October 29, 2002
1:37 PM   Subscribe

Each year in the US, nearly two and a half million high school seniors enroll in college. Nearly one million do not. They are overwhelmingly poor, rural, and white. The Washington Post has profiled one such young man.
posted by ewagoner (28 comments total)
Interesting article. I didn't go to college after high school because of much the same attitude as Ben's.

What I didn't realize then, and what he doesn't realize now, is that people go to college by going into serious debt. Of course he (or I) couldn't pay for college. It's called loans, and it's ugly and rough and they hang over your head forever. If someone had sat me down and told me the real deal, I might have gotten it.

It might just be the way the piece is written, but it seems like he's afraid or ambivalent about doing what he really wants, to work at the race track. He should get off his ass and do it. 19 fades into 30 pretty damn fast, particularly when you're about to get your girlfriend pregnant, throw your goals in the crapper, and become bitter.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 2:00 PM on October 29, 2002

I lately have been thinking that college is a giant ruse. Certainly, if you want a career in a field that requires additional education (medical, legal, teaching) you have no other choice. But too many HS seniors go off to 4-year schools with little idea of why they go and what they will do when they finish. They end up with a degree and a $100,000 debt they won't pay off for years to come. If I knew then what I know now, I'd rather have taken the $100k and built my own company, or bought a home, or travelled the world for 10 years. Any one of these things would be more worthwhile than going into a workforce already over-saturated with BA's.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:04 PM on October 29, 2002

That reminded me of another article I read a few months ago: The Pain and Pride of Community College.

The "all or nothing" attitude that many educators have about college is silly. Two-year colleges aren't even worth attending, they imply. College should be about education, about what is actually learned (and retained), not the diploma.
posted by eclectica at 2:11 PM on October 29, 2002

I saw some of myself in that article too. I went to college for 1 year out of high school (what else to do) and dropped out because I felt I was wasting time and money. I went back to college when I was 28 and got the engineering degree. It took some time for me to grow and decide what I wanted.

But it's also true that the US culture doesn't place high value on trades jobs. Although I'm betting many plumbers make more money than I, and didn't accrue the same debt. We need plumbers, and electricians, and welders, etc. It shouldn't be a shameful choice.

On school funding - lots of financial aid and scholarships go unapplied-for year after year. Find them and apply.
posted by Red58 at 2:16 PM on October 29, 2002

While college is expensive, and the skills you learn are perhaps debatable whether you could learn them on your own, I still think the experience is usually something that broadens a person, by throwing them into a chaotic environment filled with many ideas and viewpoints. It allowed me to become my own person, away from my parents that told me what to do, and my high school that pounded any joy I might have gotten from learning.

That said, community college shouldn't get the bad rap because classes are frequently smaller and you get better attention (instead of the army of TAs), the tuition is dirt cheap, and if you play your cards right, you can transfer in more than two years of the boring stuff.

And yes, college debt sucks total ass, and puts you on a treadmill the moment you get out, forcing you to work it off while you try to get your life together.
posted by mathowie at 2:19 PM on October 29, 2002

I laughed when I read that Ben drove a Camaro, the official sports car of young, white, rural men. With his connections to NASCAR driver Stacy Compton, he should apply to NASCAR Technical Institute. Read their course catalog. It even has a diversity program.

Sadly, Rainbow/PU$H's color spectrum favors green over white. (Is PU$H really spelled with a dollar sign like it is on their website?!
posted by Frank Grimes at 2:21 PM on October 29, 2002

So close to home... It more or less describes most of my good friends from high school. I guess some of us require a four year degree (and then some... I'm going into archaeology), but others don't. Still, I see my friends working at a parts counter, or unemployed, or as a janitor, when they could be doing something else (they're not stupid people). Sigh.
posted by The Michael The at 2:22 PM on October 29, 2002

After dropping out of UT and 15 subsequent years as a technical writer, I'm attending a local technical college to retrain myself to be a programmer.

At a school like this (disclaimer: I'm paying them, not the other way around), the dual emphases are two-year preparation for majoring in a conventional academic track at a "real" college or university or (my choice) focused study in courses intended and taught primarily to teach job skills for the area market.

