Monday, October 24, 2011

"Outside the classroom"

This can't possibly be the first, or last, celebration of the college dropout. Like, did you know that the guy from Facebook, and Bill Gates, they never got their diplomas? Michael Ellsberg, Brown '99, has written the latest installment of 'Let's take this bit of trivia about a few who got lucky and at any rate had spent some time at elite colleges and project that onto a national population for whom dropping out would realistically mean video games and not entrepreneurship but you never know, right?' And the nugget of truth is that there are people who go to college because they're middle- or upper-class and that's what's done, but who'd be better-suited to some other endeavor. The catch is that this alternative might be lucrative and (to use the catchphrase) "job-creating," but it also might be low-level and food-service. It might be folding shirts at the Gap, or driving a cab. In other words, the controversial-ish platitude about how college isn't for everyone doesn't amount to, 'but fear not, a glamorous life awaits the drop-out.' The alternatives to college are (as conservative critics of academia sometimes sniff) often enough 'noble' pursuits (the plumber is always a favorite), but there will be a tradeoff in status and (often if not always) income. Unless what you do instead of finish college is found Facebook. But someone already did that.

So that's one problem. Another is that "college" isn't just about the coursework, something I'd think is obvious, but that Ellsberg completely ignores: "[V]ery few start-ups get off the ground without a wide, vibrant network of advisers and mentors, potential customers and clients, quality vendors and valuable talent to employ. You don’t learn how to network crouched over a desk studying for multiple-choice exams. You learn it outside the classroom, talking to fellow human beings face-to-face." Fine. But who are you meeting "outside the classroom" at Harvard, as versus "outside the classroom" at a community college in your hometown? Who are you meeting "outside the classroom" if you're not attending any school whatsoever, but are working at your local Target?

The point of college - college as social-mobility-promotor, as future-employment-boost - has never been just about grades and scores. Grades and scores are what get you into college. But elite universities in the U.S. aren't like European ones where you just show up for class (or just show up for exams) and otherwise are not connected to any college "community." After getting through how most jobs are filled via connections and so forth, Ellsberg explains,

In this informal job market, the academic requirements listed in job ads tend to be highly negotiable, and far less important than real-world results and the enthusiasm of the personal referral. Classroom skills may put you at an advantage in the formal market, but in the informal market, street-smart skills and real-world networking are infinitely more important.
Fine. But college is where this networking first happens. And that's really, really important if you're trying to break into a career for which you have no family connections. If you do that networking in the first semester and drop out, and find that you're the next Zuckerberg, if you're the exception and you know it, great. But if you don't go to college in the first place? I saw the Facebook movie, and I have my doubts that there'd be Facebook if Zuckerberg had stopped his education at high school.

3 comments:

PG said...

The Facebook movie apparently was factually inaccurate in a lot of ways, basically ways in which Aaron Sorkin knows nothing about Young People Today. But yeah, the basic plot point that Zuckerberg started Facebook as an online version of Harvard's book of a class's names and photos, and that he sorta nicked the idea from some of his college classmates, seems to correspond with reality and indicates that there's be no Zuckerberg Facebook had he not gone to college (possibly even had he not gone to Harvard).

However, I think people in academia and the professions are bad people to ask about the importance of higher ed; it's simply impossible for us to do what we do without certain credentials. Even if you go outside the inventor class, there are a lot of areas in business, particularly sales, where college doesn't necessarily add much. There are successful high school dropouts, and not just the ones with music and pro ball careers, but folks who start in business very young.

Still, I think the people who can be successful without credentials already do stop their education at the point it ceases to add immediate value. The anti-Establishment Horatio Alger story still has enough credibility in American culture that dropping out of school to follow your dreams of X happens quite as much as it should be (probably more than it should in the cases of X being a career highly dependent on luck, such as that in entertainment, or X being "my boyfriend who moved across the country").

Phoebe said...

PG,

I don't think being in academia/a grad student disqualifies one from weighing in on this. If anything, having spent a lot of time around college students can drive home that some people go to college because their parents make them. I don't dispute that there are people who would be happier not in college, in jobs that don't require college. What I do dispute is that in most cases or even close, the result would be a job just as prestigious/well-paid as a college grad would get. If we don't see it as a tragedy that Junior has become a successful air-conditioner repairman, while his father's a lawyer, his mother a doctor, then there's no issue. The thing is, just because kids who show entrepreneurial zeal from a young age often don't need much higher ed, it doesn't follow that most kids who don't get much out of higher ed also exhibit this talent for business. Some do, most don't.

"Still, I think the people who can be successful without credentials already do stop their education at the point it ceases to add immediate value."

True. Thus the prominence of college dropouts, as vs. people who never went in the first place. Even just a semester or so of networking and learning informally from others at a school like Harvard or even not much like Harvard can be the necessary catalyst.

PG said...

If we don't see it as a tragedy that Junior has become a successful air-conditioner repairman, while his father's a lawyer, his mother a doctor, then there's no issue.

I think the original op-ed was not making the fairly standard argument that we ought to devote more resources to vo-tech and ju-co (the "not everyone's academic and it's just fine to be a plumber"), but a somewhat newer argument that the skills our economy needs for recovery are not learned through applying oneself to academics. In short, not that Joe is "not academic" and thus shouldn't be in college because he's not really very good at it, but that even if Joe has demonstrated ability to tick academic boxes, the devotion to academia may be blocking him from other pursuits that would be more job-creating.

What I do dispute is that in most cases or even close, the result would be a job just as prestigious/well-paid as a college grad would get.

Yeah, I don't feel as comfortable being certain that a college grad is generally going to get a better job in business than someone who spent that time learning business skills. From what I've seen in my own field, there's been a shift toward corporations wanting to hire more lawyers directly from law school, rather than outsourcing to law firms and only hiring people in-house who've had several years of general experience, because businesses want lawyers who know their specific company very well.

I'm uncertain of my own ability to gauge the importance of education to various business careers (sales in particular, which is what the op-ed holds up as central), because so many people I know are in jobs that genuinely require formal schooling (e.g. law, medicine, academia).

I do think this guy has a funny concept of what an MBA involves, since from what I could see of the folks next door to the law school, it involved a great deal of the socializing and networking that he says is so important. Some B-schools even offer non-credit etiquette classes, which the other professional schools don't. But there are B-schools that are particularly oriented toward entrepreneurship (e.g. Babson) -- I just don't know whether they're actually producing graduates who start companies at any higher rate than people with similar traits who don't get an MBA.