Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Argument for College Education

In May of 2010 I became one of the 27.4% of Americans who have attained a Bachelor's degree. That's no small feat, as the percentage of students actually completing their degree is only 47%. I was part of the even smaller group that actually finished their degree on time, and as I walked down the aisle to pick up that sheet of paper I did feel special. Four adventurous years culminated into this degree saying that I was fit to work in this society. I am now 'educated'. My parents are proud. Nothing could be better than this.

That was 8 months ago. Now I wonder if I wasted 4 years of my life...

You really can't blame me. Going to college has been engrained in our society as the appropriate path to choose after high school, and anything other than that is considered a failure. 18-year-olds smug with the notion that they are privileged enter an institution to be educated and to hit the ground running in pursuit of their careers and dreams. They graduate, still smug, with an 'education' that sets them apart from the rest of the group. Four years of schooling entitles you to a job in your field, much more over applicants who have only worked in the field as you studied and partied and attended mandatory Resident Hall Picnics so you can socialize with your peers.

Six months after graduation, you realize how much that 4 years really cost. The student loan debt in this nation exceeds revolving credit card debt, sitting at $850 billion dollars. The average student graduates with $23,000 in student loans. That equates to $276 a month in student loan payments. That's alright though, because you'll be making $40,000 right out of school...or at least that's what your program will tell you. Most likely, however, you'll join the 13.9 million other people looking for a job so you can start paying back those student loans.

My struggle with post-college life was a much more intrapersonal one. I chose a field that is highly competitive and that doesn't necessarily require a degree to be successful, and I knew that a job wasn't guaranteed. It is also a field where I need to have a grasp on reality, and how our own social circles fit into that reality. My success is determined by my understanding of what makes us tick as humans. I watch people and how they treat each other. That's a byproduct of traveling: you're genuinely curious of everything around you. You don't get wrapped up in jobs or vices because you know how big the world is, and looking inward all the time will deprive you of everything the world has to offer.

So when I say that my struggle is intrapersonal, I mean that I evaluate myself and my social relationships. I do work...but my identity isn't tied to my job. For my entire college career, I built this life for myself. I made friends in every social circle: from being a Vice-President of a Fraternity to playing D&D on Tuesday nights with the business students. When I left, I had to leave most of that behind. I lost what made Or, what really happened is that I didn't know who I was or what kind of person I could be.

This self-evaluation came from two things: being out of my comfort zone, and watching my friends make very little progress in their own growth. I didn't mind being in a new atmosphere, but what really hit me hard was watching from the sidelines as the place I had in their lives quickly disappeared. I faded away with little resistance because I was out here while they were still in school. I wasn't ok with it at first, but I accepted it as time went on. It was natural because the one thing we had in common changed, and we no longer inhabited the same social circle.

I was part of that demographic at one point, and looking back in I realized how ridiculously easy and absurd college truly is. Now I know that physics majors and nursing kids are going to wring my neck, but this still applies to you. Think about it: you go to school about 15 hours a week. Even when I was working on a show in theatre for 3 hours a night, that's only 30 or so hours a week. You get homework, which is usually from a book or for a test. You study, regurgitate, rinse and repeat. Essay writing becomes a habit rather than a critical analysis.

I'm going to take a stand here and say this with some force: if you whine about school, you're pathetic. Stop whining about studying or how long your week is and man up, because once you get out you won't be able to handle all the curveballs life throws at you. I'm sorry...I laugh hysterically when I read your Facebook status of "OMG this studying is so hard" or "Only 5 more pages on my essay to go...FML". Please understand, all this is coming from the guy who went up to Calculus III and took English courses every semester just for fun. Learning is fun, no matter the circumstance.

College kids are just that: kids. They are children and took the half-step into society. I learned this my sophomore year and that's why I made the effort to get out of my comfort zone and studied on the other side of the globe. I'm a rare case, because the vast majority of college graduates are immature, inexperienced, and oh so very smug. Their degree gives them the power to be the king of the jungle prematurely. Don't worry, I bought into the lie too. Everyone tells you how elite your are, and you believe it. And once you leave the sanctum of the university, you try to be the leader of everything. The uneducated don't know because they didn't go to college. They are down there while you are up here, where the air is thin and your ego is self-inflating.

I quickly learned, however, that my degree didn't mean as much as I thought I did. I wasn't entitled to jobs or respect. I wasn't entitled to anything...I had to earn it. I also had to learn how to be a member of society, interacting with more than just the 'educated' and privileged. A degree doesn't make you intelligent. If anything, a degree is something you pay for so you look a little better at the dog and pony show. You may look better, but it doesn't make you best of show. Be prepared to lose...alot. Humility will cure you of your smugness very quickly.

That's the joker in this big old card game that is life: that life is a game of winners and losers, and winning is the only path to happiness. Congratulations, you are graduating with honors from a reputable college. By all standards, you've been dealt a good hand, and the poker commentators are tilting the percentages in your favor. But you take that hand anywhere else in the world and, even though they have a 2-7 offsuit and are wearing borrowed shoes and pants, they will win every time. Their life isn't tied to the game like ours is, and at the end of the day they might go home broke...but they'll be much happier than you ever will be.

But I digress...the real question is: was my college education worth it? Is it worth the billions of dollars that everyone drops on a decent education? That's something you have to answer for yourself. You can be a part of their institution, but you don't have to play their game. I didn't, and am much happier because of it. I said this is the argument for higher education, and I agree that I wouldn't have learned about all of this unless I went through it all. College isn't for everyone, and those who don't go for a degree are just as intelligent as you are.

I'm not saying that my path was the best one, but I am saying that the vast majority of college graduates took the easy and safe path. They had the chance to pursue happiness with humility and curiosity, but instead believe that happiness is entitled to them through jobs and money, and they were too afraid to work out of their comfort zone. It's natural to want safety and security...but throw that out the window when you can. You won't learn a damn thing if you don't...

Your institution won't teach you that because you're in a bubble looking out. Screw that bubble, screw the institution, and get you butt out into the real world. Take the things you're learning in college and find how they fit in this ever-moving puzzle that is life. You won't ever figure it out, but you'll appreciate how beautiful it all is. Live adventurously, because all the money and power in the world doesn't really mean a damn in the end. College is a great way to start, as long as you recognize that it is only the beginning of a much grander adventure.

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