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College matters... sometimes

Whew -- I did not expect this level of response to the "Does College Matter" question, so I decided to make a new post rather than try to address it in comments. First, thank-you so much to everyone. I'm definitely NOT advocating 100% learning on your own, for anything. As I made clear in my recent "Ten Tips for Trainers" post, I sure don't want my bain surgeon to be self-taught. Or my architect. And I'm really hoping those air traffic control folks and nuclear power plant controllers had a lot of "official" coursework.

But putting Skyler's scenario aside, what does "going to college" actually mean today? Shel, from everything I've been learning and seeing -- college is not what it used to be, at least for the 3000 or so US colleges and universities that aren't in the top tier. You and your fellow students also came from a dramatically different K-12 system than the one out that kids are graduating from today. You of all people know how much the world has changed, yet schools and education delivery
has been the same for nearly a century.

Does the traditional four-year undergrad degree thing still makes sense? Does it make sense as the default for all high-school grads? It feels so old-fashioned to me in the face of so many other changes and the impact of Moore's law and internet time. We live in a wildly different world from the one that inspired the current program we still all accept largely without question. Can there be more creative options? Look how many of the best schools offer nearly all their courses in some non-local manner. The idea that MIT now has virtually open-sourced their courseware! Self-learners have access to at least a part of one of the best educations available. For many years, Stanford has been in the position of having to justify to their board why they still need a physical campus.

For every benefit of college, we should at least consider that there might be other ways to get at least some of those benefits. And some of those other ways might be better (not just cheaper).

More options for life-credit.
More options for distance learning.
More online forums and video chats.
Programs with that offer more creative combinations of some on-campus and some distance programs.
Faster programs.
Programs that perhaps go back and forth between learning and working.

How many of you who went to college as I did--right out of high school--have wished you could go back to school now... now that you could appreciate it in a way that you never could at the time you actually went...

Maybe there should be third-party "learning designers" who you pay to plan and choose the best options and put together a perfectly tailored custom program from a variety of learning vendors (instead of throwing all your learning eggs into one school basket) that still includes some general education, but in the way that makes the most sense for that particular student, and uses both online, distance, and *some* face-to-face learning. If a parent (and more importantly, the student) thinks that leaving home is important, that can be a component as well (although I'm still voting for the crash-course with a backpack and a rail pass thing). The students could go to a kind of "advanced learning camp" that could be anything from an off-campus dorm (complete with cafeteria), or something more primitive.

Just about every time someone justifies college -- many (not all) of the things they point to could be met in other ways. Do you really need four--or usually five--years of sitting in classrooms listening to lectures (weak - weak - weak)? Think very seriously about how many of your teachers and classes really were exceptional? How many do you really remember? It'll be hard to convince me that there's no other way for a young person to gain an appreciation for thinking.

There's still a huge problem with employers (and hiring HR people) who look only at the piece of paper for hiring and promotions and pay raises. Many of you have pointed out just how ridiculous that still is. But that's a whole different issue...

For me, after teaching myself programming, I did take computer science courses at UCLA, because I was deeply interested in advanced artificial intelligence, and couldn't find books at that level that I felt would be enough for me to truly understand it. I didn't have mentors in that field at the time, so taking night classes while I worked was a great option. They were only $300 each. Later, I taught classes at UCLA Extension, and one of the perks was that you could take classes, so I took more.

So this isn't a college vs. no college argument; one can certainly *take college courses* without going for the full monty degree thing. I wouldn't trade quite a few of my college courses for anything (including a few when I was in real college on the four-year degree path). BUT... and this is the big one... I can say that about only a handful. I will never get the rest of those years back.

Roger Schank, Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, founder of Institute for Learning Science at Northwestern, and former Chairman of the Computer Science department at Yale, knows a lot more about this than I do:

"Whenever I teach a class, I ask students why there are in college. They tell me things like, "It's a four-year vacation," "The parties are good,", "It will get me a good job later," "It's what everyone does, so I never thought about an alternative," and so on. The issue of learning never comes up. No student has ever mentioned it in class, although I ask the question quite often. Why is that? As I said earlier, school isn't really about learning at all. It's about certification. College students today attend school to get a degree that they hope will get them something they want...
... we never ask a student if he learned a lot, we ask how well he or she did. Evaluation is based on the judgement of others when it comes to "official" learning. Students feel they did well when others say they did well. It is the rare student who says that he or she learned a great deal and thus was very happy with the educational experience."

