“He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”
This quote will hopefully resonate with many soon-to-be college freshman because it’s from The Great Gatsby, universally bemoaned required reading in high schools everywhere, and because it’s a great description of how thousands of students across the country will feel as they arrive on college campuses later this summer to pursue their dreams.
However, recently it’s become somewhat popular to question the value of a college education. Very smart people, from PBS to Peter Thiel to this site, have spoken out against its value. These critics’ arguments vary, from the burden of student loan debt to the opportunity cost of 4 years that could be spent working. Despite what these critics argue, a college education a) still matters and b) is still valuable. This is by certainly not an exhaustive list, nor is it an attempt to refute others’ claims. It’s just my experiences and I hope they can help someone else make the right decision.
1. Forces you to consider your future
It’s easy to complain about the system most colleges force their students into: early in their time as students, sometimes as early as the initial application, schools require you to make decisions about what you want to study. These decisions have lasting effects and can often limit your options further down the road. However, the positive aspect of processes like this is that they force people like me to think about my future. And while I quickly abandoned my initial idea (Law school! Three more years!), I quickly learned what I didn’t want to do. It’s certainly unrealistic and possibly irresponsible to hold people with limited work experience to decisions about their future careers, but indicating a desired field of study hopefully sparks a discussion about what you want to do as an adult. Because this was such a difficult, important, and often uncertain choice, it was important for me to start thinking about it as early as possible.
2. It’s a whole new world
I vividly remember eating breakfast before arriving on campus for freshman orientation. The McMuffin did nothing to assuage my anxiety: I didn’t know anyone at this school, I was worried that I’d been admitted by mistake and wouldn’t be able to keep up, I chose the wrong school and would regret my decision forever. And worse, I was the only one who felt this way – all my classmates were infinitely smarter people who already knew everything about the school and each other and I’d never catch up.
These thoughts, in retrospect, couldn’t have been more incorrect. I made friends, I succeeded in my classes, and I chose the school that was right for me. I would have never learned these things, however, without being forced outside my existing bubble and into an entirely different one. Starting from scratch was an incredibly valuable experience for me.
3. Plugs you into an existing system
In August 2010, I and a few thousand other people instantly acquired the same title: we became freshmen in a system much larger than ourselves. While it’s easy to be disheartened by the impersonality of higher education, becoming a piece of the machine means that you are part of the machine. This is such a valuable position. You’re no longer just yourself, you’re also a representative of something that has much more repute and credibility than you.
4. Teaches you how to create your own network
However, the existing network isn’t the only one I benefitted from. Going to college also taught me how to build my own network and relationships. Meeting new people, learning what’s valuable to them and what they care about, and determining how I can help add value to their lives: these are invaluable skills that I developed through 4 years of trial and error in a Midwestern suburb.
The importance of this skill only increases after leaving campus. Throughout our professional careers and personal lives, the best thing we can do is meet others and help them achieve their goals. This is what networking really is, and spending 4 years learning how to do it in a low-stakes environment is an excellent investment of your time.
5. You meet some people you like
I spent more time than I’m willing to admit in writing googling “friendship quotes” trying to find a perfect one for this article. Instead, substitute your favorite quote about friendship. Maybe it’s by a dead author. Maybe it’s one of the “author unknown” quotes that people make up themselves to slip into articles. Doesn’t matter – read that quote and think about your friends.
College is a fantastic opportunity to make incredible friends. Spending hours and hours with the same people draws you together in a really unique and special way. College campuses are places were lifelong connections like this are forged and this environment can’t really be duplicated anywhere else.
6. You meet people you DON’T like
Of course, not everyone can be friends. Meeting people with different values, experiences, and goals was an eye-opening experience for me. Attending a relatively homogenous high school in a nondescript suburb was a safe and comfortable experience, and it also meant that I had fairly specific expectations of how people thought and acted. Meeting people who didn’t fit into those neat caricatures was uncomfortable and challenging. It forced me evaluate what I value in others and why I value it. I was forced to make conscious decisions about who I wanted to be friends with and, more importantly, who I didn’t want to be friends with.
7. Forces you to be bored
College gets a lot of hype in the media – it’s a place where you’ll always be challenged and engaged and working to change the world. And while this is definitely true (sometimes!), being challenged and engaged can be exhausting work that sometimes leads to a full afternoon of Netflix, Domino’s, and watching people on the quad. These boring moments let me develop another valuable skill: how to handle boredom. Having moved on to the corporate world, boredom is something that I encounter fairly often. Knowing how to use this “dead time” to recover, connect with others, and talk about ideas is something that I can appreciate more in retrospect.
8. You will make bad decisions
You don’t need to look any further than Facebook, Reddit, or Thought Catalog to see a plethora of stories about bad decisions involving families, friends, careers, and hundreds of other important aspects of people’s lives. College provided me with an arena to make plenty of mistakes, and more importantly, learn how to manage those mistakes and bad decisions. I misjudged how long it would take to write a paper (the planning fallacy)? I learned how to ask forgiveness without making poor excuses. I went out with my friends instead of catching up on some work I’d been putting off? I learned how hard it is to keep up with other people who are more dedicated to their work than I was to mine. I said some pretty mean things about my friend behind her back? I learned how to apologize and how long it takes to earn back trust. Making mistakes like these in an environment where I couldn’t be fired or demoted gave me the right mindset to take later opportunities more seriously.
9. It’s a home to which you can always return
Finally, this is the most valuable aspect of my college experience. No matter how crazy the outside world gets, I know that campus is still there for me to visit. When the outside world seems demanding, cruel, or outright insane, it’s comforting to know that I have a home (both physical and spiritual) to which I can return.
No matter how far I travel in my life, I know that I will take that sense of community with me wherever I go.
BONUS Reason: It’s financially valuable
Throughout this article, I have focused on the qualitative, non-monetary benefits of a college education. However, increased earning potential and professional success is the most obvious reason that people go to college and while money isn’t the most important thing, it’s worth repeating. College graduates earn more money throughout the course of their lives than non-graduates do: up to a million dollars more. The unemployment rate is lower for college graduates than for non-graduates. When I was considering colleges, future career opportunities were a primary driver of my decision making. For students who think the same way, the value of a college degree is clear.