Are young people ‘bouncing around’ in college?

Thoughts on our public and private education systems

Several weeks ago, a group of protesters blocked Interstate 93 into Boston. It tied things up for hours. One of the news guys quoted a politician saying the economic disruption was $10.4 million. Then you consider hundreds, or even thousands, of commuters stuck – three, four, five hours late to work. The meetings missed, deals not done, it all adds up. The same is true for snowstorms. No doubt most of the missing folks are “telecommuting,” working from home, but how productive are they?

These weather-related cancellations and delays are just one more cost of doing business in New England. While mobile technology has helped on one hand, on the other hand expectations are so much higher. Some years the storms come on weekends and some years on Mondays – 2015 is definitely a Monday year!

Another regional cost is rising energy prices. Both electric and natural gas prices are rising. We are told there are no quick fixes here – that these are infrastructure issues that will take time to fix (new pipelines and transmission lines), so maybe five to 10 years, best case.

Looking back, the New England regional strategy has been that we were going to have thousands of “knowledge” workers who would command good salaries in the global economy. This is the case for some firms, but the Great Recession took the wind out of our regional sails. We have gained back the number of jobs lost since 2009, but the quality is weak (about 60 percent of the new jobs pay less than the old jobs).

Value of a bachelor’s

One perspective is that the economic hiccup of the Great Recession has allowed other countries around the globe, and other regions of the U.S., to catch up to us sooner than originally predicted. This begs the question about the competitiveness and effectiveness of our public (and private) education systems. My son and daughter are through college, and they are fully employed. But many of their friends are not. That is painful to watch.

When asked, I make the following comments.

I think most of our 18-year-olds are not ready to start college. They have no idea what they want to do. Thus the first year or two of college is a simple procrastination of adolescence and/or an academic drifting. They most likely are taking required “core” courses, hence all the current discussions on the core curriculum. The transition from high school to college seems less comfortable for many high school grads. I think this is a maturity issue. If they statistically are going to live to be 100, why the big hurry on the front end?

Second, the bachelor’s degree historically has provided impressive income benefit, but that may no longer be the case. Certainly, high schools boasting that 85 percent, 90 percent or 95 percent of their students are going on to two- and four-year colleges may be missing the boat.

The combination of these two things – the lack of maturity and focus coupled with the weak employment demand for most bachelor’s degrees – results in young people bouncing around for a bit, trying to get a foothold.

In a strong, healthy, growing economy, that is not all bad. But in a weak, tepid economy it is not good. There is a disconnect. Of course, not every high school grad should go to tech or trade schools. But some should, and many more than do now. More importantly, our young people need to be thinking about a career path sooner. The laissez-faire approach just doesn't cut it anymore. So starting on a career path at 18 may be a big part of the problem. Maybe we need two-, three- or four-year alternatives that allow young people to fully develop their frontal lobes before committing to a lifelong career or vocation.

Bill Norton, president of Norton Asset Management, is a Counselor of Real Estate (CRE) and a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (FRICS). He can be reached at

Categories: Real Estate