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Making a College Degree Worth It

May 22nd, 2015

You hear a lot these days about how college is really not so important, that having a college degree often doesn’t get you a good job, and that going to college is just something people do because it is expected. And, you know, if you treat college as something where you do the minimum possible work to pass just so you can get a diploma, just a piece of paper to list on your resume—which so many students do—then I think that characterization is true. A diploma is nothing by itself. If college is nothing more than crossing a “to do” off your list, then it’s probably not worth it.

On the other hand, if you treat college as a way to actually learn things, as a means to acquire knowledge and skill, as an opportunity to explore and discover—it can be life-changing. If you go into a foreign-language program and really learn the language; if you study computer programming and really pick up the skill; if you take on philosophy and really discover a passion for it—these things will change you, transform you.

The catch: you have to try. You have to work hard. You have to pour yourself into it, and make it your existence for the years you are there. Because you don’t gain anything from just coasting. A banquet is useless if you just pick at your food; you need to devour it. With college, you can’t just experience it, take it in like you would a movie. College is not about people telling you things to remember. No one class is just about the class: each class is a starting point for something else.

If you take a Math class, don’t just run through the pages of problems and then forget about them. If you study Psychology, don’t just go, “Oooh, that’s interesting,” and leave it behind. Ask, “Where can this take me? What could I do with this?” Ask an instructor who knows the many fields that can spring from the work. If you find something that you do well at, go deeper, and find out what kind of careers call for this talent. Don’t worry that 99 out of 100 of these leads will end with something you don’t want. If just one leads to something great, that’s all you need. And it’s usually the last one you look at.

And don’t be shy about contacting professionals in a field you’re interested in. If you think architecture is something you may have a flair for, search out a professional architect who is known for really good work, and just tell them you’re a college student interested in the field and ask for an hour of their time. A lot of professionals love the idea of helping budding artists. They’ll know all of the best stuff to tell you and get you started down the right path. And don’t wait until you finished college to seek that advice—seek it out right from the start.

There’s an old joke about how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb. The answer is, just one, but the light bulb has to want to change. College is like that. You have to want to change, to grow, to evolve. Just floating through gets you that piece of paper, but then you’re just a 22-year-old high school graduate with a piece of paper. Whee.

You know what gets you a great career? For one thing, knowing what you love, which you can discover in college. Also, skills to do that thing, which you can get started on in college. Not to mention discovering how much you can do if you take control over your work and make it yours. College can be the perfect place to develop all of this. College is a transition point, a launch pad for countless potential life journeys. That’s how you should look at it.

But you have to want it, you have to work for it, and you have to own it. If you do, then the diploma is nice, but what you have really gained in college cannot possibly fit on just a piece of paper.

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  1. kensensei
    May 24th, 2015 at 11:41 | #1

    Really nice commentary on the value of a college education, Luis.
    I personally was surprised lately to witness how many learners in my Intensive English Program just thought the point of the program was to pass the TOEFL exam. Most felt the rest of the courses we offered were a waste of time! In fact, one of the most important things our program teaches is the difference in classroom behavior and instructor expectations in a Western institution compared to those in the East. Clearly, you are not going to pass a Western college course by just showing up and passing a final exam as one could in many Asian academic institutions.

    Which brings up the core issue: Eastern institutions don’t really expect students to “pour themselves into it” or “devour it” as your post prescribes.

    Unfortunately, many Asian college and university instructors take a narrow view of academics: learning for the sake of the class content and its exams, and not as a jumping-off point for other fields or original applications. Most Asian students are just concerned about passing an exam (finals or college entrance exams mostly) and do not care if they actually learn anything. It is an unfortunate outcome of an academic system that emphasizes passing examinations rather than real life application and innovation.

    As an ESL instructor in the United States, I need to reinforce the importance of those new values and expectations on a daily basis.

    I tell my TOEFL students there are two ways to pass the TOEFL; one is to force yourself to regularly practice the exercises in the book, and the other is to develop a genuine love for learning the English language and the culture that communicates through it. Learn for the personal growth and benefits that come with knowing a foreign language, and the TOEFL score will take care of itself.


  2. Luis
    May 24th, 2015 at 11:44 | #2

    Yep, that’s pretty much the mindset that we have to fight here. The post was actually a variation on a speech I decided to start giving to my students taking their initial composition course.

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