Why Go To College? (Or What College Is Not)
As I go through the process of helping students prepare for college I’m often brought back to the essential question: why do we want our kids to get college degrees? If we can better understand the purpose then we can align all of our actions towards achieving that goal. I will start with a couple things I think college is not. Of course, you’re welcome to disagree with me in which case your actions would be directed towards a slightly different goal than mine.
Don’t Go To College To Get A JobWe do not send students to college simply to get a job upon graduation. If the only purpose of higher education was to gain subsequent employment we would not need football games, sororities or fraternities, or any other social activities. College in this scenario would look a lot more like a trade school where students could take practical hands-on classes and begin internships or apprenticeships towards securing a future job. If employment was the only goal for a college education most students could easily commute to their local junior college or state university. We would have no need for dormitories or residence halls and no need for any of the social components most schools offer. Yes, some students are just looking for education to improve employment options. Trade schools, online classes, and local colleges can be the right answer. And, yes, we do hope that higher education will lead to more opportunities in employment, but most of us don’t think future employment is the only goal of a college education.
Don’t Go To College To Gain Social StatusA college education is not the route to acceptance in proper society or a recognized pedigree. In the way that some people say that you need to go to college to get a job, others say you need to go to college in order to be accepted into the world. Often these are the people who justify the need to go to a bigger, better, or brand-name school because it will “open doors”. This is part of the myth of higher education in America. I can assure you that a college diploma is not like the club card that will grant me access to the airport lounge. My undergraduate degree is from Rice University, an institution that perennially makes the top 20 list of national universities. I have that big name degree, but I have yet to find people fawning over themselves to extend me jobs, greater social positions, or extra fringe benefits. We’ve seen a lot of backlash to this position in the past few years. You can find numerous articles listing successful people with degrees from non-prestigious schools or with no degree at all. I believe it is important for students to seek out like-minded peers who will encourage them to achieve their best, but I don’t think you need to need a particular college name on your degree to earn status. I’m not opposed to Ivy League or high ranking schools. I loved my time at Rice and feel I got a lot from the classes and the people I met. But that experience has not magically granted me a better place in society or opened doors. Doors have opened when I worked to open them.
Don’t Go To College To Play For Four YearsCollege is not a four-year country club experience. This is the complete opposite of the first concept that college is simply for a job. Under this focus people believe that college is a four-year social vacation as a transition from high school into the real world. Few adults subscribed to this idea. Most understand that there has to be some practical balance between the fun parts of college life and the work that will prepare students for success in the future. However, when I visit colleges and sit in on campus tours and information sessions, I see a lot of students who look like they are shopping for a good time. They pay more attention to fancy dorms, rock climbing walls, lazy rivers in the recreation center, and what’s being served for lunch. The fact that there is a Starbucks in the library should not be a major selling point for a university. But when students are just looking for the country club lifestyle it can be difficult to put the focus on what matters. It’s been a few years (the example is dated) but this experience still stands out in my mind. I worked with a very bright young lady who was in the top 10% of her class at a private high school. We had spent a couple sessions discussing different colleges she might want to research and visit. She exclaimed at our next meeting that she had found the perfect school. After she told me the name of the school, a wonderful private liberal arts college, I asked her why this school was going to be “the one.” She told me that she was in love with this particular institution because they had outlet’s in the quad. (not classes, majors, research options, study abroad, or internships– the big issue was electrical outlets?!?) She could envision herself with her laptop computer plugged in as she sat from morning till night doing her schoolwork on the grass in the open air. All of these sessions, all of the information I provided, and the decision is swayed by outlets in the quad? !!!!! Lifestyle perks are nice and colleges know that new dorms and fancy recreation centers impress prospective students. This is where you as a parent may need to step in and refocus the discussion on the actual merits of the institution if you are looking for more than a four-year country club experience.
What Factors Matter?Why do we want our children to get college degrees? The answer is complicated and involves many factors. I want both of my own children to learn to think and express themselves, meet new people, develop academic skills they can apply to a variety of situations in the future, broaden their academic, cultural, and social perspectives, and take advantage of opportunities to work, research, and intern with people who can shape their careers. You can probably think of plenty of other things I’ve left off this list. The problem is that all of these big picture reasons don’t show up in the quick online college search programs that limit your list by geography, major, size, etc. But having a better idea of what you are looking for in a college is important. Even the very brightest high school students don’t always have clear priorities in what they want from a college. Their search process may be incomplete or completely off-track. As a parent you may assume you are looking at things the same way, but until you actually discuss and prioritize, you may find you and your student are looking for very different things.
Start By Finding Common GroundI’ve started by giving some examples of what college is not. You might agree or disagree with me. So take some time and discuss your priorities.
- What do you hope to get out of your college experience?
- Why go to college?
- What factors are most important?
- What is less important or is something you can find at any school?