| Real World Careers |
By Betsy Cummings
Genre: Business & Money
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Why College Makes No Sense
Tim Jordan never planned on enrolling at a university for seven years. But if he had continued down the academic path he began in the early 1990s, that's about how long it would have taken him to earn a college degree. "I didn't have a focus for school," he says, in an understatement.
When three years of study left him with a solid C average and an accumulation of credits alarmingly short of what he needed to graduate, his parents fi nally cut him off. "They pretty much said they didn't plan on me going to school for seven years,? Jordan says. That was in 1991. In college, Jordan and a friend had started a small business doing odd construction jobs around town? fixing a porch deck here, repairing a fence there. It was enough to bring in forty thousand dollars a year, and lay a foundation of construction skills. But it was also an indication that money could be made without a bachelor's degree.
So when Jordan had a falling-out with his partner, he left the business and school at the same time, hoping to jump-start his career with the knowledge he'd gained to date. He landed a job as a hospital maintenance worker in Morristown, New Jersey. Not the most auspicious start, perhaps. But a year later, still loping along in that position, Jordan was open to other options and was eager to listen to a friend who suggested he consider a new career. One day during a community softball game, that friend approached Jordan with a proposition. "He was in the mortgage business," Jordan relates. "He said, "You know so many people. Why don't you give it a shot"?
Jordan was as familiar with mortgages as he was with college commencement. But he decided to find out more. And here's where his motivation - inspired by life experience, rather than the classroom - kicked in. In a business where pay is 100 percent commission, a newcomer like Jordan couldn't afford to quit his day job, so to speak, and launch into another one sight unseen. He was terrified to commit solely to becoming a broker, but with a full-time job that offered an uncertain career path, he figured he had nothing to lose. So he continued to work his hospital maintenance job while he spent his nights at home as a representative for Central Mortgage Service Corporation, dialing one number after another, hitting up area residents who might be in the market for mortgages. Unable to make cold calls during the day, Jordan hired a telemarketing firm to do the work for him, then would take the contacts they drummed up and spend four hours a night working warm leads.
Jordan knew it was crucial to land his first customer?most mortgage clients are drawn in through referrals. But he didn?t know when that would be. Patience and determination were crucial to making it happen. His very fi rst client, it turns out, was one of his best friends. That certainly generated some referral business. But it didn't guarantee the stream Jordan had hoped for. And the company wasn't necessarily paving the way. "They threw me to the wolves," he says of his first employer. "I had no idea what I was doing." Sitting in the home of one of his earliest prospects one night, Jordan recalls thinking he wasn't leaving without asking for and getting the business. "I was twenty-fi ve years old and this lady is thirty-eight with kids, looking at me trying to sell her a mortgage," Jordan recalls, laughing. "She knew I was trying so hard. I was in her house for two and a half hours. I was not leaving that house without that mortgage.? The woman was impressed with Jordan's initiative and was willing to use him as her broker. She just needed to ask him one fi nal question: "Does this mortgage require an escrow"? Jordan stopped cold. "I had no idea what those were." But he wasn't about to lose the business. He took a chance and told her he was sure his company could provide escrow services should her mortgage need them. Turns out, his company could.
For a solid six months Jordan scrambled, educating himself about escrows and everything else he needed to know along the way. He continued to work nearly forty-hour weeks at the hospital, spending nights and weekends securing mortgages. The struggle paid off. In less than ten years, Jordan built his practice into a three-thousand-client business that averages a million dollars a year.
In that time, he worked for two different mortgage companies before becoming a partner in a third and building it into such a large entity, it was acquired in 2005 by another fi rm for sixteen million - much of that landing in Jordan's pocket. Going to college, Jordan says, served little purpose in launching his career other than building a few contacts to help spread the word about his mortgage broker services. "I could have probably gotten A's, but my attention span for focusing on school . . . it was never the environment in which I learn," Jordan says. "I am 100 percent money-motivated."
