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.

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