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I’m particularly thinking of the younger ones, who are still minimally employable and not terribly mature.
A lot of people are realizing that college isn’t a great deal for many (or most) people. But one of the reasons people send their kids to college is because they want them to have a pleasant post-adolescent/early-adulthood transitional experience. I’m not suggesting that colleges do a great job of providing this. Many people spend their college years wasting enormous amounts of time and money while eroding their moral character. Still, in broad terms, you can see how college seems like the right choice to many people. It offers some independence, but also some supervision; it has a natural starting and ending point; professors and counselors and friends will encourage students to spend their years there planning for some productive future to follow. And of course you get a degree (assuming you finish, that is).
One reason undergraduate education is hanging on despite its problems is because people don’t know where else to get those things. And I think it’s a legitimate question. The military is a great option for some, but not everyone is suited to it and the military doesn’t have space for every single 20-year-old anyway. Early marriage is another way to go (though newlyweds still need a livelihood), and I think it would be good if that were more socially acceptable. Realistically though, I don’t think we’re likely to see 21-year-olds racing to the altar anytime in the near future. It isn’t what they or their parents want. They want to feel more established and mature before marriage.
Part of the key to diminishing the influence of higher ed may be recognizing how much people want that type of transitional experience for their kids. They don’t want to get married right away, and they want their post-adolescent years to be challenging without being too punishing. Given that demand, is there another way to meet it that is less ruinously expensive and more productive? Could we turn vocational apprenticeships into more of a college-type experience? Create more service opportunities? Other ideas?