The Right Motivation
Like Jordan, too many college students don't find the motivation, inspiration, or career momentum they're looking for in a university lecture hall. Isn't it better to recognize that early in your academic career and find another path than it would be to spend four years hauling through analytical geometry or introduction to digital architecture, waiting for the moment of inspiration? That Jordan skipped college and found vast financial and professional wealth is surely an anomaly, right? Wrong. Certainly four-year graduates with new diplomas and hundreds of credit hours sweating it out over calculus equations and quantum physics theorems have plenty of job opportunities ahead of them. But studies reveal a somewhat pessimistic future for many college undergraduates - or at least for those who finish. A recent survey by the Web site CollegeGrad.com found that more than half of all college graduates feel it's more difficult to find a job today than it was a year ago. A similar survey by the same site found that nearly 20 percent of college graduates said they were underemployed, complaining that even entry-level jobs can require some experience - a vicious catch-22 that frustrates recent grads.
College advocates say a degree can give you the mental boost needed when looking for a job. If you have a diploma, the theory goes, then surely you have the skills and talent to be a solid performer. And that builds confidence for newbies on the job. But plenty of college graduates leave school knowing full well that the slip of paper in their hands doesn't guarantee their success - or attest to their true abilities or intelligence. And their peers who have spent the last four years working and gaining bankable skills on the job may have far more to offer.
Making It Through
That, of course, is if they even make it through a full, four-year program, which plenty do not. Only about half of all college entrants actually walk out the other side with a degree, according to the latest numbers from ACT, a national education assessment and testing organization.
The top reason why those who enter college leave before they earn a degree? Lack of motivation. "There is this enormous pressure from all points in society that says you're a failure if you don't go off to college," Jim Zuberbuhler says. That's a dangerous message to send to those not ready today, or ever, for the college experience. It would be far more productive to focus on the best educational path for an individual, whether it's a vocational program or an apprenticeship. "All of us know people in our daily lives who are doing fine that don't have a four-year degree," says Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., a civic organization in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "A four-year degree is a pathway but not the only pathway to a good paying career. Ingenuity matters. Drive matters. None of those things require a four-year degree."
Indeed they don't. Dozens of people interviewed for this book who skipped college or withdrew after a semester or more would agree."The college experience, the way the classes were structured, it didn't fit my needs," says Ethan Smith, an information technology specialist who is on a fast track to a sixfi gure income after leaving school several years ago to pursue a computer career through certifi cation programs. That path, he says, propelled him through his career faster and more effectively than a four-year computer science degree. As he puts it without regret: "I took a leave and never went back."
Worth the Cost?
What people like Smith and others are realizing is that the return on a college education doesn?t always equal the money invested. A college degree today can range anywhere from fi fty to upward of two hundred thousand dollars, depending on where a student attends school and for how long. The good news is that nearly 80 percent of full-time undergraduates pay less than eight thousand dollars a year in tuition, according to numbers from the American Council on Education. But given recent revenue shortfalls in many states, legislators are looking to colleges to make up the slack; more than forty states have considered tuition increases at public institutions in the past few years. Still, even if the majority of tuition rates remained below ten thousand a year, that's a lot of money to drop just to dawdle while trying to figure out a career plan - especially since many who fork over such sums may not even land the job they want.
Financially, socially, professionally "there are many reasons to attain a four-year degree, says AACU's Humphreys. "The economic data is quite clear that any decent job that will pay you enough money to have a middle-class life will require some college in the future."
For some, maybe. But plenty of naysayers, including even college professors, note that a college degree is only important for those who are either educationally driven, become inspired in classroom settings, are pursuing careers that require formal education, or simply don't view any alternative as a better path than a university degree. The reality, say those critical of the allcollege, all-the-time mentality, is that college is too hyped as the only means to a successful, lucrative career - a line of thinking that some insist simply isn't true. "Is college important"? asks Marty Nemko. "For many people, yes." But Nemko, who holds a PhD and has taught or consulted at fi fteen colleges, adds that for many others, college is simply not the best path to the career they want to pursue. "The more of a self-starter you are, the more of a competitive go-getter you are, the less you need college." Plenty of students" "real winners," according to Nemko learn far better and faster outside school by following the lessons of mentors on the job or in a professional environment of some type, rather than the classroom.
