Do You Want To Go To College?

 Were you ever asked if you wanted to go to college? I wasn’t.

I remember being about five and sitting with my grandma at the kitchen table (in the very same spot where I write this, I just realized– spooky), when she laid a smack-down of the future on me. It was harsh. And it went like this: she told me I was going to college, no if’s and’s or but’s. (Yep. That’s why they call it the smack-down. It hurts!).

My grandma didn’t get beyond sophomore year of high school before she dropped out and she worked physical labor, cleaning houses for a living. She was a very good grandmother and as such, always wanted the best for me. The best she knew was that going to college was the key to success. I remember thinking to myself, “Hm, okay. But why exactly do I have to go to college? What’s going to happen if I don’t? And where’s my say in all this?” It just didn’t sound right to me. Even when I was five. A few short years prior, I was in diapers. I didn’t even realize what college was all about– if I had, I would have been even smarter to be skeptical.

Quite a few years have passed since that night I got the smack-down of the future laid upon me. In the twenty years since then, I am sitting at a table (in the same house, in the exact same spot) and I just have to wonder, what’s the end game? Is college really necessary? How come nobody is willing to update their beliefs about this elephant in the room?

We hear the statistics about college graduates not having jobs, not seeming to be much better off than they were before, and yet we continue to push these kids through a mill of social-norms that often leaves them financially scarred and headed for indentured servitude in jobs they could have grabbed prior to the degree, and with much less debt.

Disregarding “the college experience” which has always seemed to me a bit overrated, from a purely practical perspective, I have to ask myself is college worth it? For me it’s a done deal, I’ve already gone through the education mill. But with each passing year, it seems to me the answer is to that question leans less in favor of leaving home to sleep in an extra-long twin bed with your lab partner, and more in line with getting a job, taking a breath, and really figuring out what you want in life.

So, my question is: Why aren’t we asking kids this question: Do you want to go to college? (Was that confusing? I’m sorry.)

Another question we might consider: What do YOU want to do with your life?

And then a follow up thought: If you aren’t sure, or what you want to do doesn’t involve/necessitate going to college, maybe college isn’t the best (or smartest, or financially sound, or enjoyable, or sensible) way to spend the last few years of your teenage existence.

With all the thought and lip service we give to selecting just which college to grace with our presence, this isn’t a question I hear posed very often. Yet, it seems to me it might just be an important one to ask. (I’m just that weird).

And then I hear the voice of reason–I mean, sorry, parents (don’t know how I got those two confused for so long)–

But why would you bother to ask? I mean, what kind of question is that. Of course you need to go to college, so it doesn’t matter whether you want to or not. Not to mention, you don’t have time to waste thinking about that when you have applications to fill out and colleges to visit, maybe a large standardized test to study for. Now that’s time well spent. Just hang in there, and you’ll have a job like me (except a little less pay, because of the economy, you know…). But cheer up, you know how much I love my job. Really, I do. It’s tolerable on a daily basis.

The thing is, we have been conditioned (much the same way I was at the tender age of five, although I never fully bought into the concept) to believe that we are less-than if we don’t go to college. Less-than what? Less-than successful, less-than the best ourselves, less-intelligent-than the people who do go to college, less-likely to succeed. Just a lesser person all-around.

Not going to college is usually made out to be the worst path a person can possibly take not just in real life, but often even in movies and TV. You can get pregnant before you’re ready, or you can get busted with drugs, but that’s nothing compared to throwing your life away on NOT going to college. (I can hardly utter the words…)

Besides, if you don’t go to college, how are you ever going to get out of town? Maybe people don’t know about all the college graduates that “get out of town for a few years”, rack up some debt, and wind up back in their parent’s basement not long after the last notes of pomp and circumstance have been played.

I think I’d rather stick around for the first year or two and save up enough money to finally move out, not jump the gun and then regress. And I say that being someone who did both: I lived at home for a while before moving out, and then moved back in when my lease ran up after a break up. In my opinion, it’s harder moving back in than it is staying put for a little bit until you can finally be out on your own for good.

