Monday, December 1, 2014

In defense of college

All universities have commencements: that ceremony of graduation during which, in due course, graduates are both celebrated and exhorted to go forth and do something useful, and not just so they can pay back all of those student loans.

Some universities have convocation ceremonies, literally a "calling together" ceremony, to mark the start of the new school year. It is a commencement in the sense that students are about to commence a new chapter in their lives.

The speeches at any of these events are rarely memorable, but several years ago I heard a provost speak at the beginning of the school year and reminded students that college is not a parenthetic in life. It's easy to think of college as a sort of bridge between high school and "real" life. But in Dr. Anderson's speech, she encouraged students to see their experiences in college as stepping stones through higher education, and to strive to recognize all of the disparate opportunities for learning they were about to encounter. Some of those stones are a bit wobbly, requiring a bit more concentration and balance, while others are more firmly set and make the learning or life-experience transaction less difficult.

The Washington Post piece "In defense of college" prompted the reminiscence of that speech and what many of my colleagues and I sought to inculcate in our students. College is not just about the curriculum and the courses; it's not just about grades and GPAs. College is more than study skills and exam-taking skills. It's even more than problem-solving and critical thinking skills. As Vivek Wadhwa notes, college "also teaches students how to interact and work with others, make compromises, deal with rejection and failure, and learn."

Students learn who they are and what they believe. They begin to figure out what's important to them, what they value most and where they won't compromise. They begin to discover qualities of themselves and they begin to make decisions about how to use their strengths and how to mitigate their weaknesses.

I don't want a discussion of the value of higher education to get sidetracked by the ridiculous amount of student debt; however, students too often don't learn how to manage their finances, and students and their families have no clear idea of the implications of their student loans. As a college professor who taught at a relatively expensive school, I'd often advise students to go to a local or community college for their general education requirements rather than starting to build a mountain of debt. The Admissions office wasn't always happy with me, but it made sense to recruit students who could and would stay rather than get them into school for their freshman year, load them up with debt, and then stand by helplessly as they're forced to drop out for financial reasons. In my opinion, that's just dumb and borders on unethical.

Anyway, I think it's possible for many people to be successful without going to college. But I agree with Mr. Wadhwa that there are opportunities at most universities that students simply will not be able to match if they do not go to college. Having said that, I think students need to be judicious when they start to research colleges and universities. I get being loyal and following the family legacy, but I also think that making a decision about a college is one of the first major decisions a student can make about deciding who they are and what they think they want to become. Perhaps not life-altering, but certainly an important stone as they navigate through their collegiate experience.

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