Over the last 25 years, earning a college degree has simultaneously gotten more and less important.
The United States has the most robust, open, and accessible system of higher education anywhere in the world. And there’s never been a time when more students have availed themselves of it. Considering how many job postings still list a college degree as a requirement, a person without those credentials has fewer options. And even candidates with a degree in hand often find themselves much deeper in a long line of qualified applicants than they might have been a generation ago. Given that it’s perfectly normal for a 17-year-old to not yet know what they want to do with their life, taking college off the table preemptively removes options that might later appeal to the former teen turned young adult.
But knowledge has never been more widely and cheaply available than it is today. Almost anything that interests you is just a few clicks and searches away. You can save the test-taking, application angst, and student debt of attending MIT and instead take more than 2,000 of their courses for free. The price of attending college has risen so much that the magic to be found by engaging on campus often doesn’t justify the lifelong debt that can accompany it. And while there’s a good reason someone can’t become a YouTube-self-taught heart surgeon, there are hundreds of other disciplines that can be learned and mastered on-the-cheap, and an increasing number of industries and professions that care a lot more about what you can do than if you earned a college degree at all, much less from a famous college.
My take: Going to college is still important. The name-brand prestige of the school is not. And nothing is more important than what the student does while they are there.
Lesson #26 of my final 31 posts: The student owns responsibility for making their college experience worthwhile.
I’ve always said that enrolling in college is like enrolling at a gym. The work and effort you put in, not the expense or reputation or staff around it, ultimately decides whether or not you get the results you want.
But the change I’ve noticed in the last ten years is that a student used to be able to get by in college without extracting much from the experience, yet still somehow be OK on the other side as long as they emerged with a degree in hand. They might later regret not making more of what was available to them at the time, but they’d get their first job and find their way.
That outcome is a lot less certain than it used to be.
Just having a college degree means a lot less than it used to. There are simply too many other people who have the same qualification. And the mounting student debt figures are proof enough that the investment of college carries a lot more risk than it used to. If you’re going to do it, you’d better be ready to do your part to maximize that return.
I’ve seen so many families rigorously evaluate everything about potential colleges—what they offer, who they employ, where their graduates get jobs and for how much pay, etc.—without ever considering what the student will contribute to extract that purported value. Would I rather a student have professors that are engaged than disengaged? Sure. But an engaged student will always find a way to get educated no matter who’s standing in front of the room.
College is not an amusement park ride where you sit back and enjoy the experience until it’s over. It’s a four-year opportunity, almost all of which will be available for the student who wants to drive their desired outcome, almost none of which will be foisted upon any passive rider.
What makes college worthwhile can and should be different for different students (and for any parents who are paying some or all of the bill). But whatever your version is, please say it out loud. Discuss it as a family and with your counselor. Find colleges that can give you the right combination of opportunity and offerings and affordability. And most importantly for the student who will be attending: accept, embrace, and maintain your responsibility for making your college experience worthwhile.
For more advice on how to make your own college experience worthwhile, here are a few posts and resources:
First, a past post of mine with advice from Richard J. Light, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, on how to make the most of college.
Another of my past write-ups, “How to build a remarkable college career,” is here.
A couple posts on using college to prepare you for a job after graduation are here and here.
And finally, computer science professor Cal Newport has authored two fantastic books on college success: (1) How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets from the Country’s Best Students, and (2) How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less.