I remember the day I told my father I had chosen to major in sociology as an undergraduate at Temple University. He was paying for my schooling (this was back when parents could still afford to do that kind of thing), and while he never attempted to steer the direction of his investment, he reacted to the news with less enthusiasm than I had naively hoped for. He fixed me with a quizzical look and, without a hint of judgment, asked a simple question: “What are you going to do with that?”
I could offer no response. I didn’t know the answer. The fact is I hadn’t really chosen sociology as a major at all; rather, it kind of chose me. For that matter, I hadn’t really chosen college either, although on reflection, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Back then (much like today I suppose), college was just one of those givens in life. Loans were plentiful and cheap for those who needed them, and if you showed any intellectual promise whatsoever, you were pretty much fast-tracked into the college-prep assembly line. There was no use fighting it, unless you wanted to spend the rest of your life riding on the back of a garbage truck (or so we were told). That didn’t appeal to me, so in 1989, I was a freshman at Temple. My major: Undeclared.
My first semester didn’t get off to a great start. It took me two full semesters to get into the groove, but once I did, I was off to the races. I finished my sophomore year on the dean’s list and before long was gorging myself on upper-level classes in everything from art history to zoology. (Not really. I just couldn’t think of another “Z” discipline. But you get the point.)
I was such a glutton for knowledge that by my third year I realized I had accumulated credits in so many different liberal arts disciplines that I didn’t have enough in any of them to get an actual degree. So I sat down, tallied all my courses, picked the discipline in which I had the most credits toward graduation and started plugging away on it. I got my bachelor’s degree in 1993 and spent the next decade playing in bands and waiting tables. There wasn’t any more demand for sociologists back then than there is now; but the way I figured it, that didn’t really matter because—thanks to my well-rounded education—I now knew a lot of cool stuff. What I didn’t know at the time is just how valuable that kind of knowledge can be.
Fast-forward a decade. With my rock-star dreams long deflated, I was slowly climbing the editorial career ladder at a string of unfulfilling trade-publishing jobs when I decided to go back to school. But this time I chose to tailor my studies toward one single purpose: getting a job, preferably one both high-paying and intellectually fulfilling. I’m happy to report I’m halfway to that goal today. (I’m still holding out for the six-figure paycheck.) But I can tell you this: It’s not because of the master’s degree in journalism hanging on my office wall.
I bring all this up for an important reason. In case you haven’t noticed there is a war against higher education playing out across the country, with some highly placed and credible sources arguing that the lure of pure learning should be be supplanted by a more commodities-based approach to knowledge.
Last month, Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and a figurehead of the Libertarian Seasteading movement, went on 60 Minutes to outline his vision of neo-entrepreneurialism, minus a college degree. Thiel, who attended Stanford and Stanford Law, offers fellowships of $100,000 to promising students so they can pursue their dreams—with the caveat that they drop out of college. He seems to think that inside each of us is a Steve Jobs just waiting to get out, if only we could get those stifling professors out of the way.
Not long before Thiel went on CBS, The Gazelle Group—a coalition of university professors and business leaders in the United Kingdom—issued a report calling for a complete overhaul of the university as we know it, turning it from a venerable institution dedicated to Athenian pursuits into an assembly line for producing worker bees to fuel the insatiable machine of progress.
At its root, the nature of the polemic is an attack on the utility of a college education, not in terms of its ability to create critically thinking adult citizens, but for some perceived magical capacity to create jobs out of thin air. While encouraging college students to gain more real-world work experience is certainly a good thing (and is already part of the curriculum at many schools), the answer—according to these critics—is to abandon the institution altogether, or at least turn it into a glorified skills factory, where the value of education is judged by the size of your paycheck. To do so risks sacrificing the real rewards of higher education, and with it, the benefits it imparts to society.
For centuries the university has been a forum for exchanging ideas, nurturing new theories and passing along the cumulative knowledge of the ages. These talents may not always translate into an instantly recognizable career path, but that hardly undermines their value. If there’s a problem with higher education it’s that it has become too focused on providing an immediate return on investment instead of giving students the opportunity to question their own destinies and develop the tools to realize them.
It’s true that college costs more than it ever has, and there is evidence that students are learning less and dropping out more (straddled with burdensome debt that could take decades to pay off). But students hold many of the answers to that conundrum in their own hands.
For one thing, don’t rush into college right after high school if, like me, you would benefit from an extra year of growing up. People are starting their careers later than ever, and in the long run it’s better to be a 25-year-old with a degree in something you’re passionate about than a 22-year-old with an aching feeling you just wasted four years. And don’t pick a school for name recognition or because you like the way it will look on your resume. Why anyone would choose a prohibitively expensive school like Harvard or Penn or Dartmouth (minus a scholarship of course) for their undergraduate degree when there are plenty of quality universities offering a solid education at a reasonable price is beyond me. (At $180 a credit, Community College of Philadelphia has a first-year honors program that rivals those at many four-year colleges.) Save the big names for graduate school when they’ll pack more punch.
Finally, consider spending your first year in a comprehensive liberal arts program. A foundation in political science, history, literature and rhetoric will prove invaluable to your future success and make you a better person and citizen—regardless of your chosen career path.
Which brings me back to my very expensive wallpaper. I won’t sit here and tell you I regret spending the price of an Audi A4 for an official document that no one ever sees saying I mastered something (though sometimes I question the sensibility of it). But before I went the “skills factory” route, I was fortunate enough to spend four years tasting the fruits of academia—an experience that was ultimately more valuable and, to this day, gives me a leg up in just about everything I do. Getting a college degree only for the presumed material rewards will not only deprive you of that sweet ambrosia, but it’s a good way to set yourself up for disappointment.