The raging debate on whether college is worth it questions the viability of a college education in 2020. A precarious question to raise seeing that barely a year ago I left my family, Kenyan food and a job in radio to pursue a degree.
Is college still worth it?
I can neither afford this question nor have an answer. How else could I have gotten here?
My mother is a mathematics head. Her sister looks at graphs and decides what investments make sense. Their bigger brother is a tech wiz who made money in the ’90s. The younger brother is good with his hands and has made furniture for some pretty neat properties in Nairobi. The last-born has hit a few snags but she runs a business while employed and raises an amazing young man.
The siblings did this because they went to high school and some of them went to college. Being working-class citizens allowed them to give their kids a shot in life whose required pass is getting an education. My mother was shot of selling her kidneys to finance a private college education. I worked at her salon when I was not in school to keep the payroll low.
I do not remember my mother buying anything for herself in the three and a half years of my undergraduate program. She delayed building a house to take a chance at my dreams of making TV. A risk many criticized and scorned her for.
If there is one thing about my hood is that word travels fast.
One particular comment that has stuck with me came from a concerned friend. She told my mother that chancing loan after loan for me to be in the media might be futile because media is a reserve for the elite. A statement that has some backing but outliers have managed their way into the system through hard work to achieve success albeit gradually.
My school had people from all economic classes in Kenya. It is also where I understood that majority of internship and post-graduate opportunities were shared in conversations by people who knew people. One such conversation gave me a shot at a closed interview.
Three days after finishing my coursework I was at KTN’s office interviewing for a job as an entertainment reporter. I only got to know about the opportunity because a classmate worked there and was soon transitioning to the NGO world.
Going to a well-branded school makes the conversation easier with recruiters, which is half the battle. The worth of your money, beyond smaller intimate classes, is in the networks you make while in school. From one of my classes came an Ivy League graduate award-winning international journalist, a few more work at the BBC, others are top news anchors in Kenya and the list goes on.
In the June 15th episode of the Patriot Act, comedian Hasan Minhaj asks the question, is college still worth it? A more pertinent question is for whom is college worth it?
College is built like society. It serves different purposes for everybody. In this investigative piece, BBC Media Editor Amol Rajan explores why middle-class kids get the best jobs across industries in the UK. College is a swipe card to access the general arena of life where you soon discover it is a game of chess moving forward.
For a working-class family, college is a golden ticket at an attempt to make a better life for themselves and those behind them. Black tax. The elite has college as a rite of passage where there are choices for the best the dollar has to offer. When can barely get by, college is a piped dream that you will fight with your life to get. Sometimes you get it and even then you have to worry about after tuition costs.
College could also be the difference between the other siblings going to school and a repetitive cycle of poverty. It is an attempt to join the club so that your children can have the choice of whether to go to college or not.
The dismissal of college by Elon Musk is founded on a genuine belief that we do not need college and ‘can learn anything you want for free’. However, it bypasses the fact that the world created education systems to sift through the throngs of people in the world and pair skills with opportunities to keep the capitalism wheels running.
Musk dropped out of his PhD program at Stanford University two days into school and went on to build an empire. Much of that is credited to his talent but there is something to be said about school as a breeding ground for discovery. Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college but he was at Havard University.
Can we talk about the risk bandwith extended by coming from well to do backgrounds? The two billionaires Musk and Zuckerberg attended great schools and their parents tapped into their talents early enough lining them up for success.
It was common knowledge in my school that there were people who came to class to earn a degree and then work at their parent’s company. Some people got jobs after phone calls were made. Having a fall back plan of stability allows you to take more risks and subsequently increase your chances of success. It also gives you the luxury to opt-out of college or attend one for the sake of it.
When you do not have back up plan you hold on to your degree and hope the coin toss gives you head. You get a master’s degree to increase your possibilities of a promotion which you hope will translate into higher and improved quality of life for you and your family. A PhD promises career security so you pore over books and piles of research while imparting your knowledge to starry-eyed undergraduates.
It is elating to see the technology challenge the meaning of a degree. Zoom classes providing previously denied access. Heck, I am running an online writing masterclass at the moment of writing this piece. But let us not rush to toss out college before we come up with other skills measure tests.
If education is your lifeline, make the best out of college. Connect with like-minded colleagues. Work your alumni network with questions on the industry. Learn the game.
I wish someone taught me the game seven years ago. On a positive note, life almost always gives us more chances. Regardless of your school ranking, the internet gives a sliver of access. Utilize it. Keep working on your skills and create work that makes reaching out to people easier.
Think of this, if college is not worth it, how comes your best politicians’ children attend the group of schools? Could it be that quality education is a reserve for a few until technology amplifies talent that would otherwise need 16 years of school to be validated and suddenly who needs college? Are STEM degrees part of what we question or do those remain untouchables?
College is a business that has riddled my generation with debt and miserable reports about how we will do worse than our parents. The same parents who barely survived their time. Let us get rid of college, not because we have found another way to build skills and talent but because the business model is not working as anticipated.
Dr Wandia Njoya has an elaborate video on the business of education and provides articles in the video’s description as proof that the elite creates its club in education and end up running the world. Literally.
A piece on Britain’s Boarding School Problem where a list of Britain politicians attended school and a personal testament on the disadvantages of an elite education. On the question of whether to abolish private education, check this video out.
As we have the conversation on the value of a college degree, may we recognize the privilege of that question. It is a push to change the rules halfway into the game while some do not even know where the stadium is located. Those who make it into the club are all scrambling to get for the skybox that was made for a selected few who count on you amicably staying in your place.
Don’t. Education is not the problem. The rain started beating us when we commodified knowledge.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” ―