Tuesday, June 23, 2009

My Advice on College

Since this is college graduation season (and high school graduation season for that matter), I've thought about the sort of advice about college I'll be giving my own children when they start approaching the age where it matters.

The first thing I'll tell them is that usually an expensive school simply isn't worth the money. With very few exceptions, no one cares where you went to school. It only matters much, if at all, for your first job right out of school. After that, your work experience and how you've done at your job will be of primary importance for your career. Thus, if the choice is between two schools and one is vastly cheaper, I'd say, go for the cheap one. Free is best.

Now, there are obviously exceptions to this, like if you want to be a faculty member at Harvard Law school - they are snobbish assholes and very likely won't give you the time of day if they don't like where you went to law school. Other academic positions may also have issues with that. Also, if you want to enter into politics, rubbing shoulders with the aristocracy can only be acheived by going to certain schools. And even that is not necessarily a requirement - it just makes thing easier. There are probably other examples.

With my first thing in mind, I'd suggest going to a community college for the first two years. You can get a quality education that way for cheap and then transfer it in to a four year school. This is also about saving money. You also may get a much better education at a community college than certain four year schools. Which brings me to my next point.

For undergrad, look for the school that places emphasis on education rather than research or prestige. That's where you'll get your best value for what money you do spend. A school that emphasizes education will tenure good teachers. Almost by definition none of these schools will be considered first or even second or third tier schools. But then the tiers are set up by factors having nothing to do with education. They focus on prestige and research. You might think that if you want to do research, it would be good to go to one of those schools for undergrad. You'd be wrong. As an undergrad student, you would not be involved with any of that. If you want to do research, go to a research school for grad school. The grad students are the ones involved with the research. If you want prestige - well, see above.

Speaking of prestige, a minor aside on that. At my first law job, most of the other people I worked with were not from big name schools. All of them were amongst the smartest people I know. Or almost all. The exception was someone who I admittedly never got to know that well. But even though I did not know her, she made sure to introduce the fact that she went to Harvard Law school when you first talked to her. Now, I found that interesting, though I never really asked her about school. I had never met anyone who went to Harvard Law, so I was curious. It turned out she was one of the only people to basically be asked to leave the job. I can't claim to know all of the circumstances, but I do know that she simply was unable to really do the job that everyone else there (from much lower tier schools) was able to do. Admittedly that is but an anecdotal example, but from that, I would be wary of being all that impressed by Harvard Law credentials in the future. Prestige is a poor substitute for competence.

The next piece of advice I'd give would be about what to do while in school. I'd say, firstly, study. Get a routine. Figure out how to study. Most high schools are not all that great at giving good study habits. Mine wasn't. That was mostly my own fault. I was always good academically. I didn't have to try very hard. So I didn't learn how to study hard. I just coasted and did well. I had to learn how to study when I hit college. It took a few tries. Which brings me to another point - don't start school until you are ready.

There's no reason you have to start college as soon as you graduate from high school. Not everyone is ready for school at that point. I probably wasn't - mostly because I didn't do much real living in high school. I didn't have many friends, never went out, never really learned how to be sociable. I did learn these things in college the first few years - but then I was so busy with doing all of those other things I really didn't do some of the basics like - studying or even going to class. It was good for me to learn those non-classroom things, but I could have probalby learned them just as well without spending lots of money on tuition.

Really, in the end, you get out of school what you put into it. I'd say pick a school that is cheap, has the classes you want, and then make sure you get your money's worth. Show up to class. Study. Learn how to stay focused and organized without parents (or anyone) peering over your shoulder. School can be very good for that, but only if you are ready for it.

Finally, consider not going at all if you want to do something in life that doesn't require it. I wish this were easier than it is. So many jobs now require degrees that really shouldn't. In the end, there's probalby not much you'll get from undergad that will really be useful later in life. Most of the classes I took I barely remember and don't really apply to what I do now. The piece of paper that is a degree is more of a bullshit requirement than something valuable, though you certainly can learn some useful skills in school. The thing is, those same skills could be learned just going out and getting a real job after high school. But until society changes, that piece of paper has a big earning potential attached to it, so you probably need to get one.

1 comment:

Krystyn41 said...

Ahhh you are so idealistic. In my family I am the only college graduate and i am by far doing the worst. I'm an RN BSN who can't even get a full time job. Pathetic really.