I wrote last week about why high school is a waste of time. College is not exactly a waste of time. Some people can make very good use of college and for many it is a lot of fun. But, the idea that everyone must go to college is simply wrong. The idea is reinforced by politicians constantly and as long as employers insist on hiring only college graduates they may be right. But, the general public has many illusions about what goes on at college.
Top ten good things about going to college:
- when you graduate employers will think you are now more employable with a degree
- there will be lots of very good parties
- you will make some life long friends there
- there is a world of knowledge to which you will be exposed
- there are some very smart professors who you may meet and who may have some time for you
- there will be great conversations long into the night with your dorm mates
- if you attend college away from home, living on your own will make you grow up
- you may learn how to talk like an intellectual
- you will have fun
- you will try things (some not so wise) that you never tried before
You may notice that I failed to mention much about education in this list.
Top illusions about college
- there will be great courses.
Well, not so many really. Most courses meet three hours a week, and most are lecture courses. You really can’t learn much in 3 hours a weak and it almost impossible to remember a lecture you heard a week after you heard it. Why do courses meet 3 hours a week? It is very convenient for professors. That way they do not have to teach too much. At our top research universities (where I worked for 35 years) research is much more important than teaching ever is, and a division of 3 hours of teaching and 37 hours of research seems about right to professors. I assure it you it seemed just fine to me. I brought in research money and I didn’t have to teach much. That is the deal at the top universities. It is a good deal for everyone except the undergraduates.
- I will major in something I love
The idea of majors was not put in place for the benefit of undergraduates. Majors serve a purpose for research-oriented faculty. They make students concentrate in an area so they can more quickly be herded into the advanced research courses that are the only courses research-driven professors actually want to teach. They also enable departments to require courses that no student would ever want to take. These are typically courses that are very unattractive to students but very important for faculty, because otherwise no one would sign up for them and those faculty would have to teach introductory courses, which no one ever wants to teach.
- I will be employable with my college degree
Not if you major in English, history, political science, linguistics, mathematics, physics etc. The reason is that employers know that undergraduates have simply taken a smorgasbord of courses and have very rarely
learned anything much at all. Big companies hire college graduates and immediately start training them to do what that company does. No one expects undergraduates to actually know anything at all. It is an unwritten bargain: if you want to work in a big company, just get good grades, then we will know you will do what you are told. The companies will figure out what to teach you to do after you finish college.
- I will be better off at an Ivy League School
This country has maybe 25 or 50 top research universities. The Ivy League has eight of them and there many others. The students are smart there, they work hard for the most part, and they take life seriously. But Yale (just an example because it is the school I know best) has a mission that its students don’t know about. It is trying to train professors. Every research-driven professor (and that is whom Yale tries very hard to hire) wants to steer their undergraduates into their line of research. This is certainly what I did and it is what every faculty member wants to do. So, if you want to have a research career, Yale is the place for you. But what if you don’t care about research? Why spend all that money? There are plenty of other colleges.
- There are hundreds of good colleges in the United States
Well, maybe not. The schools that are not in the top 50 want desperately to make it into the top 50. So even those ranked in bottom thousands want very much to be research universities and brag on their web sites about the great research going on there. Why an undergraduate would care about research unless he or she wants to be a researcher is beyond me. But, the people who run universities don’t actually care about that. You never hear a university advertising “come here and we will get you a job.”
There is no easy answer to all this. Universities will not change any time soon. They have no reason to. But they are afraid of on line education which, although it is has not been done well, has the possibility of providing an alternative, learning by doing lecture-free job-oriented approach to education.