Are you in college? If not, are you planning to be or have you been in the past? Did you graduate or is it likely that you will graduate? If yes, why? Why did you go to college and why did you get or not get a degree?
Longtime Quagmyers readers may have noticed that I do my best to avoid writing about “university life.” That’s partly because there are no longtime Quagmyers readers – I just began writing this column last fall because I am a freshman. Writing about the college experience without any real experience in college seems a bit premature. Additionally, though, writing about the college experience and producing anything worth reading requires more introspection than I generally possess.
Recently, though, a friend of mine started texting me about college. They asked some annoyingly prescient questions about why anyone goes to college and made some compelling arguments about why they aren’t in favor of college, for themselves or others. That caused me to start thinking about college, and here we are.
Most people enjoy college- meeting new people, learning new things, having more freedom than in high school. Even people who do not enjoy the experience as it happens later remember it in a positive light. That rosy lense of retrospection (a real psychological term!) can lighten the burden of crushing student debt. But some people, including my friend, don’t enjoy college, as a student and even as a graduate. And even the people who do enjoy college might start to question its worth as bill after bill comes due, for decades after the experience fades.
To be honest, I am not going to discuss America’s student loan crisis in depth right now, partly because it makes me too angry (I suppose I should be glad that Trump and Stanford visitor Betsy DeVos are on the case, in that they are cutting loan forgiveness programs). More importantly, though, I am not an expert on student loans, and my opinion on them is under-informed at best. So I will say that student loans are unreasonably and abusively large and hard to pay off, and that many college students are spending valuable time worrying about college loans and will be forced to take jobs they don’t want in order to pay off those loans.
The fallback response, the one I texted my friend, is to point out that getting a job without a college degree is becoming harder and harder. Diplomas, especially ones with fancy names at the top, pay well. That’s what I told my friend, more or less: work hard now, stomach the classes you don’t love, and it all works out in the end.
My friend was quick to reply: what works out? Sure, a college degree is nice, but what comes next? Does graduating suddenly make me qualified to go out and live my dreams? What if those dreams don’t pay my bills (like student loan bills, for instance)? Also, when and how do I develop dreams to live? The story many college students are told, or tell themselves and each other, is that you graduate college and find a good (well-paying, moderately interesting) job. If you like it, you spend the rest of your life doing that and devoting your free time to whatever you want. If you’re feeling ambitious, you do that for a few years, build a nest egg, and then go backpacking through the Andes (or something) – rinse and repeat.
That story doesn’t work as well if you don’t like the idea of holding down a palatable but not amazingly wonderful 9 to 5 for a few decades but also don’t have a grand dream. In fact, that plan starts to look downright awful if you don’t want the cubicle or the mountaintop. My friend doesn’t have a mountaintop to dream of right now, and he doesn’t like cubicles.
The outlook gets worse if you take into consideration all the time and effort student put into getting into college. Stanford students have put enormous amounts of time and energy into getting here. So have students at every other college- as much as “elite” students like to pat each other on the back, people can and do put just as much work into getting into and attending a state school. Once they get to college, those students are contending with trying to pay the bills while getting good grades while figuring out what to do after college.
All of that work is supposed to be worth it because it gets you into college which gets you a degree which gets you a job… you get the picture. But how much work is delayed and uncertain gratification worth?
To be more honest than an opinions writer ever should, I do not know what to tell my friend. I’m lucky enough to enjoy the experience of being a college student- at Stanford, no less. I’m also optimistic (read: delusional) enough to think that my planned major and career will actually be the major and career I end up with, and that being here is the best way to reach my goals. But my friend is more pessimistic (read: realistic) than I am. What should students like them do? Can I or anyone else really ask people to pay exorbitant fees for an unpleasant experience in the service of nebulous, delayed gratification?
Contact Sarah at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu