Preparing for College

College Consequential

Pardon the play on words in my title today. College Confidential would be the first to admit that college is consequential, in one way or the other.

I think about this quite a bit. When I do, the questions that most frequently come to my mind are:

  • Why do we want to go to college?
  • Why do parents want their children to go to college?
  • Is “real life" capable of educating us about what really matters?

Plus, as I ponder the Big Picture of higher education these days, two Mt. Everest-sized issues bubble up to the top:

1. Why does college cost so much?

2. Do you really need a college education to be happy and successful in life?

Speaking of mountains, there are mountains of data written about both of these issues. I won't get into a detailed series of references about what that information says or who's saying it. However, I would like to give you my take, for what it's worth.

A while back, I noted a few additional likes and dislikes to my 2008 lists. To recap those, here a brief summary:

Additional likes:

– Meeting new people. I came from a small, cloistered community dominated by blue-collar workers. Penn State greatly expanded my formerly limited culturally diverse horizons. I met the sons and daughters of wealthy professionals and some wildly talented artistic types …

– Being part of a varsity sports team. Tennis was my sport. Before transferring to Penn State after my military service, I was a starter for a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. I recall the thrill of providing the winning point in a team match against our prime rival …

– Homecoming weekends. The one I remember most could have been the model for every homecoming. The weather was perfect: cool autumn temps, a deep blue, sunny sky, and a dream date on my arm …

Additional dislikes:

– Academic pressure. Yes, Virginia, I realize that we go to college to learn, and part of the leaning process demands academic accountability, ergo testing and project deadlines. Now, believe it or not, I was a responsible student who (mostly) tried to do my best work in (most of) my classes …

– Questionable food. Believe it or not, the gentleman in charge of food service at my little liberal arts school had a last name of “Bloodgood." Yuck. Just thinking about that now makes me laugh. The food, though, was no laughing matter. It sucked …

If you would like to read more of my ramblings, go here.

Dislikes may well outweigh likes when it comes to reviewing higher education. Naturally, we dislike what seems like a lifetime of debt, thanks to student loans. We may also dislike working as a truck driver after spending a fortune on at least four years of a philosophy major.

I've written before about whether or not college is worth it. Perhaps one way to look at it, to paraphrase a former United States president, would be to say, “It depends on what the meaning of 'worth it' is." Is college worth it strictly from a lifetime earnings perspective or worth it from a life-enrichment aspect? Or both? There are two kinds of “value," you know.

First, let's take a look at the value of college from an economic (earnings) and “opportunity" angle. When you search the Web for answers to the query “Is college worth it?" you get the usual avalanche of responses. I chose two from the “About 465,000,000 results [found in] (0.32 seconds)." The first is by Jill Schlesinger, business analyst at CBS News. Her article's thesis states:

… many graduates must now face the stark reality of a mound of education debt. Given the still-tough job market, many families continue to wonder whether college is worth it. The answer is yes, with a caveat.

What's the caveat?

… don't go into hock up to your eyeballs — and parents, please don't raid your retirement accounts and borrow against your home — to do so.

That makes sense, obviously, but easier said than done, in my view. Anyway, what are some of Schlesinger's worth-it points?

– … the unemployment rate for young college graduates stands at 8.5 percent, much lower than the 22.9 percent for high school graduates.

– … household income of young adults with college loans is nearly twice that of people who didn't attend college ($57,941 vs. $32,528).

– … a new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco shows that the average US college grad can expect to earn at least $800,000 more than the average high school graduate over a lifetime …

– … Priceonomics blog pegs the 30-year wage premium at $200,000 of extra income ($6,667 a year) compared to that of a high school graduate's salary.

– Researchers at Georgetown predict that in the next six years, the share of jobs requiring post-secondary education will likely increase to 64 percent by 2020 …

I came from a conservative (some would say reactionary) blue-collar community whose chief economic stimulus came from the railroad and its ongoing employment juggernaut. Thus, my cultural environment was quite cloistered. Although I had access to and attended a well-above-average high school, I was intellectually lazy and failed to take advantage of a reasonably wide array of stimulating extracurriculars, such as drama clubs, music groups, specialized science clubs, and the like. I focused on sports — baseball and tennis — to the exclusion of deeper cortex-enhancing undertakings. I guess I should also include “girls" as one of my focal points, since that area was perhaps both the most engrossing and challenging activity of my high school years.
Anyway, as my loyal readers (or should that be “reader"?) know, my chief motivator for attending college was the fact that I was recruited for tennis. Otherwise, I might have gone to Computer Systems Institute and become an IT maven. A funny thing happened to me while I was at college. I learned about things that stimulated my intellect and ultimately became life-long passions for me.
In the realm of literature, I came to know authors, such as D. H. Lawrence and John Cheever, whose works stimulated my own writing interests. In the arts, I discovered Dimitri Shostakovich and Samuel Barber in music and Goya and Pollock in painting. I also learned about acoustics, common-sense mathematics, and the German language (to this day, I can still state with authority, “Yes, that is the window!" so that any native Deautslander can understand). I could prattle on about how college expanded my thinking from that of a small-town layabout to that of a small-town pseudo-intellectual, but I'll spare you that misery.
My point is that college, in the true meaning of “higher" education is about more, possibly much more, than making greater amounts of money over your lifetime. As I look back over the many decades since I graduated from college, I can recall periods when money was hard to come by and my degree may not have been pulling its weight in helping me land lucrative employment. However, even in the depths of those periods, when I was discouraged and feeling blue about my circumstances, I had compensating resources that got me through. Nothing can pick up my day like the final movement of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, the finale of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto, or the fugue from Beethoven's C-sharp minor String Quartet. How about D. H. Lawrence's The Horse Dealer's Daughter? Or Picasso's Guernica? Without college, I may never have known these works.
Of course, your counterpoint may be, “Hey, I don't need college to enjoy great music and art!" That point of view reminds me of the legendary bar scene in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon (as Will Hunting), a non-college graduate, explains to an elitist Harvard bore flaunting his Ivy League college knowledge, “You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on an education you coulda' picked up for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library." (This was in the late '90s, so double that Harvard cost figure.)
So, bottom-lining from my perspective … Is college worth it? You bet. College is, indeed, consequential.
Just keep a lid on the debt!


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