Many of the posts I write are inspired by reader questions and requests. Smaranda Calin, one of my awesome fans, asked: what’s the role of a university education in this day and age since so much is changing?
Every generation believes they’re exceptional for the same stupid reason: they know nothing about any other generation. They might be right but if they are its by accident. We all suffer from chronocentricism, the assumption the present is special or the most important time in history. This is charmingly narcissistic when you realize every generation in history thought the same thing.
Certainly many things change quickly today, but we confuse speed with scale. The first generation to have electricity in their homes, or to switch from horses to cars dealt with a scale of change much greater than anything in the last 20 years. We still type on QWERTY keyboards and mail things to each other using mostly text, which has been true for 100 years. Upgrading from a Blackberry to an iPhone 5 certainly represents tremendous technological progress, but it’s not much of a cultural leap for most people to follow. Speed and scale are not the same thing.
The value then of a college degree comes down to two questions:
- What important things change slowly that are worth learning?
- Can a college degree give them to you?
Things you always need in life
There is a long list of things people hope to get from college. Most of them are things you need no matter what era you are born into.
- To learn how to ask good questions
- To learn how to find or develop good answers
- An understanding of what happened before you were born
- To develop a skill, craft or discipline
- Learning to manage your time and work vs. life
- Chances to build nurturing relationships with people who know more than you
- Chances to build good relationships with friends for now and later
- A path towards a profession
- Opportunities to figure out who the hell you are
Good college experiences provide many of these. But of course there are other ways to get them.
Most attempts to measure the worth of college focus on the financials. 86% of U.S. college graduates say its worth it, but they’re biased of course since they’ve just invested more in college than anything else in their lives.
A better answer depends on how many of the things listed above you can get without college. Maybe you see clear ways to get these things through other means. Or perhaps you recognize you have no idea how to get these things. Or that you’ve lived a sheltered, protected life so far and very much need to immerse yourself in an intensely new environment perhaps geographically distant from your hometown. If that is important to you and you can’t get it any other way, college might be worth it no matter how much it costs.
Most high school students make blind choices about college because they’re too young to understand what they really want from it. They’re told “you should go” so they follow along like the good robots they’ve been in going from elementary school to high school. Or they decide, at 19, “I want to be a doctor” as if they have any clue what that means beyond TV shows and that it makes their Mom happy when they say it. A gap year is a fantastic idea and I’d bet it improves the odds people who choose to go to college get what they need. They have a clearer picture of who they are, what the world might be like when they graduate and what they want from life, all of which makes choices about college easier to make.
Like all investments, college is a bet. Depending on who you are, what you want, where you choose to go, and what choices you make while there (this never gets enough emphasis as college is four years worth of daily decisions), it may pay off and it may not. Some people go to a great school and have an awesome experience, but find it doesn’t help much seeking employment. But if they’d chosen a more practical major, they might not have had that awesome experience they did. Who knows. There are many variables beyond going to college or not going. Other people are miserable in college but stick it out anyway, and then spend their lives regretting their ‘wasted years’. College is an investment, not a guarantee.
I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University. It was a fantastic place to be if you knew exactly what career you wanted to have. If you weren’t sure, it was a miserable place. It wasn’t designed to support exploration in the way a school like Evergreen University is. Before Carnegie Mellon University I had a very rough ride. I stumbled my way through two other colleges, Drew University and Queens College spending most of my first two years making big mistakes. Those mistakes helped me sort out what I wanted and why and I was lucky to turn it around. But even so I made even more mistakes before I finished. If I were to do it again I’d interact with my professors very differently: I was paying them and I should never have feared them the way I did.
In the broadest strokes big decisions like these depend on many factors. If forced I’d say it’s worth it to go for everyone. A student can always drop out if they realize it’s not for them and that realization will help them understand what it is they should do instead. But if you never go you deny yourself the chance of discovering something clearly valued by the vast majority who have done it. I firmly believe in erring on the side of doing, rather than not doing.