Beyond PEAK COLLEGE: 1. The End of Education’s Single Narrative

When we reject the single story, when we realize that there was never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

If you’re an American teenager growing up in the early part of the 21st century, life is about to get very confusing, even if you don’t feel it just yet. You think you know how the next few years will unfold: you graduate from high school, go to college, get your first job or maybe a more advanced degree, and then work your way up in your chosen field. This is the path to success and the so-called American dream. Or so you’ve been told.

Just how widespread is this narrative? Near universal.

According to PISA’s global survey of 15-year-olds in dozens of countries, 90 percent of American teens expect to graduate and earn a post-secondary degree. Your expectations are surprisingly similar to those of teenagers in Korea — surprising because Korean students are significantly more accomplished academically.

Korea is 6th in PISA’s worldwide ranking of students’ scholastic performance whereas the US trails in 25th place. It makes sense that South Korea leads the world in post-secondary education attainment, with 70 percent of Korean teens earning a degree. But in the U.S., less than half will. And if by “college,” you mean a bachelor’s degree, then only 40 percent of American teens today will reach that milestone. That’s a lot less than 90.

Don’t misread these numbers to mean American kids have high expectations. This kind of misalignment — or over-confidence — isn’t good for anyone.

It doesn’t help when students plan their life around college but don’t go or don’t finish.

It doesn’t help if you are not equipped for college, financially or academically, but don’t realize it.

And it doesn’t help when students choose college by default without ever considering other options.

Your expectations should be more in line with reality and your true aspirations. This doesn’t mean you should aim low. High expectations still matter. They just need to be the right ones.

Most importantly, your expectations should be in line with where the world is headed. A few current trends, which we’ll get to, should shake your confidence that college is in your future.

What’s being tested in the 21st century is nothing less than the dominant narrative of education — that college is where we want most if not all students to end up, that a bachelor’s degree is necessary for success.

Looking at some likely changes in the coming years, we’ll need to re-examine the story of education we have planted in the minds of 15-year-olds. Should we — and should they — be asking “college or no college?” Or are there better questions at this time to ask high school students to guide them to adulthood? (Answer: Yes. Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

When I look at the interesting jobs I’ve had as a CNN reporter, documentary filmmaker, social entrepreneur, and grantmaker, I’d like to think that I planned my education well, starting in high school. But in all honesty, I mostly just followed the herd.

Back in the 1980s when I went to high school, only one in five American students earned a bachelor’s degree. Yet, I too assumed that a university education would be the logical next step. As well as everyone else’s. Looking back now, I’m both amused and astounded that I never entertained any other options.

Having parents who both had graduated from university had a lot to do with it. And being on the honors track also grouped me with other college-going peers. But American culture at large also reinforced the college-going narrative. In fact, it had done so ever since the 1940s.

When service men and women returned from World War 2, the country wrestled with how to reintegrate them into a new but uncertain peacetime economy. Congress passed the G.I. Bill, formally known as Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, to reward all veterans with generous benefits. It would eventually send more than two million of them to college. By 1947, veterans accounted for half of all college enrollment.

A college education was no longer just for the elites. It started to be seen as a rite of passage for American teens, a stepping stone to adulthood, as well as a path out of poverty and into the middle class.

With each passing year, college wedged itself more deeply in the American psyche. It became the winning narrative — the ONE story that reframed all of education. High schools that used to emphasize “skills for life” soon fell in line. They started to focus on a new goal: get you into college. Everything else took a back seat.

As more students headed for college, elite schools became more competitive, pressuring high schools to focus more on college prep, which then raised the bar for admissions. This arms race is ever escalating, not just for institutions but for students. Your job, simply put, is to outrank others who are trying to outrank you.

Where does this arms race lead us? Just look at the life of a typical teenager in Taiwan or South Korea today. Not only do they go to school all day, they also go to cram school at night for additional supplemental learning. Their entire adolescence is school.

Things were not so bad in Taiwan in the 1980s. Cram schools were not commonplace. But it was bad enough that my parents knew they had to send me to study in the U.S. at the age of twelve, and live away from them. Countless other Taiwanese families did the same if they had the means, choosing family separation over Taiwan’s education system. American schools were just more humane, we thought, and they were good enough for the land of opportunity.

Over the next few decades, though, American high schools have only become more intense. Students are now subjected to more testing and elite colleges have only become more competitive. Not only is going to college the default path endorsed by schools, you also start to believe you have to go to one of the highly selective schools. That’s where a college education really seems to count.

These days, more and more parents are paying for tutors, test prep, and a plethora of enrichment programs in order to give their children the edge so they can impress ever more discerning college admissions officers. Looking at the plummeting admission rates of places like Harvard, they feel they have no choice.

