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College or No? Stuck Between Present Realities and Future Promises

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By Holly Korbey

Higher education options are changing for all students -- not only for gutsy school reformers and tech enthusiasts dropping out with hopes to become the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. As MOOCs proliferate and college costs keep rising, more young reformers and “edupreneurs” are looking for a way around a four-year degree, some opting for a gap year to work on personal passions they hope will take off, and some looking for meaningful work experience in the world’s classroom.

They're not alone. In fact, they might even be the majority. According to a panel of higher education experts, only 27% of today's college students have a "traditional" four-year college experience away from home. The rest work toward a degree in pieces while living their lives - holding down jobs, having families, and taking care of other responsibilities.

But while economists and entrepreneurs debate who's right for college, and we question the value of a college degree, young school reformers who are trying to figure out what's on everybody's mind: Can dropping out or putting off college advance their budding careers in reforming the system, or will the lack of a college degree put them at a disadvantage?

Nineteen-year-old Zak Malamed, a freshman at University of Maryland College Park majoring in government and politics, is looking for ways out of the four-year degree track to spend more time on his growing school-reform organization, Student Voice. He’s been considering a break, like the Gap Year Program offered by UnCollege, an organized year off that includes international travel, internship, and instruction in “building your personal brand.” The hands-on learning available in the Gap Year, Malamed says, would be helpful to him in building his organization. And he believes the program plays to his strengths.


“In high school, I really felt like I learned more outside of the classroom. I was more of an experiential learner. I loved student government most because I learned how to work with people,” he said.

While guidance counselors report that the gap-year trend is on the rise, the logistics for Malamed are mostly financial - UnCollege’s program costs $12,000 for the year, and Malamed made it clear that for a gap year program to work for him, he would have to be paid, not pay. And while Malamed’s not exactly sure a degree will help him with his goals, it couldn’t hurt.

“I really don’t like the way school works. I believe that, as it stands now, I could learn more outside college than in. But, I have to take the opportunities given to me. If I can’t support myself financially with work that I’m passionate about, then I’ll stay and get my degree.” In the interim, Malamed has promised his parents that he will finish, even if he takes a gap year (or two) to grow Student Voice.


For 20-year-old Mpaza Kapembwa, a Gates scholar and sophomore at Williams College, there's only one way to become a formidable school reformer: get a college degree. College was one of the top reasons Kapembwa’s mother moved him and his sister from Zambia to the U.S. six years ago.

The first years of American life were a struggle, and for a period of time they were essentially homeless, while Kapembwa continued to earn the highest grades and found his passion in American education reform. He believes that for many living at or near the poverty line, a four-year degree is still the best and most reliable way to move into the middle class.

If a major education think tank or policy group wanted to tap his talent early, would he leave college -- even for a year? No way.

“A college degree gives you legitimacy in a way," he said. "If you hear people tell us we don’t need to go to college, they have college degrees and I bet their children will also have college degrees. I don’t get their logic.”

[RELATED: For the Future Student, Higher Education Will Be Redefined]

Kapembwa feels that, for him, dropping out -- even for a good job -- poses a serious risk. “Very few people who are movers and shakers don’t have college degrees. If you are a low income student, living in or just above poverty, forgoing college to pursue something might be disastrous because you have no safety net in case you fail.”

He also believes that, in order to be an effective school reformer, teaching inside a classroom is a must -- and that requires a four-year degree (at least). “I don’t take people who want to talk about education seriously if they have never been in a classroom, or don’t plan to.”


While ambitious college students search for alternatives to four-year degrees, school reform efforts have fostered a group of startups attempting to help younger students navigate a changing landscape of growing choices. The Future Project, founded by two Yale grads, is one such startup: Chief Dream Director Sallomé Hralima, a Weslyan grad and former educator, is in charge of hiring and training young people just like Malamed or Mpaza for Dream Director positions inside of high schools. She describes the salaried Dream Director job as “part human catalyst and part social entrepreneur,” and says the job requires the ability to help kids recognize, organize, and implement their passions.

Hralima, a former “straight-A student” who didn’t feel challenged in school, feels that for many kids, college should be Plan B. “So many people have been indoctrinated into the belief that college is access to the life that they dream of. And for so many people it has resulted in lifelong debt. We live in a time where arguably our most influential people either didn’t go to college at all, or they dropped out. The kids are looking to these icons and saying, uh-huh, they have the life I want and they didn’t go to college.” Hralima herself is $45,000 in education debt.

Would The Future Project hire young Zak Malamed or Mpaza Kapembwa to be Dream Directors, even though they don’t currently have college degrees? Hralima hesitates, then says, yes, probably. “On the application, under educational qualifications, it says, ‘undergraduate degree preferred, but not required.’”

[RELATED: Should Work Experience Come Before College?]

For these ambitious student school reformers, conforming to what they consider an ailing system and getting a degree continues to be the most promising choice. Zak Malamed’s upcoming Student Voice Live! conference will be sponsored and hosted by Dell Computers, making the gap year option look more promising. Mpaza Kapembwa is currently on a Williams-led trip to Uganda, designing technology and curriculum for an HIV-awareness initiative.


Whether a well-paying job and career opportunity is available for school reformers without college degrees, even as “college” morphs and changes, is still questionable. For now, each appears to be forging their own path.

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