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College is more than a job ticket

It’s become fashionable recently to second guess college. The ROI no longer works: it’s too expensive and doesn’t guarantee you a good job. It’s elitist and out of touch with reality. Student debt is predatory and out of control. Anyway, MOOCs’ unbundling model is the future of higher ed, so we might as well get on board, right?

That all may be true, but I think it’s too narrow. There’s a corollary to “you can’t optimize what you don’t measure”: measurement can give you tunnel vision. You can collect X University grads’ incomes, divide by tuition, and compare to College Y, but that doesn’t mean you can reduce either one to a simple financial investment you optimize to get the best salary.

College is an experience. It’s one of the most critical periods of your life: when you become an adult. You learn what to eat, what to drink, when to go to sleep and when to wake up. You manage your time (or not), juggle priorities (or not), make commitments and break them. You find substances, wonderful horrible tempting substances. You make friends and significant others, some more significant and some…um…less.

Most of us do this by making mistakes. No matter how mature we were already, every one of us slept through the History 101 final and flunked, or jumped into bed with someone we knew would break our heart, or woke up in a bush with no pants and the mother of all hangovers.

You can do this without college, of course, but the real world is harsh, and college has training wheels. Advisors, RAs, dorms, cafeterias, and built in health care make for a forgiving place to learn to “adult.” Drunk bicycling is a lot less dangerous than drunk driving. Classes are the perfect practice for jobs. Hated one? Failed the midterm? Start fresh next semester, older and wiser and still in the same dorm and meal plan.

Sadly, one big flaw with these safety nets is that they’re unequal. On campus housing, student advisors, and extracurricular activities all cost money. They may be standard at expensive top tier schools, but not at smaller state schools and community colleges. Maybe we should vote for Bernie next time.

I think a lot about how to prepare my daughter for the real world. I catch her if she’s about to fall off the bed, but I also show her the edge, let her look down, and say, “See? If you fall, it’ll hurt!” Sometimes I even let her fall a bit – not far, just enough to notice.

My college gave me the same kind of real world training wheels. The degree helped me get a job, sure, and the classical education made me a better person and citizen, but I treasure the safe space it gave me to grow. College is more than a financial investment. It’s a critical transition from childhood to adulthood. Don’t give that up.

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20 thoughts on “College is more than a job ticket

  1. Ryan,

    I’m sorry but this post sounds very privileged to me.

    The college experience you describe sounds lovely and I’ve no doubt any young adult would pick it modulo other concerns.

    The reason they don’t is because it isn’t the only concern: college (particularly the variant you describe) is extremely expensive. You are either putting yourself in really significant future debt, or worse, spending your parents’ savings.

    When college is one of the most significant costs for your entire family, it’s reasonable to step back and look at its value objectively. This is exact what millions of young adults are doing. And the answer they frequently come to is that although having a sheltered place to “learn to adult” sounds wonderful, it’s not worth the cost.

    I think it’s callous to disregard the unfortunate,?but rational economic choice of so many people with “College is an experience”. Of course it is. Travel is an experience. Having a working car is an experience. Gaining independence and the ability to help ones family sooner is an experience.

    Not everyone has the means to pursue every experience they would like to. Part of being adult is choosing how to best use limited resources.

    We should respect the difficult choice people who have skipped college have made. And rather than suggesting they should have chosen differently, we should ask how to give more young adults better options.

  2. Thanks for the feedback! All true. I acknowledged it in the post, but I definitely could have spent more time on it.

    I love that the current “college isn’t worth it” discussion is motivating a search for better options, as you mention, but those options usually focus on getting decent jobs. Learning to adult is rarely even mentioned.

    Historically only the privileged learned to adult in college, but communities were generally tighter knit and provided a safe space themselves. As people moved to cities over the last century or so, access to college also expanded and may have picked up some of the slack there.

    College does seem too top heavy and expensive now, and it may well be time for a transition. I’d love to see better options! I just hope they consider learning to adult as well as job prep and placement. I think it’s just as important.

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