Some parents take it to the extreme. The infamous “Tiger Mom” Amy Chau shared her parenting style in her somewhat tongue-in-cheek book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. For Chau, getting her kids into elite schools meant exerting total control over their time, including weekends and holidays. She says unapologetically:

“The only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal ; and… that medal must be gold.”

Her tyrannical style may border on child abuse but Chau reminds us that tiger parents are more common than you think, and they span many races and ethnicities. They know (or at least believe) too much is at stake.

The competition has become so intense that some parents even resort to bribery and fraud to get their children into top schools. In 2019, dozens of parents were charged with paying more than $25 million to fake their children’s athletic achievements or to inflate their test scores. None of them needed to go to such extremes. Some are Hollywood celebrities, wealthy enough that their children probably don’t have to work a day in their life. But elite schools in America have become a status symbol.

We shouldn’t give parental pressure too much credit though for making college attainment the most important narrative in education. Employers have made college degrees a requirement even when jobs don’t warrant them. Many schools got rid of shop class to focus on preparing kids for the so-called knowledge economy. Politicians and philanthropists have joined forces to make college entrance the single most important success metric for high schools.

Hollywood, too, deserves credit for selling the college dream. Interestingly, it’s not concerned about the academics or what goes on inside the classrooms. Its focus is on the larger college campus — the perfect setting for comedies, romances, or whatever high-concept films studios want to make for younger audiences. Colleges have sex-crazed teenagers, fraternities and sororities, and young people trying on their newfound independence. What more could script writers ask for? As far back as Animal House, films and TV shows have portrayed college life as a uniquely American institution, a rite of passage that everyone should experience as part of growing up.

No film spoke to the social importance of college more directly than the 2006 film, Accepted. It features a group of college rejects who ended up creating their own fake college so that they can have some place to go. Many of them would clearly be out of place at a real college. They don’t believe in classes, teachers, or grades. Yet they still need the trappings of college life. What they crave, ultimately, is social belonging rather than academic learning. And they’ll do what it takes to get it, even if it’s from a fake college. The film challenges the American mythology of college but reinforces it at the same time. It would rather celebrate a fake college experience than deviate from it completely.

When so much of American society is aligned around a common myth, it’s no wonder 9 in 10 teens see college as their likely or only path. Until reality sets in, of course.

Are we right to assume that college, by which most Americans understand to be a bachelor’s degree, will become the norm — not just in expectation but in reality? Will college become ever more popular?

I’m betting the answer is no. For starters, the U.S. population has essentially stopped growing. In 2020, the population increased just 0.35 percent, the lowest growth rate since 1900. It wasn’t because of the pandemic. The past decade also saw the smallest growth rate of any 10 year period in American history.

This is partly why college enrollment in total numbers has been declining since 2010 and has been projected to further stagnate if not decline in the coming decade.

Looking back, we may have already hit “peak college” in 2010. We may never see as many college students at any one time, unless significant changes occur (i.e., free tuition, much higher levels of immigration, etc.).

But “peak college” may still mean a greater percentage of teenagers earning a degree.

According to one research by Pew, 57 percent of Gen Z’ers over 18 are enrolled in college. That’s more than previous generations. How many will actually earn a degree? If historic trends hold, then only around 40 percent of Gen Z’ers will earn a bachelor’s, a rate that creeps up only half a percentage point every year.

The slow but steady increase may continue but a few worrisome trends might reverse the climb.

1) Cost

Americans spend more on higher education than almost all other nations. A bachelor’s degree costs, in total, anywhere between $100,000 to $200,000. That’s assuming you graduate in four years, which only 40 percent of students do. The actual cost may be lower depending on your financial aid.

While you can expect to make, on average, up to 73% more per year compared to someone with only a high school degree, the return on your investment is around 12 percent after you account for everything you pay and borrow — even less if you spend more than four years earning your degree or if your chosen field isn’t so lucrative. It matters what you study and for how long.

For those of you graduating in the bottom 25 percent of degree earners, your income will not be any higher than that of a typical high school graduate. You’ll just have more debt.

As costs go up, it only makes sense for students to think carefully about whether college is a good investment. Fewer teens and their families will assume any bachelor’s degree is better than none. More will see it as an investment, not a rite of passage. Your families will seek granular data, which are becoming more readily available, to evaluate which schools and which programs at those schools deliver the best returns.

According to one such analysis, there are 3,700 college programs that are not worth the investment and 7,000 more that are questionable, meaning you are unlikely to make enough to repay the typical amount borrowed to pay for them. If your intended major and school might land you at one of those programs, you are going to consider other options, including non-college ones.

2) Competition

Cost alone won’t steer people away from college. Students will also need to see better alternatives. Some have long existed in the form of trade schools and apprenticeships and they will get more attention, as they should. In almost all other countries, “vocational training” figures prominently in education and often start during secondary school, not after.

In fact, in one third of countries surveyed by PISA, you are more likely to be employed through vocational training than by earning a college degree.

