My father went to college for one semester. It was a powerful experience and one he treasured. My mother had a similarly brief college career. Consequently, one of their life goals was to put all the kids through college.
This was a reasonable goal that required sacrifice. All four of us graduated, a fact Dad managed to insert into conversations often. Perhaps this effort was in part “economic signaling,” a way of demonstrating success similar to driving new equipment.
There were considerable benefits for us children. Instead of having children with fairly narrow career possibilities, my parents ended up with two teachers, an engineer and a doctor. For all of us, college was a life-shaping event and a boost to our earning power.
Rural Academia. When I returned to the farm, my background was not unusual. Many Baby Boomer farmers held degrees. Marketers, engineers, scientists, teachers and all forms of ag professionals surrounded me. College was relatively more affordable then. We managed on our own away from home, met people we would otherwise never encounter and exposed ourselves to ideas unfamiliar in rural culture.
At farm meetings, it was common to relive college days. The pattern of high school followed by ag college became common, though many of my peers chose to enter farming directly. Given the shorter generations at that time (people married and had babies much earlier than today), this apprenticeship approach often called for a protracted low-income period until the farm grew to support more families. Parents often sent sons to college to buy time and even enable an off-farm job until a joint operation became viable.
Education Shift. I haven’t found strong data to back this up, but I think this pattern has faded. One big reason is expense. Higher education has exceeded even health care in price increases. College expenses and looming student loan burdens present a serious drain on farm income.
Meanwhile, the utility of college for farmers is less clear. Technology is often bundled into products. Knowing why things work is less important than how to make them work. Multiple information channels such as Google and YouTube compete effectively to inform viewers. In practice, I haven’t seen many educational disadvantages that could not be readily overcome by non-college farmers. Moreover, truly useful training such as statistics and macroeconomics are seldom part of farmer curricula.
Many uneasy parents view college as a place that exposes children to people and ideas outside their values. Worse still, those children might get involved with the “wrong” people, such as a person from an opposing political party, which now polls worse than marrying outside your race. For our proudly conservative occupation, the broad-mindedness associated with higher education might be a bug, not a feature. Surprising new surveys show support for college dropping sharply among Republicans. Your child could return with a substance abuse problem or not come back at all. Urban America siphons off rural students, especially the best.
The notion of attending college as earning-power insurance is a cold calculation for many young people, and if it isn’t reinforced strongly, it is easy to forego. Higher education might not carry as much clout with landowners as family and professional connections. I’ve never been asked for a resume during my career.
Opting Out. If a child is “born to land,” the act of not sending him or her to college might be the economic signal of the coming decade. It could indicate to neighbors your family has enough resources to offset college benefits.
For those with ample resources, the perceived risks of college might outweigh the benefits. If real, this trend could deepen our sense of separation, intensifying the feelings that underlie many of our current cultural complaints.