Is College Really Necessary?

Now I know it has been a long time since I wrote one of these. I have no doubt that’s okay though due to the existence of my nonexistent readers. I don’t really care about growing this blog or anything, I just want to have it as a place to write down some thoughts so my old frail self can look back on it one day and wonder what I was thinking when I wrote some of this stuff. Anyways, on to the topic of the day: Is college necessary? I did a post on whether high school was necessary, so I guess this is the next logical step. If you have read any of my other posts (so probably no), you will know that I am in fact a college student. A senior, to be precise (for all of you who weren’t wondering). Hopefully my opinions won’t be so controversial that I never graduate from college. My answer to the question of whether or not high school is necessary was a resounding yes. The necessity of college needs to be evaluated on a bit more of a case by case basis. Obviously, my perspective is that of a programmer, so keep that in mind as I am going through my thoughts. Also, I will be focusing on the academics of college. Many of you may have guessed that I’m not exactly a partier, and so I won’t be discussing the social side of college. This is purely an academic discussion (more of a rant but whatever). Specifically for those looking to get a job after college.

Because I am an engineer, I like order and organization, so we are going to divide this one up into a pros and cons list (I assure you I don’t have a calculator down there). I’m feeling optimistic today, so let’s start off with the pros. The first and most obvious pro of a college education is the structured curriculum. At accredited universities, you never have to question if what you are learning is relevant. Contrast this to trying to learn something online where you never know who is saying what and if they are qualified to be saying that. At college, (accredited ones at least) there is a panel of people much smarter than you or I making the decision about what we learn. Some people also learn better with structure. They are much more comfortable navigating a mostly linear set of classes that were put in that order by the people who know what they are talking about. This is much less intimidating than trying to master a subject area without any map to navigate through it. That’s like telling someone to visit every island in an ocean. People in college get a map, and people who choose to go it alone don’t get the map (metaphors are fun!). Finally, say what you will about tests, quizzes, and other types of assessments, but they are proven to make you learn because no one wants to fail. But why don’t we want to fail in college? Like a lot of things in life, it comes down to money for most people. Which brings us to the second pro for going to college: it costs money. Now this might be a controversial opinion, and you better believe I am going to revisit the money thing in the cons section (stay tuned), but money is one of the best motivators there is. Because students shell out so much dough for a few classes every semester, they are motivated to succeed in those classes they don’t have to repeat them and pay more. I have even had professors mention this fact to us during class as if we (as in all college students) are not painfully aware of it. The last big reason I can think of for why college is necessary is the atmosphere a university provides. It is not just you doing the learning. There are tens, hundreds, even thousands of other students struggling on the same material as you at the same place. This has a couple of advantages. For the competitive among us (definitely me), it motivates us to do better than our classmates. It sounds petty, yes, but the more motivation the better. Another advantage is that it provides you with people other than the sources of knowledge (i.e. the professors and TAs) to ask questions. Everyone learns in a different way, and some people understand better than others. When students share their understanding of things with each other, it helps everyone involved: both the teaching student and the learning student. There have been studies that show that students learn better when they are made to collaborate (at least I think studies like that exist). What better way is there to make students collaborate is there then forcing them to live together. Amiright? So just to reiterate, the major pros behind a college education are the standardized (and hopefully certified) curriculum, the motivation it provides by costing money, and the network of other students it gives you access to. Now we get to do the fun part: the cons.

In order to make this as simple as possible for you, the cons are exactly the same as the pros: standardized curriculum, cost, and network of students. Allow me a minute to explain. Standardized curriculum is good for the reasons outlined before, but if you are trying to learn a single topic (like computer science), then it may not be ideal. Every school I have ever visited or heard about has general education requirements. These are meant to foster interdisciplinary learning or whatever. It’s a good thing I guess, but for the purpose of learning a single topic, it’s not ideal. It’s like trying to learn a new subject, but in order to learn that subject, you can only spend ⅘ of your time on that subject, the rest of your time has to be spent on something else. See what I mean? A similar concept can be applied to the situation where you come into college with prior experience. If this happens, then some of your time is spent “learning” about things you already know about. So take away another fifth for that (depending on your experience level before college, of course). You are left with only a fraction of your total time spent on actually learning new material and being productive. If you are not new here, then you know that I value productivity above almost everything else, so you can understand my “feelings” (aka frustrations) about this “fractional learning”. I can understand some interdisciplinary subjects being useful, but I still won’t believe every subject is useful until someone can explain to me how taking a social studies class will help the majority of computer science students do better at their jobs. I rest my case. Okay, moving on to the second con: money. Now I think this one is pretty obvious. I am from the United States where colleges cost obscene amounts of money. But I’m also a firm believer in the capitalist system (‘murica am I right? (naw just kidding lol, but I do believe in capitalism)). So I ran the numbers myself. The average cost for college in 2017 was about 26k per year. The median household income in the US was 58.5k. Now assuming the student was born in 1999, and the family has been saving the same percent of their income every year, they would only have to save about 9% of their income every year to pay for college. This assumes the cost of college doesn’t change, and their income increased linearly from what it was in 1999: 42k to what it is in 2017: 58.5k. 9% doesn’t seem so bad right? Wrong. Most people don’t save much for college at all, so they end up having to foot most of the bill when the student is in college. Also, these calculations use median household income numbers. The demand for college has been rising dramatically as well, meaning more and more students have to attend college in order to get jobs. Because of this, more and more people in the lower income brackets have to send their kids to college. Because they are on the lower side of the median income, they make less than the median and have to save much higher percentages for college. However, with all their other expenses, this isn’t practical for them. This, combined with the fact that most families don’t save at all forces me to have to label cost as a con for college. If you didn’t understand the math at all that’s okay. Hopefully you can understand college costs big money, and because people need money for other things too, this is bad (was that simple enough?). I am happy that I got to pull out a calculator for this post though (I am such a nerd). This brings us to our last con to talk about: network of students. Because there are so many students studying the same things at colleges, that means everyone is bound to work in a group at some point. Personally, I am a big proponent of group projects. They give you a unique perspective and simulate the real world really well. Unfortunately (just like in the real world) group projects are often impeded by morons. Just to clarify, I’m not talking about the students that don’t know what they are doing. With enough effort on their part, they can learn. I am talking about the morons who don’t contribute any effort. These people are the bane of my, and every other group project’s existence. They contribute nothing to the group unless they are forced into it. Even when they are forced, their work is probably sloppy and has to be redone. I could go on and on and on and on an– well anyways you get the idea. Let’s just leave it at that (This post is already too ranty). Now hopefully you understand that the pros behind college are also cons, which I guess explains why there is a debate on this topic at all.

So what’s the answer? Should you go to college or not? Maybe? I don’t know… why are you asking me? You know yourself better than anyone else. That means you know if you have what it takes to motivate yourself to learn everything that college teaches you. And that’s really what it comes down to. If you have the motivation to teach yourself everything you need to know, then it will probably take less time (because there are no gen eds or repetitive learning) and cost less money (ca-ching!). Of course, like always, I am speaking from the perspective of computer scientists. A lot of jobs require you to have a degree to even apply. In computer science, they don’t give two cents about if you went to college or not. They care if you have what it takes to be a programmer and make them money. Because, of course, it always comes back to money. 

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