn: If you’re not the entrepreneurial kind, there’s still a creative, rewarding solution for you: Learn a craft. Take a walk around your city, and you’re likely to see professions that were once treated as menial pursuits rise in status and remuneration. Your barber, for example, is probably no longer the hurried snipper of yesteryear; instead, he’s likely to sport a groomed mustache and take care trimming your bangs while offering you an espresso and charging thrice what his forefathers could ever dream about. Butchers, barkeeps, coffee roasters, carpenters: All are doing well in an economy that both values and is willing to pay for artisanal work. To acquire the necessary skills, you need an old-fashioned mentor and an apprenticeship, not a graduate degree.

Serve: No list of alternatives to college would ever be complete without recommending—strongly, warmly, proudly—volunteering for military service. Ask any Israeli who, like me, had the good fortune of having had the opportunity to serve his or her country for a few years, and they’ll tell you that nothing builds character and realigns your priorities like putting on uniform. That so few members of the classes who rush to presume they can lead us by babbling and talking self-important trash choose to first make this important sacrifice is a disgrace in need of correction.

There’s an added bonus to choosing one of the aforementioned paths: A young adult saying no to college can then hug her parents, thank them for 18 years of love and care, and suggest that they use the $202,812 they were going to send to Stanford and instead buy a nice little cabin in the woods that the family can enjoy for generations to come. Or if her parents have no money, she could hug them and thank them still, and assure them that she’s about to embark on a productive, meaningful, debt-free life, just like they had always dreamed she would.

Those senators had it right all those years ago: If we can direct the ingenuity of young Americans into the proper channels, we’ll have a better country to live in than the world has ever seen. If not, as we already see in dispatch after dispatch from academia, disaster is inevitable. But there is no reason to allow the end of higher education in America to also mean the end of you.

Read more from Campus Week, when Tablet magazine takes stock of the state of American academia and university life.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.