Quite a few of my friends from high school have the same, or equivalent jobs, to the ones they could have held (or did) back when we were eighteen, yet they went to school and got the degree that promised so much for the future. In fact, if they hadn’t taken the time out for school, they may have been even further up the ladder to success.

I don’t like using statistics, because there’s one for every opinion (even opposing ones) but from what I’ve seen in real life, it’s a risk whether or not college will pay off. If you’re lucky, which I was, the only real expense of college, apart from books and gas (still a good chunk of change), was that you took time out from your earning capabilities during that time. And that’s one of the best case-scenarios. I didn’t really get ahead, but I didn’t really fall behind either.

Some other people, quite a few of them, are much less fortunate. One friend of mine is in debt with somewhere around a thousand dollars a month. Money she expects to have to dole out for close to the rest of her life. She may be an extreme example, but the real kicker is that she doesn’t even specifically use the degree she went into so much debt for!*

*A side note: that’s not to say a degree is wasted. I don’t believe that just because you aren’t directly using your degree or knowledge, that it’s not doing you any good. I actually believe that no skill set we can acquire can ever be fully wasted. But, I think it’s a matter of how much time, energy, and money you are willing to contribute from your life in order to pay for that particular skill set.

Just because I think a class on basket-making may be fruitful in terms of your personal enjoyment (and also to hold your fruit), it doesn’t mean it’s worth $500 and however many weeks of your time. Then again, maybe it is. That’s only for you to decide. The problem is when you’re not the one making the decision. You may think you are, but it can be hard to differentiate between voices in your head of parents and well-meaning friends, versus your own, which there’s a good chance you have very little experience listening to.

Most big life decisions have always been made for you to this point. That’s another reason the decision of college is a tough one to make.

Speaking of decisions, it seems to me that kids are being given autonomy too late in life. I literally never realized life was mine, to do with what I pleased, until after I graduated from college. After that, with no one was lining up to give me answers on what I should do with my life (or at least not any desirable ones). It made me realize it was just me, myself and I on the open road. Long term relationship not really going anywhere, lots of babysitting, a little drug experimentation, and a total lack of direction.

You know, the things most adventure stories are made of.

My point is, kids should be made to realize that they do have a choice. And you can’t hold them back all their lives and then one day spring this huge decision on them about higher education, and expect they know how to make it. And remember, it does have a lasting effect. Whatever direction they choose, they are the ones who will have to live with the path, so it should be more their choice. And hopefully, they’ve had more decision-making practice than where you’re taking them out to dinner.

Our view of college has not changed with the changing times. By the very nature of supply and demand, the more common something is the less valuable it becomes. That’s quite obvious in its application for college degrees.

We are now witnessing inflation of the degree. In each passing year, the more education you need for the same job someone else was doing practically fresh out of high school. And yet the price of college is going up. Would you pay a premium price for dial-up internet service that was close to obsolete?

Also, I’ve just never bought the myth that educated people are any better than anyone else. Maybe that has to do with my wonderful grandmother. She’s learned from experience, by living, not by reading a book. She knows how to be, because she wasn’t raised on simply learning how to think. That may sound like a case for ignorance, but it isn’t. She’s one of the least-ignorant people I know. She’s also one of the happiest.

College graduates make more money. Sometimes.  Even that’s not cut and dry. Most of the richest people I know aren’t rich because of going to school, they’re entrepreneurs and independent business people who oftentimes, in fact, dropped out of school. And I’m not arguing for ignorance, but if you want actual knowledge, there are plenty of ways to get it outside of a classroom.

I don’t consider formal education anywhere close to holding the monopoly on how to educate yourself, nor do I think it’s the most expedient way. Many of the books I read in school were available in my local library. I could have spent less time on all the superfluous stuff like driving an hour each way, going from class to class, and spark noting/studying topics that were of no interest to me, and just focused on what mattered. I would have actually come out better-read, and more focused.

