It’s that time of year. You or your kid is thinking about going to college or whether to stay in college next year.
This is a Good Thing. A college education can be a boost to long-term earning potential and, if you do it right, job security. President Obama insists that many of the jobs in the 21st century will require some college education (though maybe not a degree). A hiring manager at Pfizer liked to tell me that a college degree is like a driver’s license. It allows its holder a greater degree of responsibility. This is an old fashioned notion, but it’s prevalent.
Setting aside earning potential, career opportunities, and employability for a moment, a college experience affects quality of life. A liberal education, one designed to ‘liberate’ the mind through exploration of a broad range of knowledge and ways of knowing, prepares you to understand the world around you. It also gives you the tools to continue learning throughout your life. Together, these skills give you the intellectual and emotional agility to adapt to our rapidly changing world. Thomas Friedman, in his book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, identifies liberal education is a ‘special sauce’ that prepares a person to adjust to the changing nature of employment in America. (Think of ‘outsourcing’ and ‘offshoring’ phenomena.) Most schools have a liberal arts ‘core’, but some schools (like mine ) take the liberal arts more seriously than others.
As you think about college, it’s important to know that college is hard work. It takes determination and persistence to earn a baccalaureate degree in four years (or five years). College is not like high school, where even a mediocre student can coast and where a tide-like force guides you through the process of choosing courses that will satisfy graduation requirements. In college, you are essentially on your own.
A school’s admissions pamphlets and letters may describe the faculty and staff as helpful and insightful, making it look like they will shepherd new students gently and efficiently from their first semester to their eighth and graduation. This is a marketing lie. Higher education is ultimately driven by economics, and a college budget is largely driven by enrollment and credit generation. There is no immediate economic incentive for colleges to graduate their students. So it should come as no surprise that college graduation rates are low.
Every school has faculty, staff, and administrators that are serious about helping young people graduate in a timely way. They are the advisors, mentors, and friends that you ought to seek out. They will help guide you through graduation requirements, make you aware of hidden opportunities, and act as character references for you as you apply for graduate school or apply for jobs. If you are look for a mentor, and try to meet many people at college, you will find one of these individuals. It’s easier to find people like this at smaller schools, but you can find them everywhere.
Earning a college degree is a Good Thing. But it represents a complex mix of knowledge, experience, and common sense earned in a community that is more forgiving than the ‘Real World.’