He points out the irony when he asked that all cognitive science professors commit to never giving multiple choice tests:

"Now, every cognitive scientist knows that there is no value in such tests; nevertheless the faculty objected. "Who will grade all the papers that students turn in?" they asked. "We don't have the money for more teaching assistants, and I want to do my research."

"School isn't really about learning; it's about short-term memorization of meaningless information that never comes up later in life. It is intended to satisfy observers that knowledge is being acquired... Our major universities--the ones which parents dream about their children attending--were originally created to produce theologians... the idea has persisted into the present that school should provide a "general education".
I was on the faculty at Yale for fifteen years... Other department heads talked grandly about how they would broaden students worldview and create well-rounded young men and women... People tell me that philosophy or some other course taught them, "how to think." Didn't they know how to think before they took philosophy? A good deal of cognitive dissonance is at work here. Because people labored so diligently at school for so many years, they convince themselves that there must have been a lot of learning going on."

If someone hands you a test from all but a small handfull of the courses you took in college, how many questions could you answer correctly? And before you protest, "That's not the POINT!" think carefully about what the point really is, and more importantly--could at least some aspects of that point be satisfied in some other more applicable, less expensive, more effective way?

Again, wow, thanks so much for all the thoughtful comments, and especially for the encouragement about what Skyler's doing. I'm just glad that Dori's going to be posting what her son is up to, though, so I can still get a little vicarious parent-of-the-college-kid experience. Dori, would you ask Sean if he'd like one of those pink faux velvet bean bag chairs?

Posted by Kathy on July 17, 2005 | Permalink


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Just a note about this line:

"There's still a huge problem with employers (and hiring HR people) who look only at the piece of paper for hiring and promotions and pay raises."

My fiancee works at a large insurance company that just put a cap on how far people can advance in the company without having a college degree. Thankfully, they also offer tuition reimbursment, but for the people that have 20 years of experience at the company, and no interest in going back to school, they suddenly have no future promotions to look forward too.

Posted by: Jeff | Jul 17, 2005 1:18:44 PM

Is your degree worth $1 million -- or worthless?


Posted by: Doug Klippert | Jul 17, 2005 2:29:25 PM

I hate to add fuel to the college-sucks line of thinking, but I never went to college and it hasn't stopped me from selling over $35 million worth of products for my employers in the last 12 years. My yake of that has been sweet as well.

Big point here - find something you like to do and find someone to pay you to do it.

Posted by: Mike | Jul 17, 2005 4:03:14 PM

If one is working for a company that considers a piece of paper more valuable than one's abilities, one is working for the wrong company. I truly sympathize with those stuck under a glass ceiling due to a company's shortsightedness, but how many jobs that inspire passion have such a ceiling?

As Schank said, college is about certification, not learning. Certified as what? Certified as having fulfilled the courseware requirements of a college, nothing more. Certainly not certified as intelligent, creative, resourceful, or even able to write a full sentence without grammatical or punctuation errors.

I would never advocate writing off a potential source of learning, including a traditional college "education." However, to echo Kathy, for most, there are other avenues to the goal that are cheaper, faster, and far less likely to involve competitive projectile-vomiting.

Posted by: Splashman | Jul 18, 2005 12:11:17 AM

College is still the primary place where people pursue an amazing variety of study and activities for THEIR OWN SAKE. At a good college, the professors of each class are really into art history, or computers, or literature, or whatever, because they think it is really cool. And that central freedom, of pursuing something because of its own inherent worth, is tremendously empowering and exciting.

That freedom is one that you'll get precious little of later in your life. That's one reason why so many people look back on college as their happiest years. I do think that our relentless pursuit of money is slowly blinding us to the importance of the freedom that college offers. I suppose that we are seeing the erosion of that freedom, as a new generation of professors and administrators take over and feel bound to deliver measurable value to students and benefactors.

