Why Go to College?

There’s a good post today at Wise Bread making the argument that going to college just for the learning doesn’t make sense. In a nutshell, the post makes the case that, with only some peculiar exceptions, a person can learn Grads Kit stuff just as well and a lot more cost effectively on their own. I couldn’t agree more.

Of course, a person should probably go to college anyway. It’s just that learning things is not, per se, reason enough to spend four years and a modest fortune in tuition. There are good dollars and cents motivations for college and keeping a clear head about them is important.

(I haven’t researched this, but I write this blog under the assumption that my readership amongst high schoolers is zero. So to a certain extent this discussion is, you will pardon the expression, academic. Perhaps there are parents of high schoolers reading.)

The Wise Bread post mentions two non-learning benefits of college, networking and the acquisition of credentials. Speaking from personal experience, the former is vastly overrated and the latter more significant than most people imagine.

I went to Harvard, possibly the epitome of snooty elite schools. There are, undoubtedly, CEOs and successful politicians who were in my graduating class. But I don’t know any of them. There are 1600 people in a Harvard class. The classmates I have kept in touch with over 20+ years are generally successful, but not to the degree that knowing them could possibly have any spillover effect on my own success.

In my experience, a person’s professional network is built on the job.  It’s not the guys you knew in the dorm that really help you out later in life, it’s the guys you were trainees or interns with that are good to know later on. They are in your field and have memories of you that are not centered around beer bongs.

But Frank, didn’t you learn a lot in four years at such an intensely intellectual environment? Yes, but let’s put that into perspective. I probably learned more in high school (I went to an excellent one) and certainly learned more that was practically useful in business school.

It must be remembered that a place like Harvard prepares its undergraduate students to pursue exactly one career path, that of college professor. Any learning that is useful for some other pursuit is an accidental side effect. It may be hard for people who have not spent time there to believe, but Ivy League schools go to lengths to banish, as a conscious and explicit policy, the teaching of anything that is not purely academic. No classes on journalism or accounting. Even preparation for professional graduate school is shunned. There is no pre-med or pre-anything major at Harvard.

So why go? Is college, even an elite one, worth it? Absolutely. It’s all about the credential.

I’m in my mid-forties and the fact that I went to Harvard College is still a highlight of my resume. To a degree that I frankly find embarrassing, something I did as a teenager (getting into Harvard) still impresses potential employers. Not that I am complaining, but I could never have imagined this twenty years ago.

A college degree is a label, a brand name, a sort of USDA grading stamped on your forehead as a young person. I’m not going to defend the system, but society puts a lot of value on your educational category: great college, good college, college, no college. Any reasonable person would want to be (or have their children be) as high on that scale as possible. Just be sure not to pay for "good college" only to get mere "college."

[Photo: Kit]

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