College Myths

There have been lots of discussions in the media over the past year or two about the value of a college education. While this is a huge topic, and I won’t try to address all the issues in one post, I do want to address some myths about college that appeared in an article on The Daily Ticker. These myths were compiled by a respected scholar and author, Jeff Selingo, and I’m not going to dispute him. But I do think his ideas worth discussing.

The first myth is  that “American Colleges are the Best in the World.” The author says that the U.S. is actually ranked 14th in the world, but the article doesn’t describe the basis for that ranking (you would have to buy his book to get that data). However, what does that ranking mean to those of you who are currently in college in the U.S.? And should it mean anything? You’re still capable of getting a good education, especially if you’re willing to be a critical consumer. What I mean by that is that you need to do some research about your school and your professors. Find out which courses are going to give you the most return for your investment of time and money. Ask your classmates and friends about their experiences. Don’t look for the “easy A” classes. Given that most of you are going to live and work in the U.S., and that your future employers most likely went to college in the U.S., I think that a 14th ranking is just fine–given that there are nearly 200 countries in the world. Why does the U.S. have to be the best? And how many applicants from the “top 13 ranked countries” will you ever compete with for a job?

The second myth is that “You get what you pay for.” The idea behind this is that some people think you will get a better education if you go to a private school and spend a great deal of money on tuition. However, the author tells us that there is no real way to evaluate what a “better education” is, so this myth isn’t necessarily verifiable. Private schools definitely carry more prestige in our society, but many of the benefits that are commonly attributed to private schools may not be justified. For example, many people believe that private schools offer smaller classes, have lower teacher-to-student ratios, and provide better access to jobs through alumni contacts. However, it is not necessarily the case that you can’t find those benefits in a less expensive school—it just may take more diligence. Or perhaps it was never true to begin with. I’ve been told that at some of the most prestigious schools, English classes are taught as lectures with 400 students in each class, whereas at my (public) university, English classes rarely have more than 30 students, and those courses that are writing intensive are limited to 22 students.

The third myth is that “Most students graduate in four years.” According to research reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, fewer than 40% of college students graduate in four years. I’ll confess that this one surprised me, and I would encourage you to try to finish in four years if you’re still in school. Many students take longer than four years because they change majors (or institutions), requiring them to start over with prerequisite courses. But at my university, and many others, it’s often the case that students are paying for much of their own education, so part-time or full-time jobs interfere with their ability to finish in four years.

The fourth myth is that “Majors determine your future.” It’s obvious that there are some majors that lead directly to a particular career—a student who has spent four (or more) years studying computer science or chemical engineering is unlikely to toss that knowledge out the window and open a restaurant. But one of the goals of education is to open your mind to new ideas and new ways to see the world, so at the end of four years, your major will probably influence who you have become, but it may not set you on a specific path. Engineers could join the Peace Corps and end up with a career in the nonprofit sector. History majors could discover a passion for social justice and decide to go to law school. Biology majors (such as one of my nieces) could recognize that they enjoy writing and working within the academic environment and find a career in college administration. Your major is just a temporary label, not a tattoo.

The final myth is that “Community College is for losers.” As a graduate of a community college, I couldn’t agree more that this is a myth. Some of the best, most memorable teachers I ever had taught in my community college courses. Community college can be a way to ease the transition from high school to college, to save money, to feel a sense of accomplishment, to more readily accommodate work and family responsibilities, and to become part of a learning community. And the community college on the popular tv show “Community” is (fortunately) not like any real college I’ve ever heard of!

It’s important to be pragmatic in your efforts to obtain a college degree. Be realistic. Don’t get sucked in by myths or stereotypes. Get an education that you can afford, that will help provide an income that you can live on, doing a job that you enjoy. Focus on  educational pursuits that will have paybacks for your growth and future. Every college, regardless of how much it costs, is going to offer you opportunities to expand your horizons and develop the skills you need to succeed. Seek out those opportunities and take advantage of everything your school has to offer.