I'm fortunate in that I've had enough education and innate smarts to achieve intellectual critical mass on my own, but I wouldn't want the CS degree my local university offers because I've already heard from enough employers and coworkers that the tech-college route offers better employability and hands-on expertise as opposed to theoretical knowledge that *may* be useful but doesn't demonstrate that I can do the job right away. (And nobody's saying I can't go for the CS degree eventually if I feel a compelling need for it.)

I'd gotten an A.A.S. at another community college back in 1984, and I was employed there and at this one, too. From alternating between the groves of traditional academe and the CC scene, I've sensed that there's a certain disdain for the latter among the former, but it's a wonderful, comparatively low-cost opportunity for "nontraditional students" to try on college to see if it fits; to acquire college-level study, writing and mathematical skills; and, like me, to concentrate on vocational training as opposed to academics.
posted by alumshubby at 2:31 PM on October 29, 2002

I'd agree that the US, in particular, doesn't value trades jobs. But it doesn't seem the US values education or educated jobs (science, teachers, legal, etc.) except when it's too late and it comes down to firing and hiring people. I'm not sure the US values anything other than celebrity jobs, to be honest...
posted by whatzit at 2:37 PM on October 29, 2002

I think that this statistic is closely tied to the "rich white business guy" stereotype.

White Guy: "I'm here for a blue collar job, what've you got for me?"

Employer: "Huh. I know from my favorite stereotype that all white men are rich corporate assholes. You must be a huge fuck-up to have not made it. What'd you do wrong?"

White Guy: "Nothing, I just didn't feel like blowing $100k on a piece of paper."

Employer: "Suuuuure. So you weren't intelligent/hard-working/motivated enough. Well we don't need any stupid/lazy/underachieving losers here. Soorrreeee."

Going to college is basically the same as cutting your hair and wearing slacks and nice shoes. You can be successful if you wear sneakers and have long hair, but statistics say you won't be.

It really sucks because, while I don't want to be associated with the corporate asshole image, I can easily see the correlation between maintaining this image and being wealthy.

P.S. For those of you who are going to say "waahh, you poor white boy you, you don't know shit about being stereotyped," I will agree that mine is a great stereotype to have. But it's still a stereotype...
posted by zekinskia at 2:46 PM on October 29, 2002

I'm seriously considering (or rather, have already decided) to drop out of my current college after 4 years because I'm burnt out. I was in the top of my class in high school, but have a 2.0 in college and am having difficulty keeping my focus. I'm thinking that taking time off, working, and transferring to a different school might get me on the right track.

My dad has told me that he will pay for school as long as I don't take more than 6 years, but I feel like all I'm doing is wasting his money and my time. Now I hear all these horror stories about loans and I'm again thrown at possibilities.

I really want a college education. I don't want my parents to pay for it, but I have no other way unless I do the loan route. Can anyone who has been in this situation (or a similiar one) give me some advice? I want to stay in the IT field but I fear not being able to support my future family.

posted by KoPi_42 at 4:04 PM on October 29, 2002

I lately have been thinking that college is a giant ruse.

It doesn't need to be. Ya gotta understand though that a liberal arts degree isn't trying to train you into a specific industry. What you're going to learn is how to process large amounts of information quickly, how to present information and arguments to others effectively and persuasively, how to compare competing arguments, and stuff like that that's useful in any number of business settings even if you'll still need to be trained in whatever the hell it is your company does.

We need plumbers, and electricians, and welders, etc. It shouldn't be a shameful choice.

I don't think people see it as a shameful choice. The problem with the skilled trades isn't that the pay is low or that it doesn't command some level of respect, it's that the ranks are largely limited to the sons (and other relatives, sometimes) of existing members of the union through limited admission into apprenticeship programs. I never had the real option to become a plumber, as far as I know.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:33 PM on October 29, 2002

My attitude was a lot like his when I was in High School. I didn't even take the SAT.

I joined the Navy right out of HS, it was the best thing I ever did. If I had gone to college straight out of HS I'd have partied my life away and never straightened up.

