Social & Domestic Issues

Going to college – the right choice for everybody?

Going to college – the right choice for everybody?

We often utter profound phrases. Not in the sense they alter the course of Western civilization. Rather, their impact is measured by eye-widening realizations as we enter a new chapter in each of our lives. The first time I introduced “my wife,” or told the nurse, “His name is Phillip,” or said, “My father just had a heart attack.”

Or last year, when, “I dropped my son off at college.” And I then sat down, and thought. “In college? Already?” Then I recalled my first year of college. It was only a year later that I met his eventual mother. “Wait, that can’t happen to him, can it? So am I now middle-aged? Is this worth it?”

So pardon me. While I’m hyperventilating, I’ll let him speak:

There is a lot of talk these days about student loan debt and college value and job opportunities. There is now a growing feeling that, unless you go in for a technical or engineering degree that will let you pay off your debt quickly, college just isn’t worth it—especially if you attend a four-year liberal arts school. Yet here I am attending one of those exact institutions. And I will most likely not major in math, biology, chemistry, or any of the traditional STEM fields.

So why am I doing this?

Because college is not, and should not, be purely about securing a job or getting a certain degree. It’s really about making choices, within limits, and with eyes wide open about the consequences of those choices.

It’s not simply a cliché that most of college’s lessons are learned outside the classroom. From networking, to communicating, to problem solving, to time management, to critical reading, a good deal of material never appears on a test. Years from now, I won’t remember who the King of Spain was in 1567. But I will recall how to handle a long term project, coordinate my day, deal with the school business office, pay my bills, manage my on-campus job, and communicate more clearly and logically. To reduce college to a four-year job training program is to miss out on much of higher education’s value.

It’s unfortunate that society places such an emphasis on “going to college”, as it is not necessarily the right choice for everybody. That’s why the growth of experimental program like Praxis and mid-career degree programs offers so much promise. Competition is always a good thing.

President Obama is proposing ranking colleges based on “value.” But it’s a top down, one-size-fits all program. (And no, that didn’t come from my Dad, but from the president of my eventual alma mater, who warned recently, “A federally developed ranking system must avoid unhelpfully perpetuating the fiction of comparability across schools and must focus on return on investment.

Making a decision to attend college because you think it’s what you’re “supposed” to do so is foolish. If you believe that you can better learn life lessons elsewhere, then by all means, take that route. If you know for sure what you want to do with your life and you could better spend those four years getting started in that field, then please, dive right in. If you are caught up in the admissions game of getting into the “right” school, you are already behind. Most of all, know why you are making that choice.

For me, pushing myself intellectually while exploring who I am, and who I can become, with the resources I have been given is well worth it.

Okay—done breathing. Phillip has told me that college life today may not be much different for him than it was for me; that “life is still life, just faster and perhaps more connected.” He has a point. Sometimes we parents make bigger deals of situations than is necessary. And let’s be honest about the temptation to value our children’s college as a reflection as ourselves.

I must admit, I probably earned my bachelor’s degree out of some ill-understood societal expectation. But it did put me on a completely different career path than I first envisioned. And I learned some important lessons. Choices have consequences. So do failures. And that’s what the current debate over the cost of college should be about. I’m not sure what the correct answer is. But at least some of today’s college freshmen are learning those lessons well before today’s politicians ever will.

Lawson Bader is president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). Phillip Bader is a sophomore at Davidson College and currently a communications intern at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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