Indeed, Nemko and others who are outspoken critics of higher education suggest that college classrooms are quite often fi lled by people who are unmotivated, unfocused, or simply have no clue about what type of career they would like to pursue. That may be an unfair assessment of the nation's institutions of higher education. But it is sadly the reality for plenty of students, for whom entering college is the only acceptable choice among family and peers.
Proponents point to the interpersonal skills developed in col lege as crucial. College affords an important transition for students whose interpersonal skills or level of maturity aren't developed enough to handle work after high school graduation. Still, many contend that unless students are spending time among Ivy League students, they're hanging out with unmotivated undergrads just like themselves. And that, it's argued, is not an experience that will cultivate their intellect or help them grow professionally. Says Nemko, "Ninety-eight percent of colleges do not have Harvard- caliber students" "who can positively affect or influence incoming freshmen with their talent and ambition. "To pay two hundred thousand dollars for an institution that has just plain folk doesn't sound like a hell of an investment, not to mention four or five or six years of your time."
A Snapshot of US College Enrollment
Source: US Census Bureau, 2003
Is College for You?
From almost the fi rst day of elementary school, students are propelled along a trajectory that, for many, includes focusing on GPAs, SATs, honors classes, college admissions, and anxious waiting periods where high school students sweat it out hoping to get into the school of their choice. College enrollment fi gures refl ect this, with the number of students enrolled in higher education nationwide rising by more than two million students in the past decade, according to census figures. Of course, some of this can be attributed to an increase in population among Americans in traditional college-aged groups, eighteen to twenty-four, over the past decade, but others contend that many more students are simply feeling that a college education behind them is a guarantee for a better job with a higher salary.
And why wouldn't they? Plenty of statistics indicate that as well. According to the College Board, an organization in New York that promotes college connections for students, in 2003 a full-time worker in the United States made a median income of $49,900 while the same worker with only a high school diploma made $30,800. For every person who bears out such statistics, however, there are counterexamples of people who have decided to forgo college and find their way to higher earnings by some other means. The real message here, say educators and experts, is that high school graduates shouldn't feel that college is the only path for them. And even for nearly seventeen million students who seem destined for the road to college, the idea of a four-year program can seem unappealing or depressing.
"I went for a semester and I couldn't deal," says Kristin Crockett, manager of training for Qwest Communications International Inc., a telecommunications company based in Denver. "I was never a big fan of school in general."
To Campus or Not?
How do you know if college is right for you? For some people, it's instinctual. "My mother owned a bookstore while I was growing up. And my father was a colonel in the army. They defi - nitely wanted me to go to college," says Kat Carney, who nevertheless felt so strongly that college wasn't for her that she threw away her full scholarship to Howard University. She exhibited all the signs of someone seemingly college-bound. "My grades were better than average. My SATs were really, really, really good. On math I was twenty points off of a perfect score. But I realized I was just never all that driven to go to college." Entering with an undeclared major, then later focusing on hotel administration, Carney eventually left to pursue acting; she went on to a successful career as a CNN health anchor and host on QVC. Like many before and after her, Carney realized early on that sitting in a classroom is not only uninspiring, but can actually kill motivation and enthusiasm for learning. For such people, college is simply not the best route to a career. And in some professions, such as trades, embarking on an apprenticeship, finding entry-level work, or enlisting the help of a mentor will do far more to propel you into a successful career than a piece of paper that attests to your ability to sit in a classroom, listen to lectures, study, and pass exams for four years straight - if you're lucky enough to get out in four years.
Too Little Thought, Too Late
Many educators say students aren't focusing on their post-highschool plans early enough, failing to consider what courses would best facilitate their desired career path in early high school or even late middle school. Repeated studies reveal a low reliance on many high school guidance departments, where counselors are being woefully underused to help high school students figure out which classes to take and where they might start focusing their professional aspirations. A 2002 survey by ACT, providers of the popular college entrance exam by the same name, revealed that only 22 percent of eighth- and ninth-grade students had thought about post-high-school plans. Thirteen and fourteen years old may seem young to be forging a career path, but the reality is that the earlier students explore careers, the more likely they are to develop a focused plan of attack. And finding the most educated, well-informed people to help do that is crucial as well. Too often students rely on family and friends to help them consider a profession of choice. While they can provide invaluable insight into your academic and interpersonal strengths and weaknesses, relying largely on family and friends can cloud your judgment. Parental career suggestions in particular can be fraught with bias and unhealthy expectations, as parents push children into careers they don't want to follow.
