College Allows You to "Find Yourself," But is the Investment Worth It?

Early May is difficult for upcoming college graduates, but trust me — it’s even more difficult for recent college grads. This mess of ugly, twisted feelings is something I had to confront a year ago, at the one-year anniversary of my own graduation from Vassar College. And though the feelings are similar — reflection, nostalgia, loss of direction, loss of purpose — this year they’re a bit different.

For me, there’s much less of a rose-colored sense of the value of what my class achieved on that day in May 2011. More and more, I wonder — did the whole experience make even minimal sense?

Consider: To prove basic employability, is it reasonable to spend four years packed like sardines in a drug, sex, and alcohol-fueled bubble? If so, is it valuable enough to go into massive financial debt to do so? Is it valuable enough to commit four years of our lives to this setting? And, emotionally, is it so wise to immerse a generation in a social wonderland whose inevitable annihilation is just so achingly slow and painful?

To top it off, nowadays when the bubble pops, one particular catch is even more pernicious. They tell you after-the-fact that there are yet other things you need to do to prove you’re worth hiring. Maybe it’s years of grad school. Maybe it’s working for no pay at something called an internship. Maybe you have to network. No worries, they say — here’s a story about someone your age who succeeded. Why can’t you be like them? Be inspired.

Hardship is a part of everyone’s life. Work doesn’t always pay off. Friends come and go. People change locations, jobs, social groups — you name it. But all of these things usually don’t come with a price tag of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. And it doesn’t need to come with being immersed in a way-too-comfortable four-year fantasy of late adolescence.

Maybe at one time this was a valuable way of doing things, but things have changed significantly in the last half-century. Students are coerced into throwing down tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars because it’s historically been the case that, in the long run, a college degree is valuable. But given the breakneck speed at which it’s all changing, at what point do we begin to question whether or not this trade-off is commensurate with its value?

College is so the norm right now that it’s difficult to consider a viable alternative, especially for new applicants. The massive industry centered on everything collegiate hits you in late middle school and doesn’t abate until orientation. (You only realize it even existed when it mysteriously drops off the face of the Earth — replaced with sheepish solicitations for money from alum committees and annual funds.) It’s all pretty overwhelming for kids in their mid-teens and for parents who came of age in a different generation.

And now, because everyone goes to college, its existence has become self-justifying — the absence of a Bachelor’s Degree stands out more than a degree itself otherwise would. That’s the case even if sitting in a classroom, writing papers of a fixed length and making sure to do your citations correctly have nothing to do with your chosen career field. Because after all, you’d be even worse off if you didn’t have it — so, best to take your chances and lay down the cash.

I don’t want to give off the impression that college was a worthless experience for me. It was a life-changing one. For me, the personal impact of being in a world where talent, intellect, and curiosity were recognized or valued by peers — rather than just the ability to play sports and shoving people into lockers — can’t be understated. For those with a burning passion for learning — albeit in a strictly academic setting — college is a justifiable expense, though it’s certainly not the only way to grow your brain. Education, youth fellowship, academia, and most of the core components of college are good — great, even. I’m who I am today because of it.-

But when I think about why I went to college, was that really the reason I went? This is all very valuable at face value, but is that utility commensurate with college’s cost?

I thought that for the more than $150,000 I spent on the venture that it would be more than a “nice experience.” I thought I’d have more to show for it than an ability to write fixed-length papers in an academic style. I thought I’d know what I wanted to do when I got out. That’s what I was told. That’s what they told me in my sophomore year of high school as I sat in some goofball how-to-get-into-college “colloquium” with dozens of other starry-eyed 14 and 15-year-olds who’d been told, like me, that our “giftedness” was going to lead us to great things.

And so now I wonder whether college-by-default — college as a means to “explore yourself” — is really worth so much. Given the immense cost of money, time, energy, and eventual emotional trauma of leaving the cozy bubble, I’m not sure.

The issue: In a world where it’s historically been necessary, there seems to be no other option that isn’t on its face life-definingly risky.

If there’s one thing that college gave me the ability to do, it’s to question everything. That deconstructionist impulse has given way to a realization: that college only makes sense as an accidental tradeoff that society made a few decades ago — and this tradeoff just happened to work out.

It appears to be worth the financial burden to isolate young people from the rest of society during their formative adult years, keeping that volatility, self-importance and misbehavior in a sterile, sequestered environment. By adding to the equation a veneer of structure and often-times a ruse of serious education, all of the dangerous trial-and-error of late adolescence gets put off and/or put away for four years that otherwise would be spent with the rest of the world.

No one person or group of people came to this conclusion. Rather it’s the repurposing of a system that was once meant for education but has been so transformed that it’s become the effective isolation of the younger generation for a little more time. Better for the rest of the world, it seems, that all that angst and rape and substance abuse be taking place in extrajudicial city-states spread across the country. Better that kids at least fake having an interest in academia so their energies aren’t only spent on nihilistic impulses. Better that everyone is given a shot to — at the very least — be cultured out of the masochistic anarcho-communes that are American public high schools.

On the way, let’s just hope that the problem of mass post-college unemployment and underemployment is a temporary phenomenon. Otherwise, this system is sure to break down and pop, just like it does on a personal level for thousands of college grads every year.

So, for the upcoming college grads — welcome to this new world. The popping of the bubble is rough, but accepting it makes it a little easier to manage. One moment, you’re in entropic environment where you have to actually work to not find friends or social stimulation. Then you’re at home, or at a lonely apartment somewhere in the city, and you actually have to go out and make friends — not have them handed to you on a plate via alcohol addiction or activity fairs. You get home on that first night and think — did that really happen? You’ve been home before, but this feels different. Your other home is gone — it really was the dream, and this — this here is real. That wonderland that welcomed you with open arms four years before has now unceremoniously expelled you from its grounds.

That being said, there was an upside for me: The permanence of location that the new world seemed to offer. Before, it was always bouncing from one break to another, never spending more than a few weeks in one spot, never not having that shadow of summer or winter or the dreaded cap-and-gown farewell hanging over you. Relationships were hard to build once you came to the unavoidable personal question of: Is this going to last after graduation? And thus, is it worth my limited time?

There was always that sense that this artificial construct would not – could not – last beyond those ivory gates. And so, feeling a sense of “Yes, this is my home” was a comforting feeling. “This is where I’m going to be. I’ll make the best of this now, for as long as I can.” Not, notably, until a fixed and unavoidable doomsday date on a calendar that’s really not too far off in the future.

Unfortunately as that doomsday approaches, you have to acknowledge that with rare exception, everything you did, built, worked for, loved, hated — it all just kind of fades into the mist. Maybe later, you go back to your campus and wander around, feeling like a ghost. In a sense, you have indeed passed on. Returning is only temporary. Those around you are mortal too — they’ll disappear and go through the same thing.

Does it get better? Presumably it will — the economy will pick up, we’ll all get jobs, have apartments and houses and eventually families of our own. It got better for those in the past, but then — a lot of collegiate assumptions are worth taking another look at.

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