As it was, I learned that I hated the Navy, got out after my required 6 years and got a Job fixing copiers ... crappy pay. I'd been a geek all my life though. I had contacts in the Software industry. I weasled my way into an interview and sold myself on my homebrew skills and military training (Submarine Navigation Electronics Technician). It runed out that writing software was even easier than fixing copiers and I've been doing that ever since.

One of my key rules has always been "No Dot Coms" so I wasn't really hit by the internet bubble as bad as some of my web developer friends were.

It can be done without college, you just thave to have a plan, a goal, and the brains to execute said plan to achieve said goal.
posted by Dillenger69 at 5:03 PM on October 29, 2002

"I ain't straight outta Compton, I'm straight out tha trailer."

This article describes a lot of my friends and family. I managed to wrangle a scholarship and go to college.

Was it useful? Yes and no. My degree is in Journalism and I never worked in the field. I have my own internet business. But it filled in a lot of gaps in my education that wouldn't have gotten filled if I had been self-taught. Mostly college told me what books I should read and gave me access to a good library.
posted by nyxxxx at 5:36 PM on October 29, 2002

[From my dorm room.... :) ]

College isn't bad at all if you go in the with the expectation that the content you're getting isn't necessarily going to fill your life later. This is particularly true of a liberal arts education. As ROU_Xenophone alluded to, it's the skills that you pick up along the way (dealing with know-it-alls, comparing arguments, and learning to guage how much you're capable of) that matter in the end.
posted by superfem at 6:21 PM on October 29, 2002

low-income black and Hispanic men are more likely to go to college right out of high school than white guys like Ben.

Is it that surprising? I'm no college admission expert, God forbid, and I don't mean to provoke a shitstorm here, it's just a question, but isn't it the whole point of affirmative action programs, getting more low-income minorities to go to college?
posted by matteo at 6:22 PM on October 29, 2002

They do work that needs to be done -- building houses, running backhoes, riveting airplanes, surveying land and fixing the BMWs of upscale college types who occasionally might call them rednecks. America might well lose all its advanced-degree business school graduates with less pain than it would lose these young men.

Sounds a lot like the afterword to The Hidden Wound by Wendell Berry. Excellent book, with some insights into the roots of racism that I haven't seen elsewhere. In general, his premise is that the source of racism was a desire on the part of some people to put certain work beneath them, and so they created in their heads a "class" of people beneath them.

When a nation determines that the work of providing and caretaking is "nigger work" or work for "hillbillies" or "rednecks" -- that is, fundamental, necessary, inescapable, and inferior -- then it has implanted in its own soul the infection of its ruin...

In general, Berry's very good for provoking thought. Highly recommended.
posted by namespan at 6:59 PM on October 29, 2002

College isn't bad at all if you go in the with the expectation that the content you're getting isn't necessarily going to fill your life later.

The problem I encountered was, as an engineering major, I never had time to consider other stuff. We were required to take 18 hours of non-technical classes, but when you've got to take an average of 17 hours to make it out in four years and you're working 20-30 hours a week, you can't help but take blowoff humanities classes.

And my friends who didn't go to college are making more than me (not that money's all that matters, but...), and don't have 250/mo in student loans.
posted by notsnot at 7:10 PM on October 29, 2002

This is off the track, sort of, but over on whedonesque about a month ago there was discussion of Xander's new job on Buffy. Xander was wearing a suit and had a new car and said something about he had a contracting meeting in an ep of Buffy.

There was some discussion of this, and several people said that someone without a college degree could never afford a car that nice (I think it was a BMW.) It was as if most people thought that the only way to making money was college. I pointed out that a capenter could make a hundred thousand a year if he was good and applied himself. Contractors are in a whole other league. I personally know of a contractor that was making 1 million a year in income. He hadn't even finished high school, he just worked his way up from construction. He's not the only one. If you ever have a house built the contractor will probably show up in a beat up truck and dirty jeans, but he's probably got a house 5 times the size of yours and a couple of luxury cars parked in front of it.

Most people seem to undervalue any kind of physical labor. But a mechanic, a plumber, an electrician, those people have a skill that's as valuble as a sysadmins or a web designer. And they can always find work, somewhere, unlike the current tech economy that's collapsed.

