In defense of college and 4-year degrees

College is a waste of time?

I disagree with Mr. Stephens’ statement that college is a waste of time. I don’t know what college he went to, or what he studied there, but I certainly didn’t spend four years at the University of Missouri copying my professors’ thoughts.

In one case, not only did I disagree with a professor’s thoughts, I challenged them publicly. Very publicly, in an editorial in the student newspaper. He continued to disagree with me, but I earned his respect. Given the state journalism is in today, he might not disagree with me as strongly anymore.

There’s more to college than just learning what’s in the textbooks and the lectures.

“Our creativity, innovation, and curiosity are schooled out of us,” Mr. Stephens argues. My creativity got schooled out of me in grade school. My Journalism 336 professor found what tiny shred of it was left and grew it back. Everyone is creative, she argued, and if she had to turn into an East German drill sergeant to bring it out of us, she’d do it. Most of us hated her for it at the time. I once turned in a design project and I received a good grade for it, especially considering I could barely draw a straight line with a ruler. She gave me either a B+ or an A-, but she asked me to do it over. I had a good idea, she argued. But she wanted to see two good ideas in there.

I’ve had multiple supervisors tell me the creative ways I go about solving problems makes it difficult for them to follow me. I’ve paid for that on my annual reviews at times, but when I come off the bench to save them as a project is about to fail, they care less about how I thought of the solution and more about whether it just worked. Not that any of that matters now–my current supervisor wants that creativity.

My Magazine Editing and Magazine Publishing professor took me aside one day and asked me to be more innovative. His classes were about publishing magazines on paper, but he knew I was interested in the Internet. He told me my ideas would work well online, and to do my assignments as if I was doing an online publication, not a paper one. This was in 1996. Half the magazines I was reading at the time weren’t online yet. The half that were probably were there reluctantly.

But he saw that the Internet is the future, if only because the costs of printing and distribution are too high. That was 15 years ago. I think he and I would both agree the future isn’t quite here yet, though we’re much closer to it than we were then.

You get out of college what you’re willing to put into it. Professors and teaching assistants have office hours for a reason. They’d rather spend that time talking with their students than sitting at their desks. You can talk to them before and after class, too. And it doesn’t just have to be about an obstacle in your current assignment that you’re struggling with. If you want an opinion on an idea, or there’s something you want to know more about that the textbook or the lectures didn’t cover adequately, they’ll talk. It’s what they do.

I don’t know how long Mr. Stephens stayed in college, because he says you don’t learn how to work in teams in college. During the first couple of years when you’re taking your general education requirements and the basic classes of your major, he’s right, you don’t spend a lot of time working in teams. But during my junior and senior years, it seemed like I spent more time working in teams than I did individually. If I wasn’t taking a test, I was working in a team. My journalism classes were team efforts because journalism is always a team effort. And even in my elective classes, I’m struggling to come up with a class where we didn’t have at least one project involving a team. All of my history classes did. All of my English classes did. Even my religious studies classes did. My computer science classes may not have, but I never took anything higher than a 200-level class in computer science.

Mr. Stephens also argues that college demands conformity, not individuality. I think that depends on the group you run in. The student organizations that counted me as a member certainly wanted a degree of conformity. The Greek system certainly wanted me to listen to a certain kind of music, dress a certain way, and drink a certain beer. The student newspaper wanted me to hold certain political views, favor a certain type of computer, and listen to a certain different kind of music. I didn’t conform to either crowd well at all. That didn’t make me popular, but it did earn me respect.

I also had circles of friends who didn’t demand conformity. We learned a lot from each other, and part of that probably was because we could be our own person in one another’s company.

But I think the most important thing I learned in college was that I learned how not to be the smartest guy in the room. In grade school and high school, I was always at least first or second runner-up. In college, more often than not, I wasn’t even a contender. Because everyone around me had spent a lifetime, up to that point, being the smartest guy in the room.

Now that I’ve spent more than half my life holding down a job, I can recognize who went to college and who didn’t. Sometimes I can even tell the difference between people who went to college straight out of high school, and those who went back later. I’m not saying that every college graduate can deal with not being the superstar. But in my experience, a college graduate is more likely to be able to step back, set the ego aside, and be a role player when appropriate and contribute to a project without becoming disgruntled.

Nobody ever hired me solely based on my degree. I’ve been hired because I met the qualifications for the job description and was able to demonstrate the necessary abilities. But the degree frequently is a difference maker. The degree demonstrates a track record of starting something difficult and seeing it through to completion–including the unpleasant parts, not just the fun parts. The degree demonstrates an ability to complete certain types of tasks, and a basic knowledge of arts and sciences.

Yes, you can succeed without one, and you can fail with one. Spectacularly, in some instances. College doesn’t make you so much as it cultivates the abilities God gave you. But it’s easier to get where you want to be–and avoid where you don’t want to be–when you have one.

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