Sure, the instituation of college should keep changing, but not in order to "prepare students for their career", but rather, to be more and more true to the mission of pure research in all interesting fields.

Posted by: Charlie Evett | Jul 18, 2005 9:54:59 AM

"I'm definitely NOT advocating 100% learning on your own, for anything. As I made clear in my recent "Ten Tips for Trainers" post, I sure don't want my bain surgeon to be self-taught. Or my architect. And I'm really hoping those air traffic control folks and nuclear power plant controllers had a lot of "official" coursework."

Um, er, *everybody* is ultimately self-taught. Passionate *learning* is NOT something that can ever be "taught". As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water and you can even drown the horse but you can't *make* it drink.

Posted by: John D. Mitchell | Jul 18, 2005 10:22:46 AM

Yes! Great points. I wish HR departments and schools thought more like this. I mentioned in a comment on the original post that I'll be going back to school. What I didn't mention is how much it bugs me when I read the curriculum I'll have to take to "earn" my degree. It's mostly stuff I've been doing on the job for years. For example, "Introduction to computer programming". Great. I've written three books on programming, and taught thousands of people the finer points of advanced development for a variety of software languages. And most of the content for the books and courses was based on previous on-the-job years of real-world experience. Now I have to take a course to "introduce" me to this? Humbug.

When I was younger I used to say that I didn't need a degree, then later on when I saw opportunities pass me by because I didn't have one, I wondered why the world wouldn't change to suit me. Now I've decided that I'll just have to change me to suit the world.

It's interesting to me that many of the previous comments refer to a degree as a "piece of paper", or even more anachronistically, "the sheepskin". To me it's more of a check box. I will check a bunch of boxes in exams, then someone else will check more boxes based on the sum of my check boxes. If all the numbers add up, I will get a degree, which is really just a check box on an HR application or SBA loan form. Not highly meaningful, but apparently necessary.

Anyway, with all this feedback I guess Skyler should have a pretty good idea of what she's up against. Perhaps the Australians and New Zealanders "on walkabout" have the right idea. I shared flats with many of them while living in London and Sydney. I am the only American/Canadian I know that did this, but it's common practice for them. They build in a year or three after high school or university to travel the world, and usually work and live abroad for a good part of that. In North Americas society they would probably be though of as slackers. But it's a nice balance of learning and adventure, and produces some very well-rounded individuals with less fear and more understanding of the world around them. Methinks that if more North Americans adopted this practice the world would be a very different place….OK, I'll stop there before they cue the "coke commercial" music….

Posted by: Brian Benz | Jul 18, 2005 10:52:19 AM

You don't seem to have had many voices from the "young people" set that you're talking about, so I feel compelled to reply. (I would have commented on your previous post, had I seen it before this one.)

I turned 21 in May, and I've already lived a lot more than most people my age. I have been a freelancer in design/writing/web development since I was 13; I was hired for a pretty decent developer job when I was 19, but they "rescinded" my offer when they found out how old I was, after I'd peed in a cup and gotten an ID card for their security system. (Turns out age discrimination legislation only applies if you're over 40.) So back to freelancing I went.

I took my first "real job" this April, and at the beginning of July I moved to a better, more lucrative one. At 21, I'm earning more than either of my parents ever did (one, with a Phd, and the other with no degree).

My salary is a pretty sizable amount, but I know that things will only get better -- I am in a position to keep moving up and up, with paid writing opportunities including articles and a contract with a respected technical book publisher. My name is getting out there in the community surrounding the particular open source project I love. Better yet, the people I work with treat me and my brain with respect.

And before I come off as someone who can do nothing but sing my own praises, I come to to the thrust of my argument: None of this would have been possible if I'd gone to college... and maybe not even if I'd kept up going to high school. You see, I 'dropped out' of a special high school program for science/math/computer science to homeschool myself when I was 14, I moved out of my mother's house at 15, and I worked as a freelance designer/writer/web developer in all those intervening years and before. My parents have stopped nagging me to think of my future and go to college. They finally realize that when I said I was learning all this useful stuff, I wasn't kidding.

High school is practically nothing but babysitting, and my personal opinion is that if you're 18 and still need to be taught how to learn, think critically, and the other buzzwords people throw out to justify a college education, you've got bigger problems and college won't solve 'em.

