Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The College Question

My view on attending college has radically shifted in the last year. I once subscribed to the dogma that college was an unofficial requirement for anyone who wanted to amount to anything in this world--that college was the only way to get a good job and live comfortably--that it was worth any sacrifice you would have to make to get through college because college is the only way to become a better (read "educated") person and that you should never give up. I now subscribe to the battle-tested school of thought that college has lost its way in life and is a worthwhile investment only in appropriate circumstances.

First, let's consider the cost. I'm not one of those people who likes to go researching statistics just to prove myself to skeptics, but we all know that the cost of college tuition is rising. It's been in the news as a steady trend for years. Why is it rising? How could it possibly cost so much to transfer knowledge? The answer is that it doesn't cost anything at all to transfer knowledge. What costs money is huge campuses, huge buildings, huge staffs with huge salaries, and huge marketing efforts. Online schools are even more ridiculous--even without the campuses and the buildings! So to get through school you have to be on welfare (which, as a process coupled with the process of obtaining an education, is rather the antithesis of attending college in the first place, isn't it?), be rich (in which case you probably would feel you could do without the degree), get a lot of scholarships, join the military, or slave your way through school as a poor full time student with a part time job and no life. In the majority of cases today, students wind up thousands of dollars in debt, which takes them sometimes ten or more years to pay off. Using what you learned in your basic economics class, think of the opportunity cost of ten years in the work force spent repaying debts versus building wealth and working at something you enjoy! If someone is going to school just to get a degree and get a "good job", it is counterproductive to earn a degree instead of joining the work force immediately.

Second, college has lost its way in life. By that I mean that in my experience, and in the experience of many of my friends who have attended college, earning a degree requires far too much non-academic effort. I'm talking a little bit about paperwork, counseling requirements, etc, but mostly about these strange appendages to academic work that seem to have attached themselves to real academic work. This instructor wants papers formatted in her own special way despite what the handbook says and didn't bother to tell anyone until after the paper came back a B+. That instructor won't take assignments late even though there was a server outage that was the university's fault. The point of attending college is to obtain knowledge and skills to improve character and ability. That really only requires reading and personal experience. However, because a college degree is a certificate that shows the world what you have done, you have to be able to prove to others that you have gained the knowledge and skills. That's why we turn in assignments. Assignments should fit the criteria given by the instructor, yes, but far too often students get caught up in a dog and pony show trying to figure out exactly what little bells and whistles make the instructor's little ego soar or some other college official.

Third, let's examine intent. I would say most students pick a major because they have to or because they believe that training will make them a lot of money--not because they really want to study that major. In this way, students end up spending a lot of time, money, and effort chasing a certificate for something they didn't really want in the first place. I believe that a college degree in this day and age would really be worthwhile if you wanted to study that major because you are passionate about it or wanted to have a career based on the training you would receive. But without such a good reason, it is absolutely batty to go to such great lengths and incur such great expenses to earn a degree just because your parents told you to.

I'm not saying that if you are not passionate about any subject in which universities offer degrees you should throw in the towel knowing you will be a gas station attendant the rest of your life. Well, first, let me clarify that I AM a gas station attendant, and the company I work for is a Fortune 100 Best, so I can think of worse places to be in life. Second, being a gas station attendant or a cashier in a grocery store or quick-serve restaurant is good work. Some people are really cut out for that, and it's work that allows a person to be social, serve others, and often, remain physically fit. What I am saying is that if you don't REALLY want to be what you're studying to become, is it really worth the cost? What would be worth that cost to you? You may find that what would be worth any cost to you might not cost that much in the first place. There are vocational certificates available for many careers people find interesting--cosmetology, auto repair, and massage/chiropractic just to name a few. So find out what kind of work you really want to do, THEN determine whether a college degree is necessary to do that work, THEN go to college. After all, education is a process, not an event.

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