I was sitting in my office at work and I was half listening to the office chatter that trickles in from my team’s shared suite. One of my colleagues at work was talking, really it was venting, about one of her kids who is now attending one of our state’s Universities. It was a classic parental rant where she was expressing her opinion using colorful language. The main point of concern was that Junior seemed to be much more focused on the social elements they are experiencing at school, and alternatively showing a complete lack of discipline to do what must be done to survive college. She argued that it was okay to party when you go away to school as it helps a young person explore themselves and experience life, but you also, in her words, “Got to do what you gotta do”. I got up, as I do when I hear a topic that interests me, and injected myself into the conversation. As I teach college classes I had some points to make.
My primary point was that my colleague should expect to see Junior come home sooner rather than later. I made the point that for many valid reasons, colleges have built in classes to most programs which are designed to weed out those that are undisciplined. The theory goes that it’s an extra filter to make sure only the most engaged students take up limited space in high demand programs. We all agreed that there will be consequences when this happens, mostly built around the fact that junior will have to step up and pay their own way in life after they come home. We also touched on the college loans junior will have to pay with nothing to show for it. But as usual my mind continued to turn over the idea even after I returned to my office.
This conversation reminded me of another one I had with a friend who was adamant about the benefits of the “college experience”. In her opinion, it was worth the debt even if you were to completely remove the classes from the equation. She strongly argued that the value of college is really in everything you experience which helps you become who you are. Now it’s generally understood that the college experience is different for every individual because every person is unique. That being said there are some similarities that most people who have been through college will cite as part of the college experience.
An article in The Odyssey Online explored the topic through interviewing students about their opinions of what makes a college experience. The responses were fairly typical. They included things like learning about yourself and expanding your views by getting exposed to a greater and more diverse world. Another student cited making mistakes and meeting like-minded people. Some brought up more hedonistic experiences including lots of “Sex, drugs, and alcohol” as well as having to manage the consequences of those activities. Of course freedom or living without parental guidance for the first time was brought up as a core component of the college experience. Some students identified topics related to discipline as part of the core college experience. These comments included building character, testing yourself, and learning how to successfully manage your studies and related educational tasks by yourself. The biggest point made by the largest majority of students was about the fundamental social experience of meeting new people and everything that comes from that. I would agree that all of these points, and many others not discussed, are great examples of what most people who have gone away to school would consider to be a traditional college experience.
Going back to my friend who felt the college experience was worth the debt just for the life experiences, I have to admit that in the past I would completely agree with her. But then listening to my colleagues at work, I remembered something about my friend that I didn’t really consider before. Because of the unique and unexpected events in her life, after she completed her school, unlike the majority of people who go away to college, she didn’t have to deal with student loan debt for decades. She got out of it. I realized she didn’t really get to develop a truly unbiased opinion. Of course the college experience is well worth it if you don’t have to pay for it over the vast majority of the rest of your life. Exposure to a world of different ideas and experiences on someone else’s dime is one thing. When your paying for decades with only memories of wild nights or the feeling that you learned who you really are as your takeaway, is something completely different.
In another recent experience a young friend of mine recently moved back home after moving out. This friend didn’t go to college. They moved out of their parents and moved in with a girlfriend right after high school. Then when the cohabitation, perhaps unsurprisingly, didn’t work out, they immediately moved in with another girlfriend. Then, a few years later when relationship number two didn’t work out, they moved back in with their parents. I noticed over the years that he was working, partying, and learning other aspects about himself. Admittedly he worked hard at low paying jobs, but he also didn’t have crushing debt for the next twenty years of his life. He was doing the same thing as he would in college, exploring the world and himself. Realistically he was doing it more slowly. For example, he was limited in his comparable social circle because of their decidedly more diverse population of ages seen in the workforce vs. the more age aligned population that inhabits the college green. I think the important point is that I know where my young friend’s personality and values are eventually going to center. I’ve got another friend who, in their late 30’s followed a similar path to the younger friend, and they ultimately, over the years, wound up having an array of similar experiences and values of all the other people of their age who went to college.
Remember the conversation we are having is about the value of the college experience, not the value of the degree or credential. After much consideration of the four different stories I touched on here, as well as considering my own personal experiences, I came to the conclusion that it comes to the same end. Eventually everyone does get exposed to different aspects of life that help change who they are if they are ready for that change. It’s just that college is a quick and easy, but very expensive, way to accelerate one’s personal development. Life is long. I believe that people have an innate desire to be who they want to be. Let’s call it the personality equilibrium. Eventually life offers enough opportunities to expand your worldview when you are ready for it. If someone is introverted and they have a propensity to be wild, it will out, eventually. There are other ways to learn how to party beyond living with with a gaggle of dorm residents who love to cut loose every night. If someone is naturally curious and intellectually flexible, a liberal studies professor or a progressive campus group is not the only way to get exposed to new ideas. That being said, both of these types of campus experiences will quickly get an impressionable twentysomething to adopt ideas and traits they didn’t have before they came to college. The key word is quickly.
