For the fifth time in as many weeks, over a phone call with a colleague last Friday, we ended up discussing the merits of higher education. This conversation followed a similar pattern and eventually arrived at the idea that maybe sending our kids off to college isn’t the only means to ensure them a successful adulthood. If my small network is any indication, it seems our thinking about the sanctity of college is changing.
Please understand, I am a big believer in education. I know how important it is to our society that we provide people with a great deal of information on a variety of topics in their formative years. As a progressive minded individual, I also know how important it is that people are well versed in history and socio-political matters, lest we move backwards as a people and shun enlightenment. So it is a bit of a conundrum. I think a robust education has the ability to improve a person’s life and a well educated populace makes for a much stronger and healthier country. Yet, I see where sending everyone off to college is having a negative impact for small towns and rural communities. The problem being, the people needed to sustain and grow a community are all leaving their communities.
The way I see it is this, college has become the farm team for major corporations. Corporate jobs tend to be located in large cities, so as a result of going to “play” for college, you are likely to move up to the big leagues in a big city. You are far less likely to take your new skills to play for your home team. Now, I realize that I am painting with a broad brush here, and there is a percentage of people that will return to their hometown, or plenty of people that don’t go to work for a multi-national corporation, but a vast majority do. I am writing this from my own glass house here. I did not return to my town upon graduation. Similar to many college attendees, once I got a taste for the larger world, it was hard to return home. I wanted to see more and do more and I also was under the impression that this was the only path to success. I was wrong.
Growing up, I was lead to believe that attending college was the only way to be successful. That it was only in attending college that I could hope to make something of myself. I realize now that it was with the best of intentions I was told these things, but it doesn’t make them true. While it is certainly the case that college graduates make more money than high school graduates, it does not take the full picture into account. Yes, more education is always going to be better than less education, but there needs to be some nuance in the discussion around the type of education. It isn’t just a matter of college or no college, but should be a matter of what type of education is most appropriate for each individual. Facts are, when the cost of college is taken into consideration and the debt needed for many to finance their attendance, college loses a little bit of its shine. Trade schools are considerably less expensive and it is my understanding that an individual’s job prospects are higher coming out of a trade school. Plus, in the days of globalization, it is a lot harder to move a job in the trades overseas. The trades can provide people with the rewarding experience of working with their hands, and a steady livable income all without the burden of lifelong debt.
I love the work I do and I am glad I found my calling, but I wish I had more information going into my final year of high school. Having more information improves the decision making process and I, personally, had very little. I am pleased that getting my undergraduate degree eventually led me to the field of urban planning and that degree allowed me to attend graduate school, but I feel like I was somehow duped still. Every month when I send off a huge chunk of money to the company that holds my student loan, I am forced to grapple with that decision I made as an 18 year old again and again. While I understood financing college would be necessary, the true implications of that decision were not fully available to my 18 year old mind. It makes me wonder about our priorities as a nation. If we, as a country, agree that higher education benefits the individual and helps grow the economy, then why is it so expensive? K-12 is paid for with taxes, why should college, associate degrees and trade schools be different? Why is one considered normal and the other deemed socialism? Shouldn’t we invest in growing our economy?
The goal of education, as I understand it, is meant to accomplish three main things. The first being to make the individual a good citizen. I couldn’t agree more, it is understanding how to be a good citizen that we continue to move forward as a civilization and hopefully resist tyranny. Good citizens make for a strong society and a strong society benefits everyone. Next, education is meant to help people lead a fuller life. Again, I couldn’t agree more. Intellectual curiosity is my favorite attribute in people. My life is immensely richer for learning and experiencing new things. I hope when I die there are albums I never had the chance to hear, books I never had a chance to read, bourbons I never had a chance to sip. Finally, education is meant to prepare people to earn a living. This third goal is where I feel we have settled on one idea of what earning a living means and it has come at a cost. It seems like as a society we think of earning a living only as getting a job for someone else. It reminds me of the quote from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.” Yes, going to work for a company makes a great deal of sense. It provides stability and benefits and occasionally, satisfaction, but it is not the only option.
So circling back to the point of my ramblings, the problem with pushing everyone off to college is that it takes away the vital resources needed for a healthy local economy. For a city to be strong and sustainable, it has to have an intact and well-maintained infrastructure, including commercial buildings and homes. It must also have viable locally owned businesses. So in pushing the weekly paycheck part of education too hard, we see too many graduates leave their hometowns seeking corporate employment. Not only does this drain the valuable resource of talent from a town, but it leads to a deficiency in work that is very much in demand. I don’t know that graduates are being made aware that there are other opportunities to make a living. I doubt they are fully aware of the path of entrepreneurship and trades. There appears to be a major disconnect. Struggling cities need more developers, entrepreneurs, carpenters, plumbers, masons, etc, yet we keep pumping out marketing professionals and attorneys. A graduate could forgo a lifetime of debt, have meaningful work, improve their community and make a nice living. We would be well served to make this alternative career path more well known to students.
As we handed over ownership of commerce and real estate to national chains, we turned our backs on local businesses and ruined legacies. I grew up in a town familiar with struggle. Both of my grandfathers owned their own business in our town. I fondly recall spending time at my mom’s father’s hotel growing up. By the time I graduated and had to make some decisions as to how I was going to attempt to make my way in the world, neither of my grandfathers’ businesses were around for consideration. This wasn’t unique to me. I have to assume countless businesses in every town never made their way to the hands of sons and daughters because of sprawl competition. These businesses that sustained families for generations and shaped communities were washed away in a few decades. Maybe if there was an option to get involved in a family business, the pull for me to leave my hometown would not have been so strong. Had I been able to assume a role in this family endeavor and have the pride of being involved with a well run local business, the likelihood of staying in a familiar place would have been far greater. Alas, the option was not mine. As far as I knew, my options were to stay in town and struggle or go off to college and make something of myself. Who knows, maybe I could have studied hospitably and worked at the Marriott that replaced my grandfather’s hotel.
In encouraging more people to take up trades or open small businesses, we can begin to combat the sprawl economy. The sprawl economy drains a community of everything it needs, including talent. The sprawl economy is not part of the local economy, it is the enemy of it. We can’t keep supplying the sprawl economy with our money, jobs, land and youth. In order to fight back and make our places healthy and strong, we have to retain these resources. We have offer up competition and not just our meager submission. Instead of sending off more kids to work for Home Depot’s accounting department, we should educate and empower them to open a local hardware store. If a national chain has seen fit to open in your community, it is a clear indication your community can support that type of business. Why give them the entire market? Why should they make all the money, when they don’t provide a superior product? If given a choice between eating at TGIFridays and a local restaurant, any half sane, half sober person with intact taste buds would opt for the latter. Make sure your community is cultivating the latter.
Stability has its benefits and there are plenty of reasons to seek out employment for a large corporation. It is important that we communicate to the next generation that this is only one path to achieving success. While a regular paycheck has its benefits, it may not offer creativity, autonomy, pride or the satisfaction in improving your town. There are other alternatives that are profitable and meaningful. More so, we have to use all the tools available to us to fight the sprawl economy. We can’t keep sitting idly by while national chains destroy our towns. Ideally a community would work to keep them out, but at the very least we have to compete. We have to put people to work rebuilding sidewalks and roads. We have to put people to work renovating buildings and developing infill. We have to put people to work working for themselves. When we take back control of our economy, we take back our community. We can provide people with meaningful work in a place they have roots. We can restore the structures our ancestors built. We can spend money with people we know. When we do this we can make the type of town a kid would never want to leave.