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Donn King


10 Reasons to Go to College, and How Best to Do It

I know James says college is a waste of time. I 90 percent agree with him, but it's not that college is a waste of time. Rather, we waste college through misuse. Here are 10 reasons to go to college while making sure you're approaching it wisely.

Base: college is not now and has never been primarily for getting a job. I realize that's the reason most people go to college, and that's the reason they waste it. I heard the CEO of a major tech firm say to a roomful of college educators, "If you give into the pressure that comes from legislators and others to get rid of 'extra' courses that aren't directly tied to the job, we won't need you anymore. I can teach them to program. I can't teach them to show up on time, or how to work with other people, or how to set longtime worthwhile goals and stick with them." In the same talk, he said, "We only hire college graduates, and we try to hire computer science majors, but it's not because of what they know. The first thing we have to do is re-teach them programming, because if they learned the language in college it's already out of date. What we're hiring is the documented ability to learn a language and solve problems." In other words, the job comes as a side benefit to the primary purpose of college: to become a more effectively functioning human being.

It's certainly not the only way to accomplish that, but it is a way—but only if you realize that's what you're there for.

When you do, you have a 3D education—you Develop, Demonstrate, and Document that you have developed the characteristics that wise employers want. Want to go into business for yourself? The first two Ds matter more in that case. But if you just jumped through the hoops to get your doggie biscuit, you probably wasted your time, your money, and the taxpayers' money.

It matters less what you get out of college and more what college gets out of you.

So, no, you don't have to go to college. But if you do, do it right.


Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

    1. Learn to solve complex problems.

    You don't take calculus because you're going to use calculus every day. You take calculus because of what the process of learning calculus does to the way your brain works. Same thing for history. Same thing for composition and public speaking. You're developing capabilities, not just absorbing information.

    One of the complex problems you solve is figuring out the mix of courses you need to get the degree.

    2. Learn to pick the right problem.

    Stephen R. Covey talked about the frustration of working to climb a ladder, only to find it propped up against the wrong wall. Part of critical thinking is choosing the right problem to work on. There will always be more needs than what I have time or resources to address. I need to focus on the 20% that produces 80% of the results.

    3. Get beyond the classroom.

    If we think college is about sitting in a classroom listening to someone talk, we're wasting our time and the professor's time. The classroom is just one resource in the process of becoming a more effectively functioning human being. I'm not talking about partying. I'm talking about getting involved in campus organizations and activities, and taking advantage of service learning activities and internships. Even for traditional jobs, employers look to see if you've done more than just sit in a classroom.

    4. Learn to work with other people.

    You can learn teamwork through playing video games. In fact, it would be better to play video games than to go to college if you're just going to go to class, jump through the hoops, and get your ticket punched. Get in a study group, work on a group project, contribute, argue, dig, visit professors in their offices.

    5. Learn to set long-term worthwhile goals.

    People often have an inaccurate view of what Angela Duckworth meant when she wrote about grit. Grit isn't the ability to stick doggedly with something. It's the ability to stick with something worthwhile. That implies evaluation, decisions in the face of uncertainty, and the willingness to quit when you determine the goals isn't worthwhile. All of that is involved in setting the long-term goal that achieving a college degree represents.

    6. Learn to stick with worthwhile goals even when you're not getting a lot of attaboys.

    The old saying is that "Cs get degrees." Some employers prefer people with C averages, because their possession of a degree indicates the ability to stick with a goal even without the constant ego boost of the highest grades. The ability to earn an A doesn't mean a whole lot for real-life work. But the ability to navigate the complex plan of college and stick with is does.

    7. Ignore the fancy name.

    Nobody really cares about the name of the college you attended. They want to know it's not a degree mill, but beyond that it doesn't really matter. While the study is out of date, one study found that out of 17 factors involved in the a college graduate getting a job, the college you attended is number 17. The specific ranking of those factors has no doubt shifted over the years, but the general trend remains. Don't go into debt to go to a fancy college. Use your state university and your local community college.

    8. Make use of resources to get through debt-free.

    Again, community college is an underappreciated resource. Some are crap, but so are some prestigious universities. Find one in your area with a good reputation. Use their financial aid office to research scholarships and grants, even if your grades aren't great. It's amazing how you can find grants (which don't require repayment) available to the children of left-handed Republican joggers or some such. Let the financial aid office help you find those.

    9. Stop worrying about the major.

    Remember that study that showed the particular college you attended was factor #17? The same study shows that your major is #10. I don't have the reference any more, but a few years ago the folks who put out the Occupational Outlook Handbook said that five years after college graduation fewer than 25% of college graduates were working in the field in which they majored. That doesn't mean the degree is useless; it means it's really portable. If you're aiming for a career in medicine or engineering, the major matters. Otherwise, employers care that you have a major because it's part of that long-term plan thing. But they don't care what it's in.

    10. Start networking immediately.

    Don't wait until you are ready to graduate to start building connections. Use LinkedIn all through college to start building your network. The old saying is that it's not what you know, it's who you know. That's only half true. If you know what you're doing, but nobody knows it, it doesn't help. But if you don't know what you're doing, and everybody knows it, then it still doesn't help. You need to make sure you know your stuff, and also make sure that people know it. It's not about schmoozing. It's about making connections and fostering actual relationships.

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