Looking for Answers
If you're going to tap those you know - such as your parents, siblings, and best friends - for career suggestions, just make sure you are eliciting advice, opinions, and career counseling from other sources as well. A great place to start: your high school guidance offi ce (if you haven't graduated already). You'd also be wise to spend time with guidance counselors who can help administer career tests and exams that assess your skills and interests. Unfortunately, too few students do so.
Where Students Look for Career AdviceMother 92 percent
Even for those who do tap the resources of high school guidance counselors or educational consultants, it's important at some point to honestly ask yourself if college is the best path to professional success.
Consider the following:
The Value of College
When getting a bachelor's degree can cost close to a quarter million dollars, including books, tuition, room and board, and other expenses, many find it shocking how defi cient college graduates are in academic skills. The most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy by the US Department of Education, for instance, noted general declines in adult literacy among undergraduate and graduate students in the past decade. Literacy tasks -an indication of a person's employability - dropped as much as 10 percentage points in some categories, among them college graduates- ability to read and understand literature passages. And, according to ACT, one-third of undergraduates take remedial course work at some point in college.
Such shortcomings in students'reading comprehension may explain why a quarter of those who start college leave before getting a degree. One argument college students may fi nd comforting: Studies do show that college graduates can generally expect higher earnings-as much as twice what nongraduates may make, according to the latest census figures. But what those numbers don't take into account are the people who saw college as an obstacle in their career paths. These go-getters avoided the experiences of their friends who graduated in four to six years, got out, and found themselves in low-paying entry-level jobs, often with huge student loans to pay back. Believe it. It happens. Far too many sad stories have been told of college graduates doing menial jobs. For every grad who lands a highfi ve-figure job on Wall Street, there are many more who end up waiting tables at Chili's or ringing up chinos at J.Crew. More to the point, too many high school students are being oversold on the notion that college is the only way to professional success. That's a disservice to students when you consider that only half of those who enroll will actually go on to attain a four-year degree. Too many college enrollees attend a few classes only to realize that college is not for them. Plenty who have the initiative to walk away are fi nding success in their jobs when they do so. When Greg Brooks entered college in the mid-1980s, he did so with one eye on the door. Impatient sitting in classes day after day, Brooks was more into getting practical experience. Which explains why he left one college after another and fi nally ended up at a local daily newspaper begging for any job they would give him. He landed one doing page layout, and never looked back. "After a short number of weeks," Brooks says, "it was clear, what I was learning in school was not directly appropriate to what I was doing on a daily basis." In other words, college wasn't at all preparing him for the real world.
How Long Does It Take to Earn a College Degree?
Source: Degree Attainment Rates at American Colleges and Universities, Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA
A Job Market for Nongraduates
What today's non-college-graduates should consider is that the job market is likely about to swing in their favor, thanks to population and market shifts in coming years that may leave American businesses with a dearth of applicants for openings.
Baby boomers, for example, some seventy-six million of whom will be retiring in the next twenty years, will create a huge gap in the number of applicants versus openings in the job market- as many as five million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their exit from corporate America will leave many companies scrambling to fill positions -a dilemma that might cause firms to drop educational requirements for jobs. "There is going to be a skills gap, clearly, as boomers retire," says Dan Miller, vice president of learning and development for the job search engine Monster.com. "And as an employer or hiring manager who has a very strong need" to fill a vacancy, "I'm more interested in someone who can do the job than whether or not they have the academia behind it."
That's not only in white-collar jobs. For those who think bluecollar and service jobs are all being outsourced overseas, think again. Yes, plenty are, but many more are staying here, and fi elds such as law enforcement, construction, and even maritime work are offering Americans without university diplomas a chance to enter a trade profession and experience rapid advancement. In fact, Michigan Future Inc.'s Glazer estimates that only some ?30 percent of jobs seem to require four-year degrees today. Plenty of successful entrepreneurs, executives, medical professionals, politicians, designers, performers, and other individuals have created thriving careers without ever acquiring one college credit.
