What’s the point of college? What are you going to do with that degree? These are the sort of questions we college students hear and often ask ourselves.
We’re usually quick to offer a practiced “my major teaches skills that all employers value” or some similar response, but such questions from friends and family also offer us an opportunity to question our own assumptions about why we’re in college.
Most of us have gone to college for the purpose of “getting an education” and “getting a good job” after we graduate. This is all well and good, but are these the only reasons? Even more importantly, are they the right ones?
This semester, I attended a training workshop for soon-to-be teaching assistants. The workshop leader, a philosophy professor, started the session by asking us why we were at a liberal arts college. “Most people,” he said, “answer something like ‘I’m here to get a degree.'”
“Getting a degree,” he pointed out, was the wrong way to look at things.
“Getting a degree,” he said, “ignores all the intervening time between when you start school and when you graduate.”
The Internet is full of certifications you can acquire with no more than a few mouse clicks. Some of my favorites include Get Ordained Online and this “dog psychologist” certification. If all you want is a certification, there are quicker, less expensive ways than college. Clearly, college is more than just a piece of paper.
But then what is it? Obviously it’s not just one thing, but is it something more than a way to get a job, a way to build connections, a way to make new friends, a way to test how many donuts you can eat in one sitting?
I think so, and in this post I’m going to explore what I think college ought to be, why its primary value is much more than just the degree, and how it’s your duty to make the most of it you can.
I’ll warn you that my thoughts on these topics are far from concrete. I’m still figuring them out myself, and so I invite you to consider this post a glimpse into my own pondering of the question “Why go to college?”
“Getting an Education”
One of the ideas that the liberal arts espouses especially is the importance of becoming an “educated person.” And not just because of the results that “being educated” gets you, but also the deeper, less external, less obvious qualities that “educated people” possess.
And I don’t think this is limited to the liberal arts. Liberal arts is not so much a type of school as it is a mindset. It’s the desire to be well-rounded in your knowledge and understanding, whatever your major or intended career is.
But where does college enter into all of this? Or rather, why does college enter into this?
College isn’t the only way to become a fully educated person, after all.
There is much value in “learning by doing.” Even within traditional college settings, you’ve probably heard professors or career counselors bandy around the idea of “experiential learning” or “project-based learning.”
And considering that most jobs are project-based, assessing you on your ability to solve problems, work in teams, and generate new ideas (as opposed to repackaging or regurgitating memorized information), this is a wise doctrine to promote.
But sometimes this advice troubles me. Knowledge, skills, professional competence, intelligence–these are all great, but by themselves they’re empty. Less talked-about are things like “values,” “ethics,” “living well,” “happiness,” or “caring about others.”
I know these may sound like the territory of a different kind of blog, but if you really want to live and not just exist, these are the things you should think about.
Does college teach these things? It depends on your school’s own goals and values, but I think college is a time to think about these things. Indeed, it’s probably the last time you’ll have where you have the time to consider these things independent of the pressures of full-time work, marriage, children, and the dozens of other obligations that come with being a working “adult.”
(This isn’t to exclude those of you non-traditional college students who do work full-time, are married, have kids, and/or are going back to school as an older adult. You have my deepest respect and admiration.)
College as Personal Growth
In an early episode of the CIG podcast, Thomas and his friend/roommate Martin discuss the value of living in an off-campus apartment while in college. They reflect on how much it taught them about being independent. They had to address everything from budgeting for groceries to communicating with a landlord to making sure the apartment had enough toilet paper.
This episode is an example of the kind of personal growth that happens in college outside the classroom. My mom likes to think of college as a “bridge” between the world of childhood and the world of adults. It’s a space where (in general) you have the independence of an adult without all the responsibilities. While you may have a part-time job or two, your main “job” is to go to class and learn.
I’ve learned a lot of “book knowledge” in college, don’t get me wrong. But I’ve learned even more about myself. I’ve learned how to deal with roommate conflicts, how to use my health insurance, how to file taxes, and how to behave in a romantic relationship.
Now sure, I could have learned these things outside of college. But I think there’s something to be said for having an “in-between” space to develop life skills and develop your values independent of the pressure of “real” adult life.
The elephant in the room, of course, is that college is expensive. Thomas has talked before about how you should view college as an investment, and with the costs as high as they currently are, you can’t take college lightly. Having a space to grow and develop is valuable, but is it “250k in debt valuable?” The sane answer is “hell no!”
The point I want to make, though, is that you shouldn’t view college solely as a financial investment. While that should be one of your primary goals, you should also view it as an investment in learning about yourself, building deep relationships, and beginning to discern how you want to live.
Is that kind of self-knowledge worth a small amount of debt? That’s up to you to decide, but I think the answer might be yes, provided you have a plan for how to pay that debt off quickly while in school or after graduating. After all, you can’t claim to have meaningful self-knowledge if you don’t even know how much you owe in loans.
To Get Value, You Have to Give Value
Your potential income is theoretically infinite; your time is decidedly finite.
If you’re lucky enough to attend college, you can’t waste it. Even if you have a full-ride scholarship, you should respect your time as valuable. Your potential income is theoretically infinite; your time is decidedly finite.
People say “make the most of college,” and it sounds like all the other cliché advice you hear. But really, you should do it! Do make the most of your time in school. However much or little you learn and experience, you can’t get that time back.
So make the most of it academically. Take the classes you need to graduate, sure, but also take something because it sounds crazy or fun. Go to office hours and get to know your professors as intelligent, wonderful scholars. Become a research assistant and learn more outside of class than you ever could inside it.
Make the most of it professionally. Talk to your career center early. Find internships that mean something more than checking a box on a resume. Network with alumni (most will be flattered, and you already have something in common!). Get an on-campus job relevant to your major and learn what it’s like to work in that field.
Make the most of it socially. Make eye contact, smile, and talk to new people. If you’re shy, read Stefano Ganddini’s epic guest post on socializing. Find your “scene,” but don’t be afraid to branch out. Your fears about what people will think are almost all in your head.
Make the most of it personally. Volunteer with a charitable organization just because you care about it, not to build your resume or gain “professional” experience. Define your values–if you don’t, there are plenty of shady people and organizations happy to do it for you.
Ask yourself, “Am I becoming the person I want to be?”
What Education Is Worth
“While I am more or less broke, in exchange for the education I have bought, I have received a
wealth in return. I speak of the wealth of ideas, of truth, of wisdom—such is a currency without
rates, a coinage that will not rust, capital I cannot spend. I may leave this place with empty
pockets, but I shall carry this wealth with me whether I am young or old, at home or abroad,
housed or homeless, rich or poor, till the end of my days.”
– Ken Ilgunas
The above quote is taken from a speech that Ken Ilgunas, author of Walden on Wheels, gave at his 2011 Duke University graduate school graduation. While I don’t agree with everything Ilgunas says, he manages, I think, to articulate the central point I’m trying to get at: education, whatever form it may take, is a wealth beyond monetary measure.
I’ve included the full video below; I encourage you to watch all of it.
For those of you who’d like to read along or prefer text to video, here’s a text transcript of the speech.
The questions I’ve raised and the issues I’ve explored in this post are a lot less concrete than what I usually write for CIG. For those of you who stuck with me, I appreciate it, and I hope that all of you got something out of my ramblings.
I’m still forming my views on these issues, and I appreciate any thoughts you all might have.