And it’s not just “blue collar” workers who seek alternatives. Many white collar industries are also creating shorter pathways to high-paying jobs that bypass a college education.

As I’m writing this, Google and Coursera just launched a program to teach and certify professionals aspiring to work in IT support, data analytics, project management, UX design and Android development. Within a few months rather than years and at a fraction of the cost, you can earn a credential that Google and other tech companies will recognize instead of (rather than on top of) a bachelor’s degree. (It took me just ten hours a week over six weeks and $39 to earn the project management certificate.)

There are countless bootcamps as well that offer fast-track training for software engineers and other high-paying and in-demand tech jobs. The best known of them is General Assembly, which now boasts more than 30 campuses and 19,000 hiring partners around the world. They know the value they offer is not just the learning but close-knit ties to industry. Who you know matters, even in the new economy.

In coming years, more alternatives will emerge and steer students away from college. They will offer shorter and cheaper pathways, even for those students who don’t know what career to pursue. Many will “guarantee” their education using income share agreements or other pay-back plans. Most will live or die on one promise: that they can better prepare students for the new economy. That simple promise will force traditional colleges to do the same.

3) Relevance

The world is changing in fundamental ways. Schools, especially universities, have not. This unfortunate fact is obvious to everyone. In the internet age, colleges don’t have a monopoly on knowledge. You can find much of the same information online, if you want to.

It’s no longer good enough to memorize facts and regurgitate them through multiple choice quizzes.

What’s becoming more valuable is new interdisciplinary knowledge — and the skills to acquire it, make sense of it, and act on it. These skills are what employers need to help them survive and take advantage of disruptions — automation, artificial intelligence, biotech — that are transforming every company and industry.

Unlike theoretical knowledge, skills are best learned through doing. This is why many new alternative-to-college programs teach professional skills through real world projects. Some even integrate internships and work experience as core components of their curricula. It’s the only way, as the one-year career launch program Praxis argues, to learn “in context” and to develop the network you need to succeed.

Other programs do away with teachers entirely and emphasize self-directed learning as a superpower. Students at the coding bootcamp, 42, teach themselves computer programming by completing projects on their own and with peers, without relying on instruction from teachers. What they prove to future employers is not just their coding chops but their ability to teach themselves to code.

Compared to this kind of hands-on, real-world, self-directed just-in-time learning, a standard college education is starting to look outdated. This is why tech companies like Google, Apple, and IBM are no longer requiring employees to have a bachelor’s degree. If the leading tech companies are open to new and shorter pathways, so will many of today’s students.

Could the many challenges to American colleges and universities — cost, competition, relevance — mean their best days are behind them? Have they peaked? It all depends on how well they respond and adapt. But the trends are pointing to fewer colleges and fewer college students.

The Harvard business school professor Clayton Christensen famously predicted, long before the COVID pandemic, that half of all American colleges and universities will close in this decade.

Whatever happens to them, what’s important for you, the generation in school today, is that you get the learning you need to thrive in a world undergoing profound transformations. That learning can come in many forms. It doesn’t have to fit neatly into the two-year or four-year boxes of today’s colleges.

If colleges continue to serve only a minority of students, despite being the dominant education narrative for over half a century, it’s also time for the narrative to change. We shouldn’t have 90 percent of teens plan their life around college when no more than 50 percent will successfully walk that path. What we need instead are new narratives that will inspire all teenagers to learn and strive, with or without college. High schools need to re-examine their mission as well and be able to measure success, independent of how many graduates go to college. They will need a new story to tell.

New stories will involve new questions that we ask 15-year-olds. How are you exploring different career pathways, even as a high school student? How are you finding out what types of work match your strengths? If you don’t go to college, what would you be excited to do after high school? How are you preparing yourself for jobs that don’t yet exist? Also, what are you teaching yourself in your free time?

Changing narratives is hard. New narratives take time to emerge. Enlightened governments may try to hand them down from on high. Singapore, for example, is reframing all of education away from credentials and towards skills, encouraging students to focus on acquiring future skills rather than degrees.

Will Singapore’s Skills Future campaign work? Will it end the obsession with credentialism? Bold as it is, narratives belong to the domain of culture, not policy, though policies can help. It will take storytellers, not policymakers, to unshackle us from the singular narrative, which can never serve a diversity of learners.

It will take you, the students in school today, to experiment with different approaches to learning and to come up with the new stories that truly speak to all of you.

They should inspire you to learn, to strive, and to contibute, no matter what institutions you pass through.

And they should help future 15-year-olds understand what, how and why they love to learn, not just whether or not they will go to college.

Part 2 offers a radical new way to look at learning in times of disruptive change. Part 3 explores some new pathways that are starting to compete with college. Part 4 looks at what it means if you choose to “chart your own path.”

Charles Tsai is a venture philanthropy strategist who works with innovators around the world to empower youth in underserved communities.