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I was born a poor, black child… August 6, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in Uncategorized.
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Apologies to Steve Martin.

I came from a very poor family, and my husband came from a family that was one of the few not to lose their farm during the farming downturn of the ’80s. Both of our families made it fairly clear to us that there was one way to escape spending the rest of our lives scraping by: a college degree.

Daily Finance just posted an article titled Seven Reasons Not to Send Your Kids to College. I’ve seen a couple blog posts in response. Susan posted her thoughts, saying that college has become a major money suck and that it doesn’t guarantee any of the returns we often attribute to it. TechFrau made the point that the original article was focused very much on material returns. They both made some very good points.

Personally, my degrees have obviously helped me a lot. However, I’m a bit of a cynic when it comes to college as a panacea. I don’t think it’s for everyone. However, I think there are some very non-obvious benefits to going to college, and I honestly think those ought to be a larger consideration when considering whether to ship your offspring somewhere.

I guess the first thing is that having a college degree often affects people’s perception of you. A corollary is that the institution you attend may have as much to do with that as your degree. I spent my first two years at Caltech. I can tell you that, despite leaving there and earning my degree elsewhere, I have regularly seen people do an about-face when they learn that I was once there. I admit to have manipulated this once or twice. Specifically, when I was visiting a grad school, I was being told how the program I was visiting was very prestigious and they only took the most talented students. I was being blown off because my degree came from NDSU. I managed to work into the conversation that I had originally started at Caltech. There was immediate change from, “You’re not worthy,” to, “You’re the exact student we would love to have here!” As you may have guessed, I didn’t go to school there, but it at least served the immediate purpose of elevating myself above the gum on this fellow’s shoe.

In certain professions, especially those that are technical, there is an obvious need to have people who are specifically educated. Having a degree is a way of communicating that you’ve mastered the ability to deal with technical details. It may not always be true, but it is at least a step in the direction of convincing a potential employer of that.

So that’s an obvious benefit. The first non-obvious one is the people that you get to know. As a woman interested in physics, I was a bit out of place in high school. Most of the women I took classes with were interested in biology and medicine. Going to Caltech allowed me to meet people who were smart, funny, and had many of the same interests. I encountered the same thing in grad school. I have made many friends, some of whom are also assets to me professionally. If I had not gone to college, I would never have met these people. No, I’m not wealthier for knowing them (with the exception of my husband, for obvious reasons), but I definitely feel my life is fuller. And who knows, down the line, there may be more tangible benefits to knowing these people.

The second non-obvious benefit is simply being introduced to ideas that stretch your brain. It’s true that I can find most of these ideas in journals or books or even on the internet. However, interacting with people who know about big ideas is far more exciting and interesting than reading about them. I have come in contact with role-models (and anti-role models). I have learned that people have very different ways to thinking about things and myriad approaches to issues and problems. I have been exposed to a lot of things, professionally and personally, that I seriously doubt I would have seen had I jumped straight into a job. I think the knowledge and experience gained by going to college is something that has shaped a lot of who I have become as a person and affects everyone around me.

Now, is it worth the amount of money college requires? I think that depends on your goals: if you plan to be an academic, absolutely. If you want a job that is extremely difficult to get into, yes. But the degree or the institution is not carte blanche. I would say that choice of major may actually affect your financial future more for the majority of people. (I can attest to the fact that having a bachelor’s degree in physics makes it tough to find a job, but a degree in engineering makes it considerably easier…although I think my physics degree was excellent training. It just wasn’t specific enough for most employers to give me a second look.)

I also still believe that life experience is a highly valuable thing that few people get enough of before college. I have to admit that I have a couple friends who grew up in well-off families, went to top-rated schools, have great jobs, and have no clue how the average person lives. (The ones who have big houses and several cars but complain about how government regulation will affect their bottom line tend to grate on me.) Aside from going to college, one of the most eye-opening experiences in my life was working for a year as a secretary in a Los Angeles County juvenile detention facility. The things I learned there were scary, but they were good lessons…just very different from the kind I learned in college.

My main concern in all this, however, is that college not be available only to the privileged, as it is becoming. If the author is complaining about how much he would have to pay and has the option of investing it, what about those for whom even the local state college or community college is an unattainable goal due to financial circumstances? I think that college isn’t for everyone, but it should be available for those who really want it.

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Comments»

1. Susan Gaissert - August 6, 2010

You make so many good points, Cherish, and I definitely agree that college should be an available option for all people. This is a great post.

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mareserinitatis - August 12, 2010

Thanks, Susan.

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2. At this point in life… | Worldin1450's Blog - August 7, 2010

[…] this point in life… Posted on August 7, 2010 by Strigiformes I read this this morning.  Along with all of its linked articles.  At this point in life it seems like such a […]

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3. FrauTech - August 9, 2010

Good points. The author acknowledged and I think you and I both agree a college degree isn’t for everyone, but certainly everyone should have access to post-secondary education. If they can’t afford it and there’s no financial aid that’s definitely a problem. Community college seems very affordable to me personally, but it’s worth checking my privilege there, isn’t it? Thanks.

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mareserinitatis - August 12, 2010

I think it depends on where you are. I know that community college classes were extremely affordable when I lived in California. Now that I’m in North Dakota, you’d be surprised what a pain it can be to find an affordable community college. There are only one or two in the state, and if my son wanted to go there, for instance, he couldn’t live at home while going to school.

On the other hand, a four-year college costs the same, so why would anyone bother with a two-year degree?

It’s very weird.

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