Emphasis on college experience discourages better alternatives

By Halcyon Orvendal

What is the purpose of college to you? Is it purely academic? Is it to prepare you for the workforce? To network? Build life and social skills? Many people come to college for different reasons. What is yours?

College in the US, like a Swiss army knife, has many tools and purposes. From the obvious educational perspective of learning about your major and taking classes to socializing and being independent for the first time and learning how to create connections, exist alone and navigate different situations, college teaches a variety of valuable skills.

While there are many reasons individuals go to college, my personal experience has to do with what feels like a culture of advertising. Since I can remember, I have been told how essential college is. Not only in terms of preparation for the “real world,” but for the social experience of college as well. 

In so many American stories, we hear of college as this vital cornerstone and pivotal step in development, experiencing being a young student with peers and the joy that comes with it. It had been sold to me my whole life and I saw it being sold to all my peers as well. 

After graduating high school, college was on everyone’s mind. For most, it was never a question of “if,” but of “where” they were going. I, on the other hand, took a gap year abroad. This experience taught me a few things, but most importantly, it exposed me to a new culture around education. I learned how uniquely American it is to go to college right after high school and financially burden yourself for the rest of your life. I felt less pressure and I started considering other options like working, going to college abroad for cheaper, or even going to the army for more financial assistance. 

But ultimately, what won out was this “college experience” that was sold to me. I knew I would never get the opportunity again to be a young adult around other students my age in this way and I feared my life might feel incomplete if I missed out on it. I often question if that fear I have was purposely created to feed an economy of education in America.

However, regardless of whether college is even right for you or not, the implication that it is important to do right after high school feels very backward and almost harmful. Education is incredibly powerful and important, but the expectation that an 18-year-old, a mere child, really, is supposed to know what they want to study or what they want to do in the workforce is silly.

What these people often really need right after high school is the chance to be independent, self-actualize and learn about themselves within the context of the world outside of home. While college does this, there are many other options that exist that do not come with the same financial burdens. It is astounding how many people, including myself, who are nearing the end of their time in school and say if they were to do it again, they would study something else. 

The experience of growing up and being in college radically changes and develops a person. Logically, it will inform you about what you want to do in the world. The only problem is, by the end of college, you have already made an academic commitment to a topic, are often in debt and need a job. I feel it would be so much more conducive to a “successful” life if we were encouraged to learn about the world more before making such commitments, especially when the financial stakes are so high.

One of the strangest forms of cognitive dissonance I’ve experienced is realizing that college is truly not for everyone, despite what has been taught. Especially not for everyone right out of high school. It has been incredibly eye-opening to watch in real-time as people my age go to college and realize that it is not for them, as well as to watch people who have chosen to avoid college and still see genuine growth and success in their lives. 

It is disappointing to think of all the people who have college degrees and debt now simply because they thought they needed this experience. I hope we can more clearly communicate the purposes of college and inform people that they can learn things like independence, self-actualization and how to build connections without going to college right out of high school. I truly think it would result in less unneeded debt and provide people with better fitted educations.

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