What Obama Should Have Told The Kids Today

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Good morning. I’m glad you all could join us today.

Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. But here’s the trick: you won’t necessarily find that in the standard path of grade school to high school to college. For many of you, the opportunities classroom education can provide are very limited and likely to become even more so.

Those of you with average intelligence will find that high school is about as far as your academic talents will take you. Likewise those of you with a disposition that makes sitting in classrooms intolerable won’t gain much out of “staying in school.” This is nothing for you to be ashamed of—and no one should pressure you to accept the fate of failing in classes where you really shouldn’t be in the first place.

For most of you, college is an expensive waste of time. At some of our elite schools, you would form connections that are invaluable. It’s one of the things our elite colleges do best—putting the highly intelligent in the same place as the well-off and well-connected.  Going to these schools serves as heuristic for employers—your admission to the school is short hand for intelligence and diligence.

But this kind of education—the standard college education—is really only suitable for somewhere around 15% of the population. Unfortunately, we now send a much higher proportion of our students to college, which amounts to a terrific economic waste.

Much of this waste—let’s call it the college education bubble—is due to distorted economics, bad government policy and misplaced social pressures. Government subsidized loans have made college attainable for many—but the ultimate debt burden can be untenable for many. The economic rewards of attending college can make it attractive—but most of those are concentrated in the extremely smart and capable. Perhaps most damaging of all, we have a create a culture of collegiate achievement that discourages you from pursuing your education and careers in ways best suited to your abilities.

There’s a serious danger that the college education bubble may burst. As more and more people get college degrees, which inevitably have to become easier to get in order to increase the amount of graduates beyond its realistic levels, the market will eventually figure out that the degree doesn’t mean what it used to. It will become less useful as a heuristic for intelligence and achievement. And college graduates will find themselves with an asset—a degree—whose value is dropping while their debt remains high.

It’s all a little reminiscent of the housing bubble. Cheap loans, rising home price, the idea of the homeownership society, and mounting debt. Except this time it is cheap loans, rising tuitions, the idea of an educated society and mounting debt.

Those of you who aren’t tempermentally or intellectually suited to college should not despair. You are smart enough to engage in any of hundreds of occupations. You can acquire more knowledge if it is presented in a format commensurate with your intellectual skills. But a genuine college education in the arts and sciences begins where your skills leave off.

Here’s how you can benefit from the coming bursting of the bubble of college education. Avoid taking on too much debt. Attend a trade school, a vocational school. We have created a dearth of craftsmen in America—we need more skilled carpenters, painters, electricians, plumbers, glaziers, masons and auto-mechanics. These will be highly in demand.

And as we upgrade our society in the direction of renewable energy and rail transport, there will be plenty of jobs building windmills, installing solar panels, laying high speed rail. These are jobs for trained craftsmen and hard workers–but not necessarily college graduates.

These are jobs that cannot be outsourced to China or India. If we sensibly restrict the competition from cheap immigration, they will remain steady occupational choices for a huge number of our citizens. Master craftsmen can earn six figures. Even journeymen craftsmen routinely make incomes in the top half of the income distribution.

Our technological revolution is quickly making degrees irrelevant for many of even the top jobs. Bill Gates didn’t graduate from college. Tumblr founder David Karp dropped out of high school. So did blip.tv founder Mike Hudack. Dropping out of the standard school curriculum is not a dead end if it leads you toward a trade where you can earn a living and be proud of your achievements.

This trend is likely to continue. Employers are increasingly demanding actual evidence you are good at something. They are less dependent on the heuristic of a college degree. More and more, people are being judged by skills rather than depress. Inevitably, the social cache that goes along with college will catch up with this economic reality—the false premium attached to a college degree will diminish.

So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. Choose the type of education and the amount of education that is right for you. Don’t simply conform and go to college. I know you can do it.

Thank you. God bless you, and God bless America.

(For more, see: College Is A Waste Of Time And Money and What’s Wrong With Vocational School?)

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