Finding the Right Path
The key, experts say, is forging the career path that makes most sense to an individual, and making the most of the skills he or she has. Kristin Crockett's enthusiasm plummets in the classroom. Almost like a guaranteed inverse reaction, when an instructor speaks, Crockett deflates. "High school was a lot of fun," Crockett recalls, -but not academically. It was not my most favorite way to spend my time." Like so many high school students, Crockett wasn't exactly on the fast track to career superstardom. "I had no clue of what I wanted to study or what I wanted to do." Except that she wanted to stop throwing away thousands of dollars a semester into a college education that, as far as she could tell, was taking her nowhere.
"I learn best by experience," Crockett says. At college "I took this art history class, which I loved, but I didn't want to be tested on it. I wanted to go to Europe and see this stuff in person." Uninspired by her degree program and unsure where to turn, she decided to talk to her father - who happened to be the president of a printing company in Colorado. Since school wasn't holding her interest, Crockett's father suggested that she try working instead. It seems strange that it took a small office manager role to light a fire under Crockett. But it did. "I just loved making money and the interaction with clients and the different lifestyle that came along with earning money and having the freedom to make purchasing choices, Crockett says. "I was responsible for things and was able to see the results of my efforts." Leaving college early rather than becoming burned out through a four-year degree was the propulsion for all her professional successes that followed.
Millions of Americans hold similar roles in offices across the country and never feel the giddy embrace of office freedom that Crockett discovered that day. But her subsequent rapid-fire rise through the human resource departments at multiple companies is evidence that opportunities are endless in corporate America, depending upon how well you exploit them.
After three years getting her feet wet at her father's printing company, Crockett moved on to a cable television firm in Denver. She was twenty-one. But transitioning from a small printing fi rm to a large cable provider meant she'd have to start at the bottom again- a lesson many without college degrees admit they've faced as they strategize ways to enter a career. Still, those who work long hours, contribute enthusiastically to their workplace, and ask repeatedly to be given more responsibility say that days toiling in reception level work is short-lived. That held true for Crockett as well. Her salary when she landed the job in 1985 was a barely-break-even twelve thousand dollars a year. But Crockett saw ample opportunity. After less than eighteen months on the job, she was promoted to human resource assistant. A year later, she was one of the company's benefits assistants. By 1993, she was the benefits manager for the entire company, managing health care and retirement plans for four thousand people. At Jones Intercable, Inc., where she first landed a job as a receptionist, she threw her name in the hat for any job one or two positions above her for which she thought she was qualifi ed. Within a year, she moved up to a small office management role in the company's HR department, and slowly went about taking on more and more responsibility. She identifi ed slackers in the department and started offering to do tasks they might have let slide. Over time she gradually took on responsibilities that related to employee benefits, an area of human resources that interested her. Within a few years, she was managing the company's entire medical, dental, and retirement benefi ts suite as well as providing orientation seminars for new hires. When the company implemented a diversity program, Crockett quickly became certified in diversity training and volunteered to implement the program. "I identified training as my passion and began to move into the training area," making it her specialty, Crockett says.
Crockett is by no means a poster child for focused teens barreling toward a specialized career path. After all, she meandered through what little college she attended, then stumbled into her father's printing company with "no clue," as she says, about her professional future. But she did have enough awareness to identify key stimulators that excited her professionally? specifically, making money, being responsible for others, and leading training sessions. That's enough to have a clear idea of where her work should take her.
And her lack of a college degree? It was rarely an issue. When the dreaded question did arise, Crockett was brutally honest. ?If people ask me why I don't have a college degree, I say continuing my education wasn't one of my interests. And working was so interesting to me that I decided to follow that? right away.
Peddling the Non-College-Candidate
Do research. Even if you don?t like school, you?re going to have to put some of the skills you picked up there to good use?namely, researching and studying careers that may be of interest to you. The good news: It?s far more thrilling to submerge yourself in career assessment tools than algebraic formulas.