What happened to primary education? I certainly learned very little, even in the gifted & talented programs. I was constantly bored, and by high school, the administrators were actively trying to quash any student who would try to do things a different way. I wasn't allowed to take photography even with my art teacher's recommendation, because I hadn't taken two years of regular art first. Who benefits from that kind of decision? Ultimately, that is why I left.

But the problem is that it is clear that colleges are often no better! My boyfriend and all of my local hang-out friends (vs my professional-ish friends) are college students, both undergrad and grad. I see daily the kinds of problems they face in pursuing their degrees, the kind of institutional BS, the uneven application of rules and regulations. For example, one has a class that has been made very easy with a take-home final and groupwork is allowed on every project; my other friend was taking the same class for same amount of credit, and wasn't even allowed to talk to other students about the projects because that was considered cheating. In high-level engineering classes. In the same semester.

There are very, very serious problems in institutionalized education. From my perspective, the college degree seems to be being de-valued by this kind of craziness, just as high school diplomas were devalued by the craze to mainstream everyone into academia instead of admitting that there are people who aren't constitutionally so inclined.

Education is now a commodity like everything else. Everyone is expected to go to college, so the value decreases. A college degree is treated as a minimal guarantee of a person's ability to be trained, and that's an awfully expensive piece of paper for something that says so little about a person. These days, in many fields, the only way to ensure that you will be valued in the future is to throw yourself into it wholeheartedly... and that doesn't have to involve college.

Posted by: Amy | Jul 18, 2005 10:53:37 AM

You get out of school what you put into it. Sure I had a bunch of boring teachers in HS. I also had the change to take a year of Russian. Three of us also talked the Physics professor into teaching us an extra semester of material.

The one thing you get at college is a blank check [time and money] to dip into a bunch of subjects. I took a course called "Love and Marriage in Literature" and my partner for the projects was a woman from India who was in an arranged marriage. I learned much more than expected in that class! I also worked on a Chemistry research project for a year.

No matter what choices you make, it is up to each individual to seak out opportunities.

Posted by: Julie | Jul 18, 2005 11:15:24 AM

The one advantage college has for learning is it is a concentrated ball of resources.

At college, there are the professors who, in theory, have a deep background in their area of study. Access to professors is much easier as a college student than a non-college student. So there is opportunity to attach oneself to professor(s) in interesting topics and dive deeply into a preferred subject.

In addition to professors, there are other students. Some students are there to have fun and some are passionately learning. This is a second group of people who can assist in finding out more about a subject. This opportunity, again, is more accessible to college students than non-college students.

I would also venture to say that making connections with like-minded people is much easier in college. These connections can generate and perpetuate new ideas and new companies. With this in mind, I would guess that many successful ideas and successful companies had their start in a classroom, not a boardroom. The point of college (as in life), is not the goal (degree) but the journey.

If you're going to college just so you can get a degree, you might want to rethink your situation. On the other hand, if the degree is a side-effect of a great learning experience or the stepping stone to something you know you want, then you're going for the right reasons.

Posted by: BB | Jul 18, 2005 12:16:13 PM

It depends on the school and it depends on the job. My University did an excellent job at training me how to think critically and gave me a strong foundation in computer science so that I could tackle any job. But I think that had a lot to do with there being a core curriculum and then having the freedom to explore wildly varying topics for electives.

Just like anything in the world, a rule or law should never be blindly adhered to. There is always a need for standards, but those should be guidelines, not set in stone rules. We have judges and a jury to determine the nuiances of law, why would anyone treat their business any differently?

The only absolute I have found is that there are no absolutes. Different minds, different paths, different ways to become competent at different jobs. Evaluating the person instead of the credentials can go a long way.

But I think there is a great value in a good education. The problem is that I think most of our education system is set up poorly. Some people have natural logic or artistic skills, but I think everyone benefits from some formal training AND some theorhetical exploration (school) to truly grow.

Posted by: sloan | Jul 18, 2005 12:27:56 PM

AMY: Thanks so much for this! Very inspirational message, and you're right -- I had hoped to hear more from younger people currently living these issues.

