Was Your College Education Worth the Money?

With the constant news coverage about the increasing costs of getting a college education and high levels of unemployment among graduates, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own college experience. Even though my degree cost more than I have ever spent on anything, I’ve never looked back and said, ‘Wow, I really wish I didn’t go away to college.’ Even though very little of what I learned in class is applicable to my my working life, my overall college experience helped to shape the person I am today, and I wouldn’t take it back. In this post on Penelope Trunk’s blog, Jon Morrow reflects on why he regrets getting straight As in college — because aside from getting you admitted into a top graduate school, there are valuable ways to spend your time outside of class that do not involve studying: “College isn’t so much a training ground for entering the work place as a sandbox for figuring out who you are and how you relate to other people.” I know that was definitely true for me.

There are a lot of skills that are valuable to employers that are not necessarily teachable, such as creativity, individuality, motivation and the ability to work well as part of a team. Some of the most important skills that I use in my career today, even simple things like a professional phone demeanor, come from my work experience as a summer intern at a law office and not from the course material I studied. However, my college education has helped me become the person I am today and has served as a basis for the continuous learning I’ll need in order to be successful. An understanding of my own learning style is probably the most important takeaway for me. In college, I needed to adapt to the teaching styles of my different professors so that I could do succeed in their classes. I’ve always hated the cliche “you never stop learning”, but learning how to learn has proven valuable to me in my post-college career. My first job out of school operated entirely on internally-developed software and training for this software took several months, but because I was comfortable and learning new things and not afraid to ask questions, this wasn’t as much of a hurdle for me as it might have been. Part of my learning style is asking a lot of questions, and attending a school with small classes allowed me to be able to do that. My largest class was about 60 students. I always found I gained the most insight from interacting with professors and guest lecturers one-on-one and got a lot of practice coming up with the right questions to ask.

Something else I developed in college was self-doubt. I graduated in the top 10 percent of my high school class, and I always felt confident participating in classroom discussions because at any given time I might easily have been the smartest student in the classroom. However, in college, where (almost) everyone is very smart, that wasn’t always the case, and after learning from what other students in the class brought to the conversation, after having my views challenged and occasionally disproved, I realized two things. First, to my dismay, that I am not always right, and second, that professors are not the only sources of valuable insight. One of my favorite commencement speeches is Anna Quindlen’s canceled address for Villanova University’s class of 2000, which was later turned into the book A Short Guide to a Happy Life. In it she states,”Here you could learn in the classroom. There the classroom is everywhere.”

When I meet or read about someone with a quality or accomplishment I admire, I try to study that person or talk to him or her, trying to find insight on what they know or what they have done that’s made them so successful, and how I can apply that strategy to my life and career. Living in New York City means that I have lots of opportunities to attend lectures by authors, businesspeople, actors, designers, etc. who I look up to and admire. I try to take advantage of this whenever I can because clearly these people know something that I don’t, and I can learn from them. I’d say I’ve learned much more after college on my own terms than I did as a student, but I wouldn’t have been able to do that without an understanding of my own learning style, self-doubt, and the ability to ask the right questions.

When media outlets discuss the value of college, they often connect tuition costs directly with entry-level salaries, and I think that’s a mistake. One of the commenters on Jon Morrow‘s post said, “College is not career camp,” and I agree. A good education alone is generally not enough to prepare a graduate for a job. You also need as much relevant work experience as possible and the ability to interact with others. That’s why job interviews are important. If a candidate has a great resume but doesn’t have the social skills to make eye contact or even small talk, that person is an unlikely to land a job offer. My experiences interacting with other people in college prepared me for the working world much better than they might have had I taken classes online or stayed home altogether. Although my interpersonal conflicts with roommates, friends or acquaintances aren’t directly related to any conflicts I’ve faced at work, resolving them was still good practice for the conflicts I face in my life today.  Whether you have to share a dorm or a workplace with someone who behaves in a way that bothers you, you have to do your best to get along with that person. That’s generally how I feel about my college experience. It wasn’t directly related, but it was good practice.

To anyone who has ever sat in class and wondered “Will I ever use this?“, you just might. About seven months after my graduation from college, I was summoned for jury duty in federal court. There was a man accused of murder in connection with a drug ring and he was facing the death penalty. On the first day, I had to fill out a 20-page packet on my thoughts about the death penalty in different situations. On the second day, I was brought before a judge, the defendant, and the defense and prosecuting lawyers and questioned extensively based on the answers I had given in my packet. It was like I was the person on trial, and it was awful, especially because I don’t have a clear-cut answer to whether or not I believe in the death penalty. Before college, I might have been able to give you an answer one way or another but I took an ethics class my senior year where we consistently debated controversial and sensitive topics like this one, and I was fascinated to see the many cases that could be made in regards to each issue, which is why I could not give the judge a straight answer on my views. I certainly never thought I would be forced to take a side and defend it, especially so soon after college. While I was ultimately dismissed from the trial, I felt grateful that I had been prepared, in part, to deal with a situation like this because I was forced to confront how I felt about the issue in ethics class first, even though no amount of schooling could have fully prepared me for the questions I was asked in that courtroom.

My point is this: college cannot teach you everything you need to know to become successful and good grades are no guarantee for a high-paying job. There are plenty of wildly successful people who went to obscure colleges or none at all, and there are a lot of people with Ivy League degrees who go on to do absolutely nothing. Your education is what you choose to make of it, and so is your alumni network. My college education has not guaranteed me success of any kind, but it’s helped me gain the tools and skills I need to pursue whatever I so choose, so for me, it’s been worth the money.

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