To Go or Not To Go (to college)?
That is the question

by on April 3, 2012 in Reflections with No Comments »


A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about two sisters with divergent academic paths has made me think about the question “What is the point of attending college?” Is the answer: to acquire a wealth of knowledge about a variety of topics that scholars and administrators have determined are worth exploring? To meet eager and like-minded learners with whom you will mesh on a personal and intellectual level and start the Next Great Company? Or is it to obtain a certificate that by its sheer existence proves you are qualified for a higher position—and thus a higher paycheck—at your current job?

First things first: we must narrow what “attending college” really means. At the most sophisticated level, it means being accepted to study as an undergraduate at a historically and contemporarily prestigious institution of higher learning, like an Ivy League school. At the lowest level, it means paying a couple hundred bucks for a couple of online classes. In between encapsulates anything from 18 year olds who travel a few hours from home to live in a dorm at their state’s public university to parents who work full-time jobs and take night classes at the local community college. But no matter how you slice it, each of these classifications share one undeniable truth: while attending college can be beneficial in a multitude of ways for a multitude of reasons, attending college always, always, always costs money. And as some people have discovered, the money might not be worth the payoff.

Studies have consistently shown that people who go to college make more money than those who do not. What those studies are incapable of conveying, however, is that simply “going to college” doesn’t guarantee that you will have a better life (the assumed result of making more money) than your college-less counterparts. If you flip a coin an infinite amount of times, it will land heads 50% of the time and tails 50% of the time. But if you flip a coin this very second, on which side will it land? Impossible to say. In other words, view these studies warily, especially if you’re from a working-class background and are faced with the decision of going to college. Obtaining a college diploma will certainly place you in a better position to have greater income throughout your life, but it will not guarantee that the realities of being human will not interfere with that income potential.

This brings us to the two sisters I mentioned in the beginning. Writing with clear, honest, pleasing voices, they explain how although they grew up in the same working class family, they represent two opposite ends of the academic spectrum. Briallen, the older one, has a Ph.D. from Princeton and teaches at Yale. However, because of the fierce competition in her field, her job is not a tenure-track position. As a result, she has far less job stability and makes far less money than a full-time professor. This does not bode well for her finances, seeing as how she pays nearly $800 a month in student loans.

Johanna, the younger one by around 15 years, was accepted to many high-ranking colleges after high school, but despite the scholarships, grants, and financial aid packages she received, she still would have had to borrow a massive amount of money to attend any of these schools. This occurred around 2008, when the economy collapsed and employers across the United States began cutting costs. In response, she determined that the benefit of attending college would not outweigh its impending financial dangers. Instead of going to school, she found full-time job in a bakery, which nets her an income of $13,000 per year. It may sound meager, but she has no debt.

I am blogging about these sisters’ plight not to convince you that college is good or bad but, rather, to ask you to consider the quandary facing both Briallen and Johanna. Nearly everything in life can be boiled down to a situation in which we can either participate or not participate; life is a time continuum of choice. Each choice contains risk, and each risk contains reward. Therefore, every choice we make contains a reward. When you combine the human elements (the degrees to which each person’s skill, talent, and work ethic vary) with the biggest mystical element—luck—you realize that when you make a choice, there is no way to know if you are placing yourself in the best position to reap a reward. Perhaps, then, the best lesson to be learned from original question of “What is the point of college?” is to go with this answer: do makes you happy at the moment . . . but—there’s always a “but”!—recognize, of course, that you may not be happy if you haven’t thought things through.

At least that’s how Briallen and Johanna handled their situations.

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