JOHN: "Um, er, *everybody* is ultimately self-taught. Passionate *learning* is NOT something that can ever be "taught". As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water and you can even drown the horse but you can't *make* it drink."

I think we agree on the point, if not the terminology. We don't consider *teaching* and *learning* to be the same things. To be 100% self-taught would mean that the learner is responsible for constructing the entire learning experience. That's not practical for a wide range of topics. So while the learner is, as you suggest, *always* responsible for 100% of the learning, they often aren't (and shouldn't) be responsible for 100% of the *teaching*. The one who provides the *teaching* is the one who designs the learning experience (not the learning itself). And that includes knowing *what* should be learned, and to a certain extent *how* it should be learned... including order of topics, level of detail, mechanism through which the topics are delivered and meant to be understood and remember... and on and on.

You're right that no matter how much we *teach*, we can't provide the *learning*. But we do believe that not everything can--or should--be 100% self-taught. Learners are notoriously bad at knowing what they should learn, and how to best evaluate whether they've learned it correctly (or deeply enough). That's where the teacher (sometimes in the form of author or mentor) comes in.

JULIE: This is a great point: "No matter what choices you make, it is up to each individual to seak out opportunities." The problem is the part about the blank check...I think for a lot of students (or their parents) the size of that blank check just keeps getting bigger, and perhaps there are other ways to dip into those subjects than through the traditional college route. If it is indeed up to each individual to seek the opportunities (and I enthusiastically agree), then perhaps they should look for other creative ways to achieve some of those benefits.


That hit home. "Methinks that if more North Americans adopted this practice the world would be a very different place…"
What a great notion, about the walkabouts. And you're right, in our society people who did that *would* be viewed by many (most) as slackers. But more and more it seems that young people wouldn't actually *give a crap* about what everybody else thinks. That, if nothing else, is one of the things I'm coming to respect most about younger people in the US today. (I can't speak for anywhere else -- but I've been living with multiple teenagers for many years -- we happen to be one of those households that takes in anyone who's currently having troubles at home (or in some cases, doesn't *have* a home). Someday I'll have to say more about the experiences of some of the other kids... at this point, they are scattered with some in college locally, some who went to college last year then dropped out, some going to technical schools (film and art), one in herb school in North Carolina, and a couple who just won't bend to the pressure to go, until they feel motivated to do so.


SLOAN: That's probably the best and most balanced view I've heard. Or at least the one that I most agree with ; ) Thank-you.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jul 18, 2005 12:50:17 PM

How sad that so many people in your thread saw college as nothing more than a piece of paper or a pitstop along the road to life, or some such thing.

I quit high school at 15, obtained my GED, worked in various jobs including an underwriter position at an insurance company before I went to college at 23. (Starting out Community College before transferring to University).

I loved it from the moment I stepped on to the campus. Each new class was an adventure, and with each new quarter, I had a difficult time picking subjects.

I ended up starting as pre-law/politics, but switched to physics/chemistry (now that was a rather dangerous time), then to getting degrees in computer science and psychology with a minor in history. In about five years, working fulltime for much of it. I didn't get a lot of sleep, and never took a summer break, but I loved every bit of it.

Sometimes it felt like books were power and opening them was all I needed to do to become the most powerful being in the world. And then the next exam would happen and I'd be brought back to earth. But I never forgot the magic. Or the arguments with classmates, and the discussions shared with favorite teachers, and the silly times when things went wrong in labs.

I loved it all. Yes, even the sleepless nights, the cramming, the disappointments about not getting the grade you hoped, the frustrations when something just wouldn't come easy.

The two degrees I earned are on my wall in my bedroom, which is also currently my office. I hang them not because they're paper, not because companies want them for employment (heck, companies don't want me, but the diplomas are fine), not because they're worth money (they're not), but because they are remind me that I faced a challenge, and saw it through.

If you don't feel this way about college, then yes, you shouldn't go, or take a break, or try something else. And if you don't feel this way about your degrees, than I'm sorry.

As for Skyler, college, cooking school, trade school, apprenticeship--what's the diff? It's all learning. Skyler, kick butt in vegetarian cooking school.