And yes, we’ve all seen or known people whose lives would be completely different, for the better, if they’d gone to college. People who would have jumped at the chance, who probably regret every day not having found a way to get there. Of course if you know that you want to go, do it! And do it gladly and consider yourself blessed to have such a strong sense of direction and drive, as well as the means to pursue your passion. But there are other scenarios where it’s not so clear. It’s like getting married: if you aren’t sure, don’t do it!

That’s not to say college isn’t good, or that I would recommend not going to college. I don’t recommend anything other than taking a good look in the mirror (hey good lookin’…) and asking yourself if college is what you really want. Or maybe an even better question to start with is, What do you actually want? And then decide whether or not college it the best way to get there.

Because you can’t become happy following someone else’s dream for you. And you can’t become happy just because the world sees you as a success. So you better have an idea of what you actually want.

And sure, there’s a chance you could figure it out in college while you’re ticking off your required courses and shot-gunning shitty beer, but you’re just as likely to figure it out in the real world, while you’re living your life and making or saving money, and not putting yourself into possibly long-term debt.

So, in my story I eventually caved to the outside pressures and did what was expected of every middle class white kid at my school (basically the entire school) and signed my life away for four years of institutionalized, watered-down learning. Did I like it? Sure, sometimes it was fun. And then sometimes it felt like an oddly formal exercise in futility.

Was it worth the amount of money it would have cost me if it came out of my own pocket? Probably not.

I was lucky enough to get a full scholarship to a two year community college, based on good grades, and then my parents paid for the other two years of state school, to which I commuted. I worked during all four years. I had very few expenses, so I was able to save most of the money I made.

The best part was just being around people my age and sometimes intelligent (or maybe just entertaining) discussions. But I also had a sense that I could be working a lot and making a lot of money during that time. I just didn’t see the point. (I was an English major, for god’s sake– and because I couldn’t come up with anything better, a film minor… Yeah).

In the end, yes I’m at peace with the fact that I went to college…

But that’s mainly because I don’t jive with the idea of having regrets.

I think it’s more that I’m glad it’s over and done with, and I’ll never have to wonder to myself, “Oh, what if I went to college?” Then again, if I was listening to my heart and following my dreams, I doubt I’d have the time or bother to worry about something I never wanted to do in the first place…

I think the real reason I say I’m glad I went to college is because it made it a lot easier for me to check it off my list, “Okay, so that didn’t change my mind about not wanting a regular job, even now that my ability to choose one has slightly increased…”

Because I went to school for free and I was still able to work and save money while doing it, it wasn’t such a bad trade. I feel very lucky for being in that situation, which made going to school not too much of a risk.

On the other hand, I think I could have gotten just as much “life experience”– probably more– by just being out in the world and following my instincts.

If I had to do over again, I would most likely independently pursue my interests, while making better use of my time and money. And I would till take a class or two, which being hindsight and all, I would know which ones were good enough to waste my time in. 🙂

If someone has the means and wants to go to school, that’s great. I would advise them to do it as inexpensively as possible. To enjoy the experience for what it’s worth, and realize life may not change a lot when you graduate, or maybe it will. Hopefully you found a way to come out of it all a little wiser, a little more yourself.

And if you aren’t sure, school will always be there once you know where you’re trying to go. But don’t go for the wrong reason, and the only wrong reason is any reason besides the one in which you just want to go.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: the ideal situation is that you take a breather and decide whether or not college is for you, instead of getting swept away by culture, society’s pressures, or the way it’s always been done. Make whatever choice you make for yourself, and no one else.

So, even if you messed up royally and went to college like me, I’m here to tell you that you can always go live on in a farmhouse, wear your bathrobe to work at a job you made up yourself, and cohabit part-time with a papillon who makes Mariah Carey look not like a diva.

Somehow I think that moral took a left turn somewhere…

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