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Why the Future of College isn’t on Campus

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I was unschooled. The first time I sat in a classroom was in college, