Higher education

Mande Wilkes | Is college for snobs and suckers?

January 5, 2013 

At TD Bank, you get goodies for opening an account. When the account you’re opening is a savings account for a baby boy, the goodies are pretty cool – mini footballs and soccer balls, all in the bank’s signature lime green. They’re sitting here as I write this, tucked away in a closet but still visible. I look at them and then at my sleeping four-month-old and I wonder, what exactly am I saving for?

The answer, of course, is that I’m saving for whatever he wants. A part of me hopes, though, that he’ll think twice about college. I know, I know … I can’t believe I’m saying this either. After all, I’m part of a generation that views college as non-negotiable. A must.

But more and more, I get the nagging feeling that the whole thing is a sham – or at least an old-fashioned ideal, of value once but now pretty worthless.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Like any other parent, I picture moving my little guy into his first dorm room and stalking Facebook for pictures of his first college party experience. There are a lot of things about college that I hope for my son to be a part of, for sure. Not coincidentally, none of those things have to do with education itself.

What I’m saying is this: College is a fun way to wile away a few years while you learn some big things about yourself. Because of all the learning you do in college, almost none of it happens in the classroom. Higher education, more and more, is characterized by writing a bunch of really long papers (which you’ll never have to do in “the real world”) about peculiar topics like Lady Gaga’s effect on postmodern media (which, obviously, you’ll never have to discuss in “the real world”).

It’s not too terribly difficult (especially if you find somebody who doesn’t charge a lot to write those papers for you), and beyond the assignments there’s a lot of fun to be had. In other words, it’s good work if you can get it – and if you don’t have to take out gigantic loans to pay for it.

For those students – and this means most of them – who take on huge debt to pay for college, it’s not the investment they’re told it is. A degree used to be valuable because few people had one. But now most twenty- and thirty-somethings have a degree, and that has diluted the worth and diminished any sense of investment.

These days almost no jobs require a college degree. Do you know how I know that? Because when I look at what people are doing when they graduate college, hardly any of them are working in a field even remotely related to their coursework.

That means, then, that the value of college is in the fun you can have there, and also in the people you may meet there.

Networking, though I loathe the term, is the most important thing to do at college. I’d even encourage students to skip classes and instead attend whatever networking events there are. Because it doesn’t matter how good your resume is if nobody is reading it.

Of course, networking is the most valuable when you’re rubbing elbows with legitimately influential people, and those people aren’t hanging out around your average state school. They’re at Harvard’s campus or Yale’s campus or Stanford’s campus. Which really just proves my point that college is for snobs – and the suckers who hope that college will equip them to become snobs someday.

Just something to think about as the new semester dawns …

Contact Wilkes, a local cultural commentator, at m@mandewilkes.com.

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