Have a sense of entitlement. Just because you don?t have a degree doesn?t make you any less marketable or productive as an employee. Good employers know this, so keep it in mind. Remind yourself of it when on job interviews or whenever doubt creeps into your head should you land a coveted job that has you working alongside an Ivy grad every day.
Match skill sets to jobs available. Having a bachelor?s degree under your belt doesn't necessarily add to the skills you possess naturally. Remember this, and fi gure out other ways to develop and exploit them-perhaps through adult education or on-the-job training.
Be aggressive. "I would maneuver myself to be visible and available more so than just knocking down people's doors," Crockett says. Rather than hounding managers for random extra work, Crockett would identify key projects that the company might initiate that would interest her. Then she would approach the manager in charge and offer her assistance and ideas. Like Crockett, Monster's Miller says, "Don't apologize" for not having a degree. "I know people here at Monster who don't have a college degree, and you wouldn't know it by the way they present themselves." Those without a bachelor's degree can do plenty to offset that missing credential on their résumé.
Quiz: Are You Ready for College?
Still not sure if college is the best path for you, even though your three older siblings have followed that course? Don't take tradition's path just for the sake of maintaining the status quo or to please Mom and Dad. Take the following quiz to see if college is the best place for you to advance your career. Keep in mind that your answers are an exercise in thinking about the best course for you. The following questions are not necessarily a replacement for a Myers-Briggs personality test or months with a career coach. But they are a great way to explore what is likely your best educational path.
If an academic subject interests me, I tend to:
a) Hope the instructor offers more information on that topic in the next class.
b) Take in the information I received in class that day and leave it at that.
c) Research the topic online in my own time.
When studying for a test, I often:
a) Force myself to sit down and study until I've covered all the material in one sitting.
b) Take mini breaks every fi fteen minutes to avert the boredom of studying.
c) Cram at the last minute and hope for the best.
When I get a bad grade on a test or in a class, I:
a) Go to the instructor and try to fi gure out exactly where I made mistakes.
b) Accept that I did the best I could and vow to do better next time.
c) Lose all hope of catching up in class or boosting my final grade.
If I run into someone who knows more than I do, my first
a) This is great, I could really learn something from her.
b) If I act like I know what she?s talking about, she'll think I'm smart.
c) I hate that I'm never as knowledgeable about ideas or news as everyone else.
When I think about moving away from home, my first
a) Finally, I get to meet a fresh group of people who might offer new opportunity.
b) That's scary, but I'll eventually adapt after a stressful period of acclimation.
c) How will I cope without old friends and my family?
If someone asks me today what kind of job I want, I would:
a) Rattle off a title and details of the job's responsibilities.
b) Say I have a few in mind, but I'm not sure which one to pursue.
c) Meet them with a blank stare and say I have no idea.
I just bought a new computer. It's not working, so I'm
a) Call the manufacturer's customer service line for help.
b) Ask a friend who's technologically savvy to get it working.
c) Experiment until I figure it out on my own.
If I had to pick one of the following professions, it would be:
a) Lawyer or doctor.
b) Advertising account executive.
If I'm cooking dinner for a friend, I:
a) Use a recipe.
b) Order food from a local restaurant.
c) Pull together a dish of my own from ingredients found in my kitchen.
My opinion of college is:
a) It's a great way to stretch my mind and gain valuable skills for a job.
b) It's a necessary step to the job market.
c) I'd rather skip it.
Now count up your answers. Give yourself 2 points for every a) answer, 1 point for every time you answered b), and no points for c).
If your score is 15 or higher, college is probably an ideal path for you. You respond well to structured learning situations and feel comfortable in them. Any score from 8 to 14 means college could be in your future, but you might want to either think more seriously about what exactly you hope to gain from four years of higher education, or take a year off and fi gure out more specifi cally what your career goals are and whether or not a four-year program is the key to accomplishing them. Any score below 8 means that your educational efforts and career spirit will likely be squandered on a college campus. You possess plenty of your own initiative to determine which career path is right for you, and you?re more inspired in becoming educated outside of the traditional academic setting.
Excerpted from Real World Careers , by Betsy Cummings . Copyright (c) by Betsy Cummings . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top