Organizing the Rhetoric Around Why to Go to College

It is common wisdom that going to college and obtaining a degree is the smart path for any ambitious person. Since it’s common wisdom, most people have never been forced to articulate the specific reasons why one should go to college. “Just get it done and then go on and conquer the world,” a degree-holding elder might instruct the youth. The specific reasons why will likely be a hodgepodge. I think they generally fit in three big categories: Learning, Connections, and Credential.

Learning — The stuff you actually learn. This includes all the intellectual and social and emotional skills that are part of the experience. The hard, specific knowledge (who is Plato?) and the high level “learn how to think” stuff.

Connections — The people you meet and develop lasting relationships with, both peers and professors.

Credential — The piece of paper (degree) which said you mustered the self-discipline to attend classes, follow the rules, read the requisite books, and did so all at a level your institution deemed satisfactory.

All are strong reasons to go to college, especially the credential.

The arguments presented for not going to college and getting a degree also tend to be scattered. Usually, people say something like, “Well, Bill Gates didn’t get a degree.” Or that 73 out of the 1,125 billionaires in the world dropped out of some stage of schooling. That Ben Franklin completed only two years of formal schooling. While these can be fun examples, they are not particularly persuasive because they rely upon a comparison being made between the student at hand and, say, Michael Dell. It takes a helluva ego to consider yourself the next Michael Dell.

Better approach: If you want to make a compelling case against college, organize, de-mystify, and argue against the three reasons for college. Argue that self-directed learners have the world at their fingertips with the web and needn’t be stuffed into a system that assumes all learning styles are alike. Argue that connections can be built through other affiliations and on one’s own. And argue that substitute experiences (for the credential) can signal equally strong in many industries such as business or journalism (concede medicine, law, and academia to the traditionally credentialed).

I’m sure there’s some name for the argumentative device of working with and arguing against the stated reasons for, versus trying to muster your own points. Maybe this is “process of elimination” — you needn’t offer your own argument you just need to destroy your opponent’s.

Bottom Line: Assumptions like “everyone should go to college” are rarely challenged, and when they are, the arguments tend to be all over the place. Challenge bedrock assumptions. Worst case, you’ll bring clarity around the assumption’s existence. Best case, you might find the assumption rests on less steady ground than originally thought.

8 Responses to Organizing the Rhetoric Around Why to Go to College

  1. Zoli Erdos says:

    Ben,

    I remember you contemplating these ideas before your college decision now that it’s a recurring subject again, I guess the writing is so obviously on the wall: you will drop out… and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    Yes, most people benefit from those 3, but you’ve lived life in the fast lane: learned and achieved more than most people in 30 years, have more and “better” connections than most in their 40′s, and definitely don’t need credentials.

    You’ve tried college, because you just had to try (for yourself), now that you’ve done it, it may feel too … hm.. constraining?

    Move on, won’t regret it :-)

  2. I like these argumentative approaches. Useful in any contentious area, including politics.

    The idea that everyone should go to college disturbs me. A bit like saying everyone should get married, have children, or read “War and Peace”. Why?

    Also, you can acquire college learning right through life. Attending classes with people who aren’t the exact same age as oneself probably has many advantages. People tend to ignore that option for poor reasons- wanting to fit in, etc.

  3. Annie says:

    Really clear, fluid writing here. Great arguments!

  4. Josh Kaufman says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself… for people with entrepreneurial ambitions, college is often more of a hinderance than a help. Why spend time writing papers and completing arbitrary projects when there’s plenty of real work to be done?

    Any sufficiently intelligent and curious individual can pick up the “learning / thinking” aspects on their own via reading and discussion, and friends / connections can be found everywhere if you take the time to look. Credentials are only important if you want to convince someone you don’t know that your work is of value, and if you’ve built (or are building) your own business, you don’t need to. Real work always trumps credentials.

    The argumentative device is “refutation”. It works very well in this case, as you’ve stated.

  5. David Duey says:

    I come from a blue collar background; I was a licensed aircraft mechanic before I started college.

    For me, college was an important transition to the white collar world. Because of my background, I needed credentials, but more importantly I needed to learn how to think, act and talk so that I could better integrate with the white collar world. College was a new, fresh and exciting experience for me. College was a new kind of freedom; it allowed me to expand my horizons beyond my previous work-a-day existence.

    And, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with blue collar work, but when you’re not raised to go to college, once you’re exposed to college, it’s like a breath of fresh air.

  6. I can kinda-sorta relate to where David Duey is coming from. When I was young, I went to university. Later in life, I studied the construction trades at a community college.

    While I was learning how to hammer, saw, and drill properly, I was learning a lot about math, science (especially physics), and engineering.

    The textbooks had more than a few stories about how people who started out in the trades went on to get a degree in business or engineering. Or they stayed with the trades but started a business and grew it into something substantial.

    If anything, we need to stop thinking in the “college over here, trades over there” dichotomy. There are plenty of bridges between the two. We only need to see them.

  7. Krishna says:

    This *to college or not* (badly mangling the Bard?) topic has been raised by you so many times here and I like the way you sound out your dilemmas threadbare to get multiple views that you can distill from. This post is a reductionist outcome of all that had been said before and I doubt anyone could’ve reduced it any better, in such a succinct fashion. Your sincerety in seeking those views and respecting it is clear from the way you’ve been least bit argumentative, and that’s very noble yet rare trait.

    Ben, guess you’ve vetted it enough. You’re qualified to run a curriculum yourself on the way you go about your life which is very un-mainstream and extremely goal oriented. But hell, it’s not for all and clearly eludes standaradization (otherwise Harvard / Stanford would’ve already minted millions out of it :-)

  8. David Roth says:

    There is a lot of doubt about whether people should even go to school. The reasons–learning, socialization including democratization–are uncompelling. I think everyone goes to school because it provides mass childcare, freeing up parents to go to work, with the workplace of today being unwelcoming to a child the way a farm or a construction site was not in the past.

    I assume Ben has read John Holt on unschooling (“Instead of Education”) and John Taylor Gatto on what school really does to kids (“Dumbing Us Down.”) Indispensable.

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