Why is College (4 years, $160k) the Default?

A great post at the Creating Passionate Users blog titled “Does college matter?” She basically asks the same question I’ve been asking for a few months now: given the state of undergraduate education (she cites the new book Declining by Degrees: Higher Ed at Risk) and the fact beer is the overriding memory of college by most, why is it considered the default that after high school students charge off to a four year college? By the way, at a private college like the ones my brothers go to the tuition is $40k/year (everything included). Think about how one could spend $160k over four years to become a life long learner.

The conventional wisdom says that the specifics of what you learn are much less important than the fact that you’re learning the fundamentals, and you’re learning to learn–things you’ll need to maintain your skills and knowledge in a quickly changing world.

The problem is, you virtually never hear a student say that. It’s always the parents or someone speaking on behalf of the educational system. When was the last time you honestly heard (and believed) an actual current college student claim that the true benefit of their formal college education is in learning to be a lifelong learner? That’s just bull***.

Others claim that the benefit of a college degree is really more about socialization and independence. I’ve heard reasonably smart adults say, with all sincerity, that spending $80,000 [it’s more like $160k] so little Suzy could learn to live on her own was worth it. I think there are a thousand different, and often better, ways to achieve that. Suzy could join the peace corp, for example, or go on one of those “learning vacations” where you do an archeological dig. Hell, just a three-month long trip through Europe with a couple friends and a rail pass (or, as a friend of mine did, a bike trip across Turkey) is certainly going to do more for socialization and independence than a traditional college environment, and at a tiny fraction of the cost.

I have more thoughts on this issue but I am struggling to decide whether to post them publicly on my blog. Perhaps sometime in the near future I will share my idea for feedback.

11 comments on “Why is College (4 years, $160k) the Default?
  • A good quote to remember regarding education:

    “Whatever be the qualifications of your tutors, your improvement must chiefly depend on yourselves. They cannot think or labor for you, they can only put you in the best way of thinking and laboring for yourselves. If therefore you get knowledge you must acquire it by your own industry. You must form all conclusions and all maxims for yourselves, from premises and data collected and considered by yourself. And it is the great object of [our educational institutions] to remove every bias the mind may be under, and to give the greatest scope for true freedom of thinking.”~Joseph Priestly (1794)

  • Before you write off the college experience, take a moment to think of who works there and why. Professors are often world experts in their fields, individuals who think more deeply about ideas than the rest of us. Left to their own devices, they write a book, publish a paper, or speak at a conference. When school is in session, they are paid to work with you! Now, many students go through four years of college without working with a single authority who really opens their minds to new ideas. That is why the college student must seek out professors who have something to add to one’s education and take charge of one’s relationship with them.

    By way of example, here are two stories that I recently came across. The first is that of Christopher Golden (Harvard 2005) who conducted research on bushmeat consumption patterns in Madagascar that broke new ground in conservation science. The second story is of the effect of a Stanford law professor on William Rhenquist. As the story goes, Rhenquist’s experience with his mentor set him on a course that eventually led to the Supreme Court. I would argue that these two post-secondary experiences had a profound effect on these individuals.

  • Cross-posted from my comments at “Creating Passionate Users”:

    I’m overly educated. I own two degrees from Stanford and one from Harvard Business School, which have cost me and my family somewhere on the order of a quarter of a million dollars in inflation-adjusted terms.

    Yet I can’t imagine not having that education.

    Yes, there are those people who have a passion and may not need college to pursue that passion. But without college, will they receive a firm grounding in a variety of disciplines? Will they learn the formal frameworks that we never think about, but internalize and use as the basis of the improvisations that make up our everyday lives.

    I studied Creative Writing and Product Design when I was at Stanford. Rarely am I called upon to use the exact skills and experience that I developed. Certainly my knowledge of 15-year-old CAD packages is completely useless at this point. But I use skills based on my college experiencess every single day.

    Without my engineering courses, I wouldn’t have the same analytical abilities. Without my English courses, I wouldn’t have the same writing abilities.

    Sometimes, just doing isn’t enough. I know this is hard for people to believe, because it is very seductive to believe that just doing what you’re passionate about is enough. But the world works in a certain way, and even if you decide not to follow those rules, it’s important to know and understand them.

    It is very true that a conventional college education is insufficient. I’ve learned just as much outside of school as inside. But I don’t think I could have learned the things I learned in school without being in school.

    Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are exceptional in every sense of the word. Very few people have ever done what they did. Does skipping school work for some? Yes. Could the educational model be improved? Yes. Would skipping school work for most? Probably not.

  • Ben, from what I’ve learned about you through reading your blog, I doubt that you’ll waste away your college time.

    Having said that, I’m all for taking time off to experience life. Like Pablo Neruda said, “I learned about life from life itself.”

    Go take that backpacking trip. Do it in a country where you don’t speak the language. You’ll learn a lot more about yourself there. Join the Peace Corps. Take a month to volunteer at a refugee camp.

    College will always be there when you return.

  • Ben,
    I had so many AP credits that I had the option of graduating college in three years (with no extra coursework), but my father, who had himself graduated Columbia in three years because he
    couldn’t afford the fourth year, convinced me to stay, despite the financial burden on him. I trusted him then, and as always he was right.
    The great things about a liberal arts college are the things you learn by accident–from a roommate, professor or athletic coach, or from a course that you took as a lark or to satisfy some requirement, or from a summer job in the lab. College taught me, almost by accident, how to play music, to write, to love, to renounce prejudice, and to recognize religion as mythology.
    College did absolutely nothing to enable my livelihood (other than the credential), but it has enriched my life in ways that transcend financial value.
    Can you reproduce the experience without enrolling? I doubt it. You’ve got only one short life–why screw around with it? Sieze the opportunity that people your age across nations and centuries have only dreamed of. You’ll love it.