Posted by: Shelley | Jul 18, 2005 10:10:19 PM

Thank you for making me re-think the future I had in mind for my son.

Not that I wanted to force him into a specific direction by the way, it is just that I believed he had to get the highest official document he could obtain in his chosen direction.

I know now I must rather concentrate on helping him find his passion, and everything should fall in place.

Posted by: Johannes de Jong | Jul 19, 2005 12:56:57 AM

My 2 cents:
I'm 23 years old and I currently finished my 4th year of Computer Science University, out of 5 years total.

During this last year of studies, I also started working, and this brought me much more sense of accomplishment than the Uni.

I flunked one subject, and I have to do some homework during summertime to pass it; but I really don't enjoy it at all, and hearing all these discussions about doing what you are really passionate about, makes it even harder to get me through the tedious process. :(

Nevertheless, I'm not thinking of dropping out, it would be a pity, having completed 80% of getting my diploma (because yes, having that sheet of paper sometimes matters).

Anyhow, I decided that I interrupt my studies for one year. During this year, I'll be working and travelling abroad. Thank you all for reinforcing the idea that this kind of experience is really worth it. Unfortunately, I'll be doing this without my already-found soulmate, and this IS a loss. For all of you out there: do this walkabouts *before* you find your partner, or, better yet, take him/her along.

Posted by: Irina Huzum | Jul 19, 2005 4:47:00 AM

From an historical perspective, this issue seems to demonstrate the enduring legacy of the importance associated with formal qualifications. The 19thC saw a rise in the use of formal qualifications to define who the 'professional' was and perhaps more importantly was not. This had the effect, for instance, of cutting-out of the medical profession midwives and (female) herbalists whose knowledge, training and experience came to be seen as inferior to men's formal training (bearing in mind that women were often excluded from Western higher education). The use of formal qualifications to form a bulwark around who was and was not 'in the club' was further intertwined with notions of respectability as understood and cultivated by the emergent middle classes. In my view our culture continues to conflate formal qualifications with respectability, and to seek liberation from narrower understandings of how to learn and to live (i.e. working towards living with passion) – to my mind – requires us to reflect on what is at the root of many of our inherited notions of respectability and propriety. This may include disputes and discussions over one of America's more taboo subjects – social class – but this would, in my opinion, pay dividends in terms of giving ourselves and especially younger people more and varied choices.

Posted by: Meg | Jul 19, 2005 5:29:02 AM

One problem is that most 18 year olds don't know who they are yet or what they want to do. College does provide an environment (hopefully safe) for exploring different interests. Although it is not the only way to do so.

As for having to study things that you have no interest in... well, I guess I would disagree with the idea that this is always a bad thing. Perspective and knowledge comes from more than what you are interested in. I've found that people focused only on their discipline, on their task, miss the big picture and the opportunities to really impact the overall quality of a product/project.

Posted by: sloan | Jul 19, 2005 11:58:12 AM

Shelley, I'm sure I sounded like a single-minded geek money-freak in my first post, but that's not the case. I like to read everything and learn about everything. And while I always knew I was doing just fine, the money proves it to everybody else (including my parents and my future in-laws). That's why they said I should go to college, after all.

To those who justify college because it "broadens your horizons:" You don't need school to expose you to a broad range of subjects! Just walk the aisles of your local library. Or browse Wikipedia, or Everything 2. At the library, check out the "New Non-Fiction" racks specifically, because they often have the most interesting things, from entire books about the X chromosome to books about what the social scene was like in Regency England to books about everything you could want to know about the "hidden lives" of cadavers. It's ridiculous the kind of fringe topics that are made into full-length trade science books, and even more ridiculous how many of them sell very well (see "Stiff," the aforementioned book about corpses). And what's best about books like these is that they must be made appealing, because the authors are writing about something that interests them, and they have no sinecure -- because the publisher can't count on duping university book buyers, or massive book-buying contracts.

I'm not a big anti-college guerilla advocate. College obviously works for some people. It won't work for me, but then again I don't try to talk my friends out of going and I bust my boyfriend's butt to make sure he doesn't skip class due to the reason du jour. Because that's what he wants for himself, so I want it for him, too.

I'm not really all that radical!

