Why Go to College?

[Today’s Thursday re-run first ran October 6, 2009.]

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]


  • By Roberta, October 14, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

    As a fellow Harvard grad, I have to agree on all counts. Having gotten into Harvard 20 years ago has made been a boon at any job interview I’ve had since, and certainly outweighs the fact that I was only a mediocre student while I was there.

    My “network” has never had any tangible benefits – just some good friends that I email and see occasionally. I guess someone could go about trying to make friends strategically in college, befriend people that will be useful later, but that seems like a strange way to live.

  • By jim, October 14, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    I wonder what the current unemployment rate among Harvard grads is? Just thinking out loud.

  • By Craig, October 14, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

    The value of the network will vary tremendously based on the “track” you take through life. Business, or any sort of private industry, makes relatively little of the academice network. As you say, it’s the contacts you develop on the job that count. Academics, however, entering that charmingly feudal world of the university, can find themselves locked in to one sort of life or another with a shocking rigidity. Lawyers, too, who hope for a seat in the judiciary one day, need the right kind of resume with such and so professors, clerking for Justice whoever, etc. A pretty narrow field of human endeavour! But a Hahvahd sheepskin leaves them swimming in the current, not against it.

    But to the larger point: can people learn on their own? I am myself a devoted autodidact, but autodidacts do face a couple of considerable problems. They don’t know what they don’t know–what there _is_ to know in a field–and as such can wander into a lot of blind alleys and dig for a lot of fool’s gold. There are ways around this–such as picking a given college’s curriculum and building on it–but you have to be much more the intrepid explorer, whereas formal students get a native guide. Then, too, degree requirements force you to eat your vegetables–to take and pass courses you wouldn’t take on your own initiative–and this can bring important perspective and insight to the things you _do_ care about. One hates to reach for such a well-worn cliche as “well-rounded,” but it is a real and important concept. And that is to say nothing of the value of a fixed schedule of deadlines, exams, and so forth, that forces a student to spend a little time on schoolwork as opposed to drinking. So the autodidact needs perspective, discipline, determination and a modicum of wisdom to successfully pursue a program of learning. The eighteen year old with those qualities will perhaps not find much of value in college beyond the credential.

  • By Frankie, October 14, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

    The eighteen year old with those qualities will perhaps not find much of value in college beyond the credential.

    Don’t discount the socialization aspect of attending an elite college. As I understand it, the children of the poor, working class and minorities get the biggest relative boost from attending a school like Harvard.

    My theory is that children often grow up in relatively segregated socioeconomic environments. If you grow up in a working class or poor area you may not know how to work and interact amongst the intellectual and economic elite. Harvard can provide the requisite social polish to kids who weren’t previously exposed to the elect.

  • By Marc, October 14, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

    College is such a tricky topic because it’s value differs significantly for each student. There are so many variables involved. The out of pocket costs, the loan costs, the financial aid, the innate talent, the major, whether a student is a minority, what career they want to have, what starting job they actually attain, whether they go to grad school, etc. The costs and benefits are different for each student. So each student has to do the math themselves, based on their own situation. And if they can attain an affordable degree, they should go for it.

  • By Anna, October 14, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

    I’ve gone back and forth over this with my daughter, who is now in her mid-20s and never went to college, figuring she could learn what she wants (to read Asian languages and study computers) on her own. Which she has done. But I do see that not having the credential has limited her actual job choices (she’s apprenticing for an art restorer at the moment, which is a cool job but not exactly well-paid.)

    She’s looked at the cost of colleges and said “No thanks.” We’ll see if the credential becomes necessary. I’m guessing it will, in a few years.

  • By getagrip, October 14, 2010 @ 9:12 pm

    Perhaps Harvard, MIT, and some other schools carry weight, particularly with respect to academia and certian career paths and organizations. I’ve found most people are more interested in what you have done, and can do for them, than where you went to school. In a professional setting I’m rarely asked where I went to school, though I’m often asked where I work and what kind of projects I work on.

    With respect of having a degree or not helping you out down the road, all I’ll say is that my wife, who doesn’t have a degree, was being paid 25% less for doing the exact same job as two other people who had unrelated associate degrees, and she was better at the job than either of them (though I may be biased). Also a woman I worked with missed out on a promotion because HR didn’t feel her level of experience offset the fact that she didn’t have a degree, even though she’d already been doing the job temporarily for three months. She ended up going to night school to get a degree to ensure that she wouldn’t miss another such opportunity. I don’t know that it’s fair, it just is.

    I think a degree can help, but it depends on what you want and what you’re willing to do. You can be the candystripper, the nurse, the registered nurse, the physician’s assistant, or the doctor. And each one is often more than willing to tell you how the others don’t know as much as they do or messed up this or that, up or down the chain. But the bottom line is you don’t often get a “field” promotion to move up the line without the piece of paper to back you up unless you are the one doing the promoting (i.e. entrepreneur).

  • By Norman, October 15, 2010 @ 11:01 am

    I agree with getagrip. It almost doesn’t matter later in your career where you went to college (unless its Ivy League) or what grades you made. Just the fact you have that degree makes you much more marketable and eligible for promotion. Its just the way it is. You gotta have some sort of degree to compete in the corporate world.

  • By Kosmo @ The Soap Boxers, October 15, 2010 @ 11:14 am

    “You gotta have some sort of degree to compete in the corporate world.”

    It depends on the company a bit. I work in IT for a very large company (top 50 in Fortune 500). Refreshingly, it’s basically a meritocracy.

    Some of the best employees I’ve worked with didn’t have degrees when they began employment, getting their BS at age 40+. However, they produced good work product and were just as eligible for promotion as anyone else.

    Even the people who do have degrees (which, in truth, is an overwhelming majority) have them in seemingly unrelated fields more often that you would thing. My academic background is in business, there’s engineering, crimininal justice (former cop), etc.

    Where someone went to college is rarely a topic of conversation, unless it is regarding sports.

  • By Professor Lembach, March 11, 2011 @ 1:25 am

    “Credentials” are that basic human crutch, a set of rules that avoids having to make any difficult decisions. This is why they are so important at corporate HR departments. It’s also why a “brand” name carries so much weight: you’ve already jumped through certain “credential” hoops to acquire them, regardless of the actual value of the education received.

    Of course, nobody wants a surgeon who got his degree from a school in a strip mall.

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