Features | What’s to Gain from Higher Education?

Ed.’s Note: I dropped this over at Technorati last week.  Read, contemplate, comment. Article first published as What’s to Gain from Higher Education? on Technorati.

“Don’t believe everything your earlobe captures, it’s mostly backwards.”

As a longtime advocate of higher education, I’ve seen the model for achieving individual success change so drastically that today, I’d probably advise young people to consider other options before deciding to attend college.

From the lips of almost everyone around me as a teenager – parents, teachers, counselors – I was told that in order to get the lifestyle I wanted, attending college was a no-brainer.

It’s been 11 years since graduation. As much as it goes against what I believe, I’m beginning to think that Sonny was right: “The working man is a sucker.”

If I could choose again, I’d be an athlete or entertainer, most likely a rapper.

Why not?

The average salaries of college -educated working people hardly approach the money actors and ball players make in contracts and endorsements. Furthermore, these people are provided all the opportunities I thought getting a degree would allow me. Never mind the plush houses, expensive cars, and lavish vacations. Superficial things have never really turned me on.

I’m talking about real opportunities to make important moves in business and education. The golden ticket to convincing those above the glass ceiling to let you up is not how smart you are or how many degrees you have.

A proven track record is the key.

Folks with money and influence want to know what you have done before they decide to share the wealth. Contrary to what many of us were told, graduating from college is not the best indicator that an individual has what it takes to become successful.

Think about it. Those of us who have degrees, for the most part, wasn’t college easy? The hardest part was getting up to go to class. Once you figured out which professors to take and how to avoid that 8 a.m. lab, the rest was cake.

Going to college is the standard route. Most business pioneers tell stories of going the road less traveled and having to struggle a bit because they say it builds character.

Despite my education and work experience it’s still difficult to command top dollar or get chances to show what I can do.

If I want to teach high school, they’re going to ask me whether I have any advanced certification and do I meet “Highly Qualified” status.  In order to be a professor at a community college I need a Master’s degree.

That stings when I know that rapper Jim Jones taught a class in the New York City schools during 2010 and fellow artist Bun B. has his own course at Rice University.

Their degrees in street knowledge are obviously more attractive than my explorations of Milton, Shakespeare and Tolstoy.

Probably the greatest example of how this alternative education trumps higher Ed. is the man who’s song lyric inspired the opening line of this post, business mogul Shawn Carter, also known as the rapper Jay-Z.

Smart money says I will never own a minority share of an NBA team, never preside over a respected music label, and never give an address before the United Nations.

Jay-Z (a high school drop-out) has done all of these things.

My feelings around this shouldn’t be considered jealousy or “hating” but quite the opposite.

I applaud their success. Many pro athletes and entertainers came from worse places with not as much of a support system as I had as a kid. Their chances of becoming “somebody” were much lower than my own. In some cases, finding stardom in their respective field was the only way out of a life of poverty.

We’re in America where everybody loves the underdog. How much of a success story can a person really be if they didn’t have to overcome any obstacles?

There is also a culture of celebrity worship where even the CEO of a Fortune 500 company gets a little excited by calling a top entertainer a business partner.

That means a lot of people who came from middle class families and can’t sing or hit a home-run will have to make it the “hard” way.

To all members of the Class of 2011 about to graduate from high schools around the world, I say choose wisely when figuring out your next move.

Four years of study at a top university may leave you in debt and wishing that you’d started gaining work experience and building your resume at 18.

Trading in that microscope for a microphone could be the best decision you’ll ever make.

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