  • I agree with the writer who suggests that wherever you go, you will make good use of your college years. I also agree with the suggestion that if you feel you need time off, take it.
    While agreeing with your generalization about most students’ experience, I have to say that my college eduation was exactly what you claim to be looking for. I went to the University of Chicago in the early seventies and received a quintessential liberal education based in the classics. The one thing that college can give you that you can never get anywhere else is a foundation in the basic literature of our culture. I find myself using my college education every day because all ideas are connected and they all go back to sources. The right school for you will operate in a purposeful way to introduce you to the canon of essential works. This is harder than it sounds because it cannot be self-assembled – you need an institution that understands its mission in this light and organizes its curriculum with a focus on the linkages.
    Over the past 40 years, most schools have pandered to the demands of their students for more electives, and to their faculty for more freedom to teach their specialities, and the result has been a directionless in education. The fact is that the consumers (students) have a variety of goals, most involving careers or killing time, with a small minority actually interested in what you describe as “learning to learn.” Someone who learns throughout his life for no reason other than abiding curiousity is called an intellectual. If you recognize yourself, than you need to find a place that will appreciate and understand you.
    My impression from recent students is that Chicago is still the real deal. It can be socially strange because it self selects for serious students who have under-developed party skills, but my impression from recent students is that Chicago has made strides in the social direction.
    I attended an on-campus presentation at Columbia with my son and I think it has many of the same characteristics. Chicago and Columbia were both known for their strong “Great Books” programs in the 50’s. St. John’s is the other school that is sometimes mentioned in this connection but I know nothing about it. The other option you might find intriguing is Deep Springs College. It is a two year school where the students work a ranch and study the great books. It is intense and monastic but I suspect that you would not be wasting your time. I have never recommended Chicago to anyone, but you should look into it if you are serious about getting an education. Call or write if you want to talk.

  • If you look, you can find dozens of exceptions to wise advice.

    There’s a reason for that. Wise thinking is what *normally* happens. Some people buck the trend. If your life is utterly exceptional, you could be the one or two people in a field (like Gates, Jobs) who are successes outside the normal tracks.

    But there are billions of people who tried and who didn’t “make it” this way.

    If wisdom offers something, it offers an approach to your actions that would *normally* “crank up the odds” of getting you where you want to be, in a career or financially or ethically.

    If you’re willing to do something extremely risky, and live with the consequences indefinitely, then go for the snazzy, the cool, the cynical, or the unwise way. Hey, it might make you a Steve Jobs. It’s just more likely to make you a Joe Schmoe, having to pick up the pieces afterward.

    Again, it’s your choice. I’ve known dozens of Schmoes, you won’t be alone. But I’ve only known one Steve Jobs-like career. And I’ve also known a number of people who were reflective, sought advice, and took some of that advice. And most of them aren’t crying about the advice they took — we’re more crying over the advice we didn’t take.

    My wife and I both paid our ways through college, too. We didn’t go into debt to get our educations. I’d highly recommend that, as well. Find innovative ways of coming out of college, clean. If you’re set on a particular state college & you’re out of state, move there and live in the area for a year. Get a job flipping burgers or on a help desk. Pay your way for awhile.

    The commercial job world is not like academia. It’s worth every pain to discover exactly what this world is, and how it works.

  • I am 43 years old and have been suffering through college for just over four years now as a full time student. I have earned two associate degrees so far and am almost finished with my bachelors. My studies have been in computer science primarily and some business classes. While I feel that some useful information has been imparted to me in the last four years, most of it has been forgotten. In computer science information becomes outdated so quickly that it is almost pointless to try to learn something and expect it to be used when you graduate. Frankly from my experience in the working world I believe that it is nothing more than a method of maintaining the social structure and its class nature. Since it is so expensive to go to college, primarily well-to-do people go. Frankly the reason I am going is because I am sick of terrible jobs. I certainly do not need college to know how to study. In fact I believe that it has done a great deal of harm to my studies since it forces me to concentrate on information that is either irelevant or uninteresting. It almost completely destroys the beauty of learning. College is a big scam. In this day of the computer, there is no reason it should even exist. Computers and artificial intelligence programs could easily replace traditional college for virtually no cost when measured on a world scale. I have to choke up another $2000 in a few days to keep this nonsense going.


  • I have a huge mental list of why going to college is a great idea, but I won’t take time to list them all since I’d be here all day typing comments.

    Here are two possible reasons, which certainly aren’t the only possible reasons, and may not be the right reasons for you:

    Why be in a hurry to enter the work world? You’ve got the rest of your life to do that. You have a once in a lifetime shot at getting an experience that may be hard to replicate ever again.

    Sure you could always go to night school later in life. (I am a big advocate of continual learning throughout life.) However, it will never be the same as being 17, 18, or 19 and going to a school full-time with people of the same age and mentality.

    I found something in every class that I could apply to my work or personal life. Sometimes it takes some creativity to get the most out of college, by thinking about how the lessons learned there can be applied in real life.

    Just one note: Why $160K? I’m assuming you’re talking about going away to a private school? If money is a problem, then (aside from scholarships) don’t forget that community colleges and local public schools can offer cheaper alternatives.

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