I’ve spent ten years attending universities of one form or another. No, this is not bragging. But I think I have a pretty good perspective on what college can and cannot do for you.
For those who like to keep score, here are the expensive pieces of paper I with fancy writing that I have collected in my lifetime:
- A Bachelor’s degree in history, with a focus on pre-Revolutionary and early American history up to and through the Civil War (4 years)
- A Master’s degree in political science, with a focus on international relations (2 years)
- A juris doctor (3 years)
- A Master’s in business administration (1 year)
The title of this post says it all, and probably spoils the denouement. And many who talk about college these days, myself included, tend to concentrate on what a waste of time and money it is (it is). I’m going to do something a little different, though, and talk about the things that university can teach you. Here we go.
Time Management: This is true for all college, but I found it to especially be the case when I was in law school.
I honestly didn’t find college all that difficult in general, likely because I largely studied subjects firmly within the liberal arts and humanities and not science or engineering. But even so, the sheer amount of material that gets thrown at you in college can be staggering. It’s all about prioritizing, not just your work, but your life. I did learn how to juggle several different projects, meet deadlines, and handle a busy schedule while maintaining a personal life. These skills have helped me immensely in my professional career. I would break time management down into three phases
- Priorities: Work big-to-small, and do the important stuff first. Sometimes what’s most important means what is due first. But keep in mind that importance is not always based on time.
- Balance: If you burn yourself out, you will do nobody any favors. You also don’t want your personal relationships to suffer. Lastly, you still want to be well-rounded and “interesting,” not just for your own edification but, like it or not, most job interviews nowadays are more like personality tests than tests of raw skill and experience. Potential employers want to see if you pass the “canoe test”: “Would I want to be stuck in a canoe with this person?” How you look on paper is only a part of it. Cultivate your life. (Ed Latimore writes a lot of great stuff about personal development, so go read his entire blog.)
- Focus: When you start something, finish it. Avoid needless distractions, and get your work done. This is an absolute necessity in almost every university program, whether it’s based in science, the arts, or the humanities. It’s so obvious, yet focus is a learned skill. Tuning out the world–and other assignments–to finish this one is not always an easy thing. How do you learn this? Through reps (necessity) and straight-up aversion (not wanting to waste time and money). You learn via practice to develop what Mike Cernovich calls “ruthless focus,” a useful skill no matter what you do. That said, you are focusing on meeting the specific requirements of your professor, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since in life, if you are working for someone else, either a boss or a client, you really are a slave to their requirements.
Dealing with Difficult People: The world is full of jerks. Many of them tend to congregate at American universities, both as students and as professors. And guess what: By and large, you have to learn how to deal with them. We all share the same real estate here on Earth, after all.
What I learned is the ability to pick my battles. There were so many instances where I could have gotten into it with students and teachers, but wisely didn’t. The question to ask is, to use a sports metaphor: Does this conversation move the ball forward for me? If yes, do it. If no–whether if the ball stays doesn’t move at all or actually goes backwards–it’s not worth it, especially in today’s college environment where you can get disciplined for wrongthink.
Becoming an Autodidact: When you’re writing any kind of research paper, or a legal brief, you need to DOCUMENT AND SUPPORT ALL OF YOUR SOURCES WITH CREDIBLE AUTHORITY. In the law, this is through DULY ENACTED STATUTES AND LEGALLY BINDING PRECEDENT, though certain non-binding, extra-jurisdictional cases or articles and commentaries. And as with any kind of authority, PRIMARY SOURCES ARE BEST.
I’m putting this stuff in bold and capital letters to stress how important this is. Even in an on-line argument, you should back your position up. And I don’t mean just tossing an image or a link out there, but reading and, more importantly, understanding what the cited authority says.
This is almost all I did in my decade-long college adventures. Essentially, I had to be an autodidact to make it through successfully. This played to my strengths, because I’m largely self-taught in most of what I do. The takeaway here is this: IF YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT SOMETHING, OR HOW TO DO IT, DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH. This habit will help you whether you’re discussing politics or trying to fix something around the house.
Communication: Whether written or oral, in formal or informal social settings, college helped hone my communications skills, especially public speaking. After all, if you can’t convey your ideas, you’re going to be impressing nobody but yourself.
Authority. The world is filled with it, good and bad, but mostly petty. Like it or not, you have to deal with it, and college will give you a crash course, especially if you’re a slightly right-of-center individual.
We see this a lot with speakers that the professors and administrators don’t like being disinvited or “no platformed.” There are also campus speech codes and other codes of conduct, violations of which can get you expelled with nary an ounce of due process. I have seen fellow students suffer from this–maybe it’ll be a story for another post. It’s all fascistic in the truest sense of the term, and seems like something out of a Kafka novel. Yet this is the way of the world. Learning about it in college helped me not be blindsided by it later in life.
Insanity: I could list examples, but that could be an entire blog.
Connections: This is perhaps the main reason to go to an Ivy League school, or an otherwise top-tier university. Not that I did, but I know people who did and this is what they have told me.
And yet, even from the non-Ivys that I attended, I still entered into a great network of helpful people who want to help me for no reason other than I’m an alum of the same school. It’s silly, but don’t discount it. Giving back is a huge part of life, and helping somebody out will be remembered the next time you need a leg up. Friends, professors, and others you come into contact with may very well become lifelong friends, or at least acquaintances always willing to lend a hand.
So there you go. Some benefits of going to college. But I still need to wrap things up in a bow.
You knew there’d be more, didn’t you?
At the end of the day, is college worth it?
The funny thing about our current times is that most of the skills you can cultivate in college can be gained through the magic of the Internet combined with a library and the willingness to go to the myriad networking events out there that are not college-related. College really isn’t worth the price.
So to conclude Alex’s Higher Education Lecture:
- College will teach you some good skills, but it’s nothing you can’t learn on your own, thanks to the Internet.
- Unless you want to be a doctor or an engineer or a physicist–in other words, something that requires specialized, hands-on training from actual experts that cannot be replicated with an Internet connection and self-discipline–don’t go to college.
- If you go to college, be strategic about where you go and what you study. If the job prospects are dim, don’t go into a field just because you love it. If you can’t reasonably foresee earning in one year of work what one year of school cost, think twice about it.
- A related point: If you are going to college to get a degree that augments a degree or a skill that you already have, it can be very useful. The only reason I went back for my MBA as an adult was to make myself more competitive as an attorney looking to move into the in-house and transactional realms. And it worked out. Similarly, I have a family member who is a CPA that went back for his law degree in order to offer his clients a one-stop shop for all of their financial needs. Likewise, if you’re a business owner and a certain degree will help give you skills and credibility, it might just be worth your while.
- Trade school is an incredibly viable alternative to a traditional four-year university program.
A college degree isn’t worth nearly what it used to. In order to stand out and avoid debt slavery, be smart and be strategic. But at the end of the day, the return on investment makes it hard to recommend college across the board, even though you learn some valuable skills and life lessons from it.
Provided, you know, you aren’t just drinking and screwing around.
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