But if you are confident enough in your own intellect and inquiring mind, and are facing a 3-year uphill death march to get to the "job training" to make you marginally employable, if the repetition of school gives you massive burn-out, or you're constitutionally incapable of tolerating lots of ridiculous institutional BS, then look for alternatives. Find what makes you happy and decide to do it, and then don't quit. If you ever need inspiration, read John Holt, the founder of the homeschool movement. His books "How Children Learn" and "How Children Fail" are about younger students, but the facts are still relevant (see the gold stars quote here: http://www.bloomington.in.us/~learn/Holt.htm).

Sloan, the problem with using college to decide what you want to do is that not even the 'trade' classes really reflect the real world in many cases. And just because you like reading about something and thinking about something doesn't mean you'll like doing it for a living. I think many people tend to get screwed because of those two variables.

Posted by: Amy | Jul 19, 2005 3:21:04 PM

"There's still a huge problem with employers (and hiring HR people) who look only at the piece of paper for hiring and promotions and pay raises. Many of you have pointed out just how ridiculous that still is. But that's a whole different issue..."

I am sorry but that is the whole point. Others have said great stuff on this and it is important to realize that this is a major issue for many people. There are a lot of bad policies that occur because of this bias. Sad but true. A degree is a checkbox on the employees feature list and if it is not there then there are plenty of others out there that do have it.

College has some great things going for it, and some bad things against it. I went for and Engineering degree and it was a very good thing to go to college for but there was not to say there weren't problems. There was a school policy of getting student through the programs briskly (by limited the number of hours a degree should require) but there were unintended consequences, like the Engineering department making Math 122 (second semester calculus) required and not mentioning that Math 121 was a pre-requisite to that class to make the numbers. In an Engineering college meeting they asked all 1500 of us how many planned to graduate in 8 semesters (1), 10 semesters (~50%). That was sobering to everyone.

Then there are all the classes that end up taught by foreign grad students that barely speak English, because the professor is trying to get his latest work published.

My school required a bunch of general education (GE) hours so we would be "well rounded" but there was no way to take more then the bare minimum because the regular coursework was so hard that to take anything challenging outside the college could have too hard an impact on your grades. I took a really good GE class but it sucked up so much time that I almost failed all my classes that semester and that was too scary so I ended taken much easier GE classes so I wouldn't have that happen again. Why? because I didn't want to ruin my future. This is a big deal. There are many classes I would've loved to take had the pressure not been so intense.

I took a colloquium class that was great with a teaching team of a particle physicist, a Jungian psychologist and a husband and wife English professor team. That was one of the greatest classes I ever took. Many ideas were debated and discussed and that is what was best about college.

Sadly, while some employers do reimburse course expenses, many seem to require them to be industry related, so getting back to some of those interesting GE classes is difficult.

And while there is a lot of talk about freedom of expression on college campuses there is actually very little of it, you would have to go to at least of couple of very different campuses to get it all. You would need to go to very conservative schools like Notre Dame or BYU to rationally discuss religion and traditional family values and Berkeley or Boulder for openness about sex, drugs and rock and roll, but don't try it the other way around.

So college has good and bad points. with a lot more information you can make better decisions.

PS a Walkabout is a good idea particularly if you are not so sure with what you are passionate about.

Posted by: Stephan F | Jul 20, 2005 11:49:00 AM

".. is that not even the 'trade' classes really reflect the real world in many cases. And just because you like reading about something and thinking about something doesn't mean you'll like doing it for a living..."

The real world and education are not the same thing, nor do I think the sole purpose of education is to prepare you for a job. I think that is how we have been presented with the idea of education, but it strikes me as very "work-is-life" oriented. I think there is also this weird idea that it is an ideal to live for your work, meaning that you have to have an incredible passion for your job. I think it is great if that is how life has worked out for you, but I don't think work necessarily has to be the thing that fulfills you in life.

A job, in its essence, is about being paid for doing work. Your overall happiness and enthusiasm for your life is affected by your job, but it isn't limited by it. For many people the joy they get from their families far outweighs whatever job satisfaction they could ever receive, but that doesn't mean that those people want their job to be their family either.