If you want to be rich you're better off starting your own business. And you don't need an MBA to do that.
posted by nyxxxx at 9:16 PM on October 29, 2002

It doesn't need to be. Ya gotta understand though that a liberal arts degree isn't trying to train you into a specific industry. What you're going to learn is how to process large amounts of information quickly, how to present information and arguments to others effectively and persuasively, how to compare competing arguments, and stuff like that that's useful in any number of...settings

Amen to that! Again!

Contrast this to the Japanese college experience - where college is understood mostly as a compensatory four-year party offered as partial balm for the corrosive indignities of the previous thirteen years, and these skills are rarely acquired.

I didn't "learn" jack in college (NYU, BA with honors in Critical Theory 1989). If anything, I "learned" New York, and how to navigate density, and diversity, and the Lower East Side at 2:30 AM. Invaluable experience, inseparable in my opinion from any perceived ability to perform my job (a damn good one, thank all the gods) skillfully.

Not for everyone, true, but I can contrast it directly with the life lessons acquired in US Army Basic Training - certainly another model 18-year-old rural white men are offered - and I have to say that while the Army only fulfilled some lifelong fantasies of riding around in helicopters and working in Secret Underground Control Rooms, only college offered me opportunities as diverse as writing for SPIN, teaching at a NYC high school, and participating in some very early critique of cyberpunk.

It was these latter experiences that made my current gig a reality. Yeah, yeah, YMMV and all that, but I have to consider a true liberal arts education one of the biggest bargains you'll ever stumble across.
posted by adamgreenfield at 11:02 PM on October 29, 2002

Everyone always gasps in horror at "loan stories" or financial aid issues, and yes, it sucks to throw $250-$300 a month at loans for five, ten years after you graduate, but it can be worked out. So you don't buy the newest tech gadget every six months, or you consider a used car instead of new, or apartment living becomes the mainstay for a few more years instead of househunting. Maybe you just get a really good, albeit slightly painful 5-year course in economics for free. All of these sound a lot like small potatoes anyway when compared to the real problems people can face when money's too tight to pay the electrical bill or Ramen noodles with ketchup garnish become standard dinnertime fare this week. (Note: this all spoken by one who's soon to become a graduate student and dive right back into the financial aid quagmire...)

That said... I don't believe college is the answer for everyone. I especially liked the comment about going back for a degree a bit later in life once you've figured out what you want to be when you grow up. I sure as hell had no idea at 18, and nine years later I'm not a whole lot closer to it.

On that note, I too am very surprised they didn't mention the military at all in that piece. More and more, I'm finding that it's been a very wise choice for those who are uncertain about jumping into college right after graduation. It's a huge commitment in and of itself, but it's a way to pay for your college education that wasn't even broached as a possibility by either the author or the kid in question. Don't recruiters visit high schools anymore?
posted by evixir at 2:34 AM on October 30, 2002

My little brother did the same thing. As a bonded pipefitter he is now making more than I ever can in a museum. There is however a difference that makes it worth it for me. He now works every day anticipating the day he retires. Me, I enjoy my job, as low-paying as it may be.
posted by jmgorman at 6:37 AM on October 30, 2002

I went to community college for a year at 15, learned nothing (yet still managed to get As and Bs, sadly enough), made no friends whatsoever (I can remember the name of exactly one fellow student, whom I didn't like), had no new experiences to speak of. I don't intend to go back. I've tried a few times to go the distance-learning route, but have always been so disgusted by the soul-deadening banality of school that I haven't been able to get anywhere with it.

None of this has stopped from getting a job which I love and look forward to (a non-profit library/museum job), although my paycheck is pitiful. Unfortunately, to progress to a professional level in the library field, one needs not only an undergraduate degree but a graduate degree as well. I hope to end up running my own business since I'm unlikely to get hired at decent wages elsewhere, but even if I don't, even if I spend twenty years working in paraprofessional library jobs while the professional jobs go to people fresh out of library school who've never done a real reference interview in their lives, it will be worth it to avoid four or five more years of living hell.