There is another side, and that’s the swing back to a new normal after the change. I know one child who was a great student and got involved with a liberal group. They went from being a typical good kid, to shaving their head, dying what bits of hair they had left a bright blue, and arguing with their parents about every basic concept of their life. They were working off the ideals that are sometimes presented in school without an understanding of the practical demands of the world. It’s very obvious to me that this child will one day reidentify with her parents values in the same way I have several friends and colleagues who talk about how radical they were when they went to college and how life brought them back down to a “normal” they were comfortable with.
The big question, the final question, really boils down to: is the speed worth the cost? I’m reminded of the old marketing line “Price, Quality, Service, Pick Any Two”. Many people have heard a version of this concept as “Good, Fast & Cheap” with the same “Pick Any Two” appended to it. When it comes to personal development the college experience is generally looked at fondly, i.e. it’s good. You also get “Service” of having decades of exposure to new experiences and ideas shoehorned into a few short years. But the price is very high, astronomical really. The average student loan debt is near fifty thousand dollars. That’s a nice little house in many rural parts of the country. I would argue it’s absolutely not worth the money if you have to take out loans to go to school. The Department of Education reports that the typical repayment period for borrowers with between $20,000 and $40,000 in federal student loans is 20 years, and a 2013 study by One Wisconsin Institute found that the average length of repayment for student debt borrowers is 21.1 years. That’s a long time to pay for a college experience.
This is especially true since you can get the benefits of the college experience for free just by living your life. You don’t have to be force fed new ideas, everyone gets exposed to them over time just by the nature of our world. For some, especially those whose college experience is heavily subsidized, that exposure in a short period of time may be worth it. Considering the size of the student loan debt crisis, the numbers are telling us that less and less people are getting a truly subsidized education. For those that don’t have a heavily discounted experience, who would be paying for 21 years, is it worth the money if your going to get it anyway? Again, if your personality equilibrium is such that your center is really beyond your early life experiences, I’m positive you will eventually gravitate to the personality you would otherwise have developed through the college experience.
Another question that always comes to my mind when I’m thinking about the value of something is: Can you shortcut the system? For example, can you work full time, go to school part time, pay your way, and have the same experience? My friend, the one who thinks the college experience alone is worth the astronomical costs believes that it is almost impossible to do it without being enrolled full time in school. She moved to a college town to have more of that personality expanding lifestyle after she graduated with her bachelors and was unsuccessful in recapturing the magic of her earlier experience. I know she’s wrong as I’ve seen it done, but it is tough. You have to be embedded in the community and the lifestyle, be able to pay for your life in a college town yet still have the benefits of time. College towns are not known for high wage employment for anyone who doesn’t have a capital D as part of their title. The one person I knew who did have the full college experience without the debt was living with her family members who were going to school. She was their roommate, and if she worked, I don’t recall it. I think she lived off her family and she experienced college from their connections. She drank often, smoked pot regularly, had many short lived passionate love affairs and had mind expanding epiffanies regularly in her substance influenced conversations. When her family finished, so did she, but she had no debt that I was aware of. I think this is the ideal way to do it, but the stars have to align. At the same time, I had another friend, a very close friend who was doing the same thing but he had to work full time to pay his way. He missed probably 80-90% of the activities that would result in the college experience because he was always working to pay the bills. The takeaway from these two is that one of the biggest things that you get with your debt is time. Time to hang out on the green. Time to get drunk to the point of sickness and then sleep all the next day. You have time to do the things that you wouldn’t be able to do when you have to work to put a roof over your head and food on the table. Yet, everyone gets some free time even when they are working long enough to provide for their life needs. In aggregate that free time eventually exposes the average person to the same type of experiences you’d have in college.
So the summary here is that everyone has a personality equilibrium, i.e. some set of values that they are comfortable with. Their equilibrium comes from life experiences, both from their formative years and new and different experiences they have when they are older. For tens of thousands of dollars, you can accelerate those life and perception expanding adult experiences in a few short years via “The College Experience” but then most are stuck with decades of debt. You can have those experiences slowly as you are living your life, but then getting to your equilibrium will take much longer. To me, it’s a slam dunk. I’ll always take a bit more time to get to the same end if it allows me to avoid the risk and stress of debt. The college experience alone simply isn’t worth it regardless of what my pro-college-experience friend believes. When you throw the college credentialing conversation into the mix the story gets much muddier. Some degrees really do have value and can be worth the debt risk, but they are a very small percentage of those that are granted by those our institutions of higher learning.
I feel like there is more to explore with this topic. I guess I could get together with my friends at my favorite brewery and discuss it further. Who knows, some of them may have some really thought provoking points to make on this topic. Fortunately, at my age, I’m smart enough to know it’d be foolish to take out 50K in student loans to have the experience of that type of conversation.