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Why I may not send my kids to college

Why is it that every time I make a contribution to my kids' 529 college-savings plan, the news seems jammed with embarrassing and disturbing stories from American college campuses?

Students on the campus of UCLA
Getty Images
Students on the campus of UCLA

This week alone, my personal news feed is dominated by the racist video incident at the University of Oklahoma, the frighteningly anti-Semitic "vetting" of a student government candidate at UCLA, students banning the American flag in one location at UC Irvine, and a missing female student who was last seen in the area where other women had been attacked at Cal State San Bernardino.

Oh who am I kidding? These kinds of negative stories from U.S. colleges come out every day. And the funny thing is, the second-most frequent type of story I see about college is how to save on the monstrous cost of tuition.

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As the parent of two girls who will be college age in the coming decade, I find that I now need to be sold again on the idea of a formal higher education before I agree to make the most costly purchase of my lifetime. And it's really not all about the money. Because I wholeheartedly embrace the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and the acquisition of marketable job skills. But I'm becoming less and less sure that a formal four-year college education is the best way to do it at any price.

Here at CNBC, I've had the opportunity to hire a few people over the past two-and-a-half years. All of the applicants had impressive higher educational backgrounds. But to be honest, if I ever met with an applicant who didn't go to college but had started or run a viable business or two, he or she would be my top choice on the spot.

And let me make it more personal. If one of my daughters wrote up a business plan for a sensible enterprise that required the use of her college money to use as seed capital, I really don't think I'd say no. And I say that as the son of a man who's been a full-time university professor for the last 26 years. But for even fuller disclosure, I have to say that college would be a lot less expensive if more professors were like my father, who, despite holding endowed professorships at two prestigious universities over his career, has always made it a point to actually teach classes. Among people at his level in academia, that's becoming a rarity.

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Of course, I realize that it's rare to find young people who have the skills and ambition to create or run a business without the benefit of a college education. But is it because people learn how to do those things in college, or those most likely to attend and graduate college are already made of the stuff that it takes to succeed? I mean, did Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg learn what they needed to become billionaires during their time at Harvard, or were they already well on their way to that kind of greatness before they decided to drop out?

Since most of us aren't Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, I do think the vast majority of Americans need the skills taught in colleges to succeed. So the new question is whether college is the only -- or best -- place to learn those skills? And can it be done for less than $40K per year and without all the on-campus nonsense?

That rhetorical question is not remotely anything new. Billionaire Peter Thiel has made questioning American higher education the basis of his Thiel Foundation, which offers encouragement to high-achieving students to drop out and pursue their dreams undisturbed by traditional campus life and cost. Thiel's favorite line is the quote from Mark Twain: "I never let schooling interfere with my education."

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Thiel's work is encouraging, but some of the more discouraging developments in recent years are the problems and scandals at some of America's leading for-profit colleges. These stories are unfortunate because the basic idea upon which those schools are based is too important to throw out. Americans of all ages need the option of vocationally-centric and less expensive colleges. We also need to remove the stigma some people attach to graduates of non-university higher-ed programs. By the way, did you know Albert Einstein graduated from a polytechnical school and not a university?

Beyond polytechnical schools, we need more schools that teach writing and communication skills beyond what is available now at most junior colleges. In short, the formal college model needs to be challenged by more free market competition. Tightening the requirements for government-backed student loans going to for-profit and traditional colleges would level that competitive market considerably. I'd start there.

But if you're just a parent like me without the power to change the nation's entire higher education landscape on your own, there are still some things we can do. I plan to make sure I spend a lot more time looking at my children and gauging their talents, skills and ambition and less time reading college rankings, SAT tutoring program brochures, and student-loan terms. If my kids really are most suited to the traditional college model, I'll move Heaven and Earth to help get them there. If not, I'll do the equivalent of forking over the roughly half a million bucks I expect to pay for college and spend the time and effort working with them to come up with a better alternative.

This is too important to just follow the herd.

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Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.