College is overrated and overpriced. Vocational programs might conceivably have some value, though I doubt it; the vaunted liberal-arts education, however, is a scam. We're told that college will 'teach us to think for ourselves.' It seems fairly axiomatic that autodidactism will do a better job of teaching one to think for oneself than being told how to do so. We're told that college will 'broaden our horizons and enrich us with new experiences.' My ass. Living in an artificial nanny state which creates a protected environment for a select few does not broaden one's horizons. Life broaden's one's horizons. During the time when I could have been sitting in a classroom I worked on two tall ships, completed an apprenticeship in 19th-century rigging, moved from Generic Burnt-Out Industrial Town, USA to downtown Manhattan, moved elsewhere, bought my own boat and sailed it up the eastern seaboard. I also read more books than I would ever have had time for in school, taught myself (some) Welsh, Perl, XML, and MUSHcode (still, IMHO, a programming language unsurpassed for sheer elegance), wrote for a dotcom until they went under, etc. I doubt very much that any college could have provided me with this range and depth of experience.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 9:33 AM on October 30, 2002

A short, more on-topic postscript, then I'll shut up.

I read this article when it showed up on Arts & Letters Daily the other day. It annoys me because, while it makes the case that not everyone should go to college, with which I agree, it does so by assuming that those who don't are going to become blue-coller workers. The sheer number of self-educated intellectuals who exist, both famous and obscure, should be enough to refute that idea. There are reasons other than lack of intellectual interest to avoid college. To quote Melville, "A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard."
posted by IshmaelGraves at 9:44 AM on October 30, 2002

This month's issue of "This Old House" magazine features a letter from the editor (sorry - I couldn't find a version of it on the web) bemoaning the fact that there simply are not many young people taking up skilled trades and that the number of skilled contractors available for jobs has been steadily going down. It seems like the skilled trades (electricians, plumbers, etc) make good money and are satisfying in ways that are immediate and tangible. As an out of work programmer, it is definitely something that I spend a lot of time thinking about.
posted by rks404 at 11:14 AM on October 30, 2002

I think that the overabundance of "useless" liberal arts degrees and degree granting institutions (I was a polisci major, so I buy into the myth as well) is a reflection of the US free market system. I think its a generally assumed truth (whether or not it has any basis in reality) that if you want to amass money, you must attend a four year institution and attain a liberal arts degree, which is a ticket into the corporate world, where "real" money is made. Since the US has a thriving private sector education market, our best universitys are private sector and the proliferation of small private colleges, essentially allows anyone who wants to get such a degree, and meets basic levels of qualification, to pursue one. Therefore, the expectation is that the degree is worthwhile because everyone is getting one forces the limited state sponsored institutions to hype up and enlarge the enrollment in their liberal arts programs to remain competitive. Which provides a saturated market and decreases the value of the degree.

The situation in Europe is wildly different. Higher education is, by and large, the responsibility of the state. The government of France decides say, that Political Science degrees have value, but really, the nation only needs say 20,000 of them in a given year. So people compete for those spots. If they don't get in, tough luck, try for a different degree or a trade school. Thus the system is regulated by a centralized authority deciding how many numbers of people need to be educated in differing fields. As the US system is not centralized, there is no overall decision making, and the number of students studying in differing fields is determined by public perception of value, not a the "empirical" standards of a centralized authority.

(Hmm...I'm rambling. I hope that made sense.)
posted by pjgulliver at 11:41 AM on October 30, 2002

namespan: that sounds like an interesting book. it mirrors what i think about domestic labour (or what they called "women's work"): as middle-class women get busier and busier in the public sphere, domestic labour falls to working-class "cleaning ladies." but cleaning isn't "beneath us," for heaven's sake, it's taking care of ourselves. as your quote said, the work is "fundamental and necessary" - i.e. we all use the shitter and we should all have to clean it.

sorry, that's a bit off-topic. i agree that trade-labour can be undervalued, but my question is, does that matter? like people have said, contractors and electricians can actually rake it in. the "undervalued" part only matters if THEY care that overworked cubicle snobs look down on them.
posted by capiscum at 11:46 AM on October 30, 2002

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