Passion and work can overlap, be separate, or be completely interconnected, but there is no rule to it. You don't HAVE to LOVE your job to have a great life. To be happy though, each person needs a certain satisfaction level with their job because it takes up so much time, but they also need to be satisfied with their evenings at home, their weekends, etc.

So where does education fit in? Well, training is different from education. Training is specifically tuned for a specific goal. I think education, and where my own personal passion lies, is about learning. The use of metrics and goals are useful for measuring improvement, but the idea that the improvement cannot be for simple improvement sake is odd to me. I think education is important to create thinking, perceptive, and knowledgable human beings... but then, education does not have to happen in a school. It happens everywhere you let it happen, you can learn from almost anything at any time. The benefit of a "school" system is that there are assigned mentors and experts there guiding you along the way... at least, ideally, that is how it would be.

Posted by: sloan | Jul 20, 2005 12:36:13 PM

I believe college can be a great basis. It's where I learnt to be more introspective, self-aware and question the world around me. That was cool. But I got a degree in Communications and Cultural Studies. Less of a work related advantage, college may be a springboard into life. Of course, there are people who come by it naturally. (on another note, I've noticed a big difference between guys I've dated who are university/college educated and those who aren't in their ability to take responsibility for their behaviour...maybe it's just a coincidence)

On the subject of other benefits, how about you add:
- Reading
- Traveling
- Going out to meet new people and experience different cultural events
- (currently) Running a blog
- Having other interests

and other great stuff like that. I think these things can contribute to a person's character, experience and what kind of solutions they bring to the table.

Posted by: Miss Rogue | Jul 20, 2005 3:06:05 PM

I did my undergrad in India (I graduated last year) and I'm now into my 2nd year of grad studies at USC. From my experience, this isn't something that Americans alone face. A lot of students in India too are pushed into doing something that they don't like or care about. I liked electronics and computers, and was lucky enough to get into a fairly good school studying that. But, between you and me ;), the professors were by and large uninspiring and the syllabus, though pretty much at the cutting edge, didn't cover the basics of engineering too well.

I knew half way through my undergrad that I had to do a masters degree because what ever it was that I was learning wasn't going to take me too far, and hadn't really helped me find my real interest within electronics and computers. After coming to USC I've met some good professors and some bad ones. But, what makes me feel, well, a little 'J' about American undergrads is that they get to study under these good profs in their 4 years in college.

To me thats what college is about; if you get into a good school (and sometimes into a not-so-good one) the inspiration and joy that one derives from interacting with a person who loves his/her subject is something that nothing else in the world can buy...

Posted by: Harsha | Jul 21, 2005 9:57:46 AM

"One problem is that most 18 year olds don't know who they are yet or what they want to do. College does provide an environment (hopefully safe) for exploring different interests. Although it is not the only way to do so."
Definetely right! Most people will find what they really like in college. And the most important thing is the college will teach you think critically.

Posted by: Wow | Sep 9, 2005 8:21:51 PM

I am a college student currently attending one of the best Women's institutes in the nation, Bryn Mawr College. My college is renowned for its diversity, regardless of small size that defines Liberal Arts College. Bryn Mawr College is located in suburb of Philadelphia, which people called to be "Main Line." Therefore, it is very safe and secured, but at the same time, it has gorgeous and beautiful campus. Because it is thoroughly diverse school, the students get to experience effects that they would not at other national universities or liberal arts colleges. Also, the best part of become "Mawrtyrs" is the social and academic respectful codes called Honor Code, which all of the students live with.
I would not have any negatives feeling about my college but full of love and support. I believe that people would not regret on going through the college life but rather withdraw from it. Yes, people do not need to fill up the course requirements to get the degree and attend 204 more years of graduate school. However, the whole point of going into college is not just learning but rather experience once a life-time opportunity that one is given.

Posted by: Twinkie | Oct 31, 2005 7:39:44 PM

I began college at the ripe old age of forty. I am now in my junior year, majoring in Biological Science. My grade point average is 3.46. What I have sadly realized from my college experience is, there has been nothing,that I have learned in college, that I could not have learned visiting the public library.

Posted by: Cherryl | Jan 19, 2006 10:54:39 PM

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