Without a Diploma, Does the Scarecrow Have a Brain?


by Shannon Hayes


 It was less than a week after I’d defended my Ph.D. dissertation when I sat down at my computer to complete Cornell University’s online graduate placement questionnaire. Supposedly, upon answering each of the multiple-choice questions about my interests, experiences and coursework, the computer program would match me with any number of potential employers specifically in search of a Cornell grad with my unique skills and talents.

After two hours of carefully considering each response, I clicked “submit.”

Three days later I received my one and only career possibility.

After receiving a Masters degree and Ph.D. from Cornell University with a 3.9 G.P.A., where I had specialized in sustainable agriculture and community development, I was singularly qualified to apply for a job writing scripts for the World Wide Wrestling Federation.

This was one of many moments when I deeply questioned the value of higher education.

This story has come to my mind often in the past few weeks, as I’ve had the opportunity to meet with students from four different colleges, both public and private, along the East Coast. These scholars have run the gamut from barely literate (incredible!) to brilliantly committed to finding ways to heal the earth and rebuild a sustainable economy.

While I enjoyed the opportunity to speak to a younger population about the concepts of sustainability, I found myself deeply worried about all of them. The United States Department of Education reports that the price for public university tuition rose 42 percent between 2001 and 2011, and private schools jumped 31 percent. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that 60 percent of college students are borrowing money each year to cover their tuition. I don’t think that figure includes the personal debts incurred by parents trying to help their kids pay these bills, or the drain on their savings that go toward college expenses.

This data sprung to mind this week when one student asked me how I would make education more sustainable. Naturally, I think we need to find ways to lower the costs. But as I pondered his question, I realized there was more to the problem. The prevalent axiom that typically sends kids to school is the notion that they’ll earn more money with a college degree than they will with just a high school diploma. I have two concerns about this claim:

1.  This assumes that students are accepting conventional employment upon leaving school. I happen to believe that if we are to rebuild a sustainable society, then we need more people to step outside the parameters of conventional employment and instead begin small businesses that operate within a life-serving economy, where everyone is able to earn a living wage, where ecological resources are sustained, where community life is vibrant, and where relationships are easily nurtured.

If a student craves employment in the global economy, where an employer will not consider them to be intelligent and competent without a college degree, then perhaps the diploma is worth buying. But while intelligence and an ability to learn are required to be in business for oneself, a diploma is not. Obviously, this argument doesn’t carry to those folks who require professional certifications in order to be in practice, such as architects, doctors, nurses, school teachers, etc. But there are a lot of livelihoods in which professional certification isn’t necessary. And while some advanced training or an apprenticeship will likely be needed in order to hang out a shingle, a college diploma may not be. And if a college diploma comes with a debt package, it may hamper the graduate’s freedom to choose self-employment. That scares me. The next generation cannot help us to unravel the extractive economy and re-build a life-serving alternative if they are too indebted to avoid ecologically and socially extractive employment.

2. If college students “earn more” than non-college graduates, that also suggests that there is a bias in our society against those who choose to opt out of school. Some of the most intelligent, articulate, skilled and learned people I’ve come across on my life path have been drop-outs.  If I could make one generalization about all of the high-achieving drop outs I’ve met, it is that they saw their education as their own responsibility, and they took it upon themselves to learn. Most of them described the prescriptive academic process of acquiring a formal degree as stifling. If we are going to make education more sustainable, then we need to challenge the cultural myth that intelligence is determined by a diploma. It seems our nation truly believes that the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz was without a brain until he was handed a diploma.

Education, in itself, is free for the taking, if one is willing to do the work. It can be found in libraries, online, through apprenticeships, from mentors, and through community and family relationships. College is a great choice for some, but it is just one of many options for acquiring an education. Just because a person has not paid for a diploma does not mean they are un-educated. As long as our society continues to buy into the myth that the diploma bestows brains, then we are agreeing to externalize and commodify both learning and intelligence, two divinely awarded gifts bestowed on every human being at birth.

This is not to say that I am not appreciative of my own years at college. They gave me a start in life that I didn’t know how to invent on my own. But I’ve often reflected upon that time, wondering if I could have walked the same path of writing, thinking, entrepreneurship and farming, had I not earned four degrees (five, if you count high school). I think of Ben Hewitt, an accomplished writer, thinker and farmer in Vermont, who also happens to be a high school drop-out, leading a life very similar to my own.  And I can’t help but conclude that, yes, if I’d had a bit more imagination, I probably could have found a way. Truth be told, I was an unhappy scholar, but I was afraid to challenge convention enough to try an alternative route to learning. I envy Ben’s early recognition of his ability to self-teach and find a creative path.

But of course, maybe he envies me, since I’m uniquely qualified to write scripts for the World Wide Wrestling Federation.

This piece is taken from Shannon Hayes’ newest book of essays, Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled…and other adventures from the radical homemaking frontier, due out in August 2014.  Hayes  is the author of six books, including the best seller, Radical Homemakers.  She works with three generations of her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York, home schools her two daughters, and maintains a weekly blog atwww.shannonhayes.org.


  1. Peter Bergson says:

    Of all of the aspects of this thoughtful article to which I might respond, the one that stands out the most in my mind is the fact that Cornell’s on-line placement process produced such limited results. I find myself swamped with a flood of questions, beginning with “Are you kidding?” and getting more exploratory from there. “Would you have gotten better results from an in-person meeting with a representative from the placement office, or is this really the extent of what they had to offer (in which case I am astounded)? Presumably at least some of the people in charge of compiling information for their graduates are also Cornell alumni; this pitiful offering suggests to me a lack of effort and/or imagination on the part of the placement office personnel, which in turn leads me to question the value of THEIR diplomas. (Most likely, they are revealing one of the key consequences of so much of traditional schooling, which is the atrophying of initiative, imagination and self-direction.)

    Another question that comes to mind is, “Is this a personnel problem or a systems problem?” For example, is the placement office not set up to gather news of opportunities in an active manner but rather simply waits for employers to send them notices of job openings? Of course, systems are created by people, so a faulty system is likely the result of the same lack of imagination and effort, only at the level of those who manage the system rather than those who work within it. Either way, Shannon’s point about the questionable value of a diploma is, I believe, exemplified by her placement office experience. I would be very interested to hear how its director would respond to her story.

  2. Peter Gray says:

    Great essay, Shannon. Thank you for posting it here. Now I want to read the rest of your book.

    From a purely financial point of view, one consideration not generally taken into account concerning the value or lack of value of a college education is this: What would happen if parents took the roughly $200,000 that they might spend on a four-year college education for their child and invested it in an index mutual fund. I just checked this out with an online savings calculator. If we make the very conservative assumption of a 5% average annual return, then in 22 years (when the child is 40), this will have grown to almost $600,000. If it were to be left alone to age 60, for use as retirement, it would have grown to over $1,500,000–a tidy retirement sum. By the less conservative but plausible assumption of an 8% average annual return, these numbers would be about $1,000,000 at age 40 and $5,000,000 at age 60. — So, if a family did that, is it really true that the overall financial assets of the average college graduate would exceed that of the non-college graduate?

    Another scenario might be that the money would be invested and allowed to sit there just until age 22 (the age of typical college graduation) and then the young person would, from then on, take the annual earnings out to add to his or her salary from work. By age 22, at the conservative 5% rate, the amount would be about $240,000. Five percent of that is $12,000, to be withdrawn annually. So, even with this strategy, the college graduate would have to earn $12,000 more per year than the non-graduate to do better financially. At 8%, the numbers would be about $270,000 and $21,000 per year.


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