College degrees are the new high school diplomas?

Bill Gates, college dropout, founder of Microsoft and subsequent billionaire is now spending a ton of his time promoting the idea that every child in our nation needs and should get a 4 year college degree.   This is sort of the ultimate ‘do as I say, not as I do (or did)’ and over the past few months I’ve spent some time (not too much, but some) wondering about his motives.   It just seemed a weird kind of philanthropy for him, because how could he tell people he regretted not getting his degree?  Has it held him back?  Made him less successful?    Something about it felt off.

Then my Mom forwarded a link from an article in today’s Kokomo Tribune, out of Kokomo Indiana.   The title of the article is “Changing Market Changes Education Attitudes:  Parents seeing higher education is not optional.”     Kokomo is a decidedly working class town, and the article spends most of its’ time talking about the getting of good ‘jobs’, and how even in factory work, where a high school degree used to be enough to obtain a well-paying job, you now need a college degree.

While reading the article a kind of lightbulb went off in my head, and I now think I may understand what Bill Gates is doing.   Gates is the Carnegie of his time.   He built a huge company and massive wealth despite his lack of university degrees.   Andrew Carnegie did not even finish high school, but built a huge company and massive wealth.   And then he was instrumental in the development of compulsory education in this country.   Why?  Because he needed workers who had basic skills (the three R’s) to work in his factories.  He also needed people who were taught to follow the rules, respond to bells and whistles that would tell them when to take breaks, start their shift, etc., and who would not question authority.   Compulsory education was designed to do all of those things.   Our schools are built on a factory model because of men like Carnegie.  They didn’t want the masses to be entrepreneurs and self-made men like they were.  They wanted reliable workers.

Cut to Bill Gates championing 4 year college degrees for the masses.   Today’s workplace is slightly more advanced than it was 100 years ago.   There was an article in the Times a few weeks back that talked about how a 4 year degree gets you where a high school diploma used to – so if you want to get into the higher paying echelons, you need at least a Masters or a PhD.  (Or don’t go to school at all and be an entrepreneur, but I’ll get to that.)    Ok, so if a 4 year college degree today is roughly on par with a high school diploma in the past when it comes to employability in big companies like, say, Microsoft, it all starts to make a bit more sense.    Bill Gates isn’t promoting 4 year colleges because he’s looking for like-minded entrepreneurs and possible successors to his own genius and wealth – he’s looking to maintain a workforce.

Think about it.  If the 53 million or so kids currently in public & private schools all go on to get a 4 year degree with the ultimate goal of getting a good job, where will the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs type innovators come from?  Probably from among the dropouts (whether college or high school), the homeschoolers, the life learners or those who got a degree to please someone else but never really fit the mold and just squeaked by.

My kids already talk about working at a job (Maya mentions Starbucks and waittressing) only to gain experience and as a stepping stone to having their own businesses.   They don’t have any plans to spend their lives working for someone else.    Joshua never finished high school and he is without a doubt the business mind in the family, having built a very successful company from nothing.   Kids who aren’t trained in schools don’t look at jobs as the goal.  They want to be the people creating the jobs, not working in them.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with Bill Gates promoting 4 year degrees for all, except that no one is talking about the real ‘why’ behind it.   We do need technicians and laborers and hospital staffs, etc.  We need factory workers and office workers and field workers.   We need check-out clerks and store managers and salespeople.   Those are all valuable and worthy things to do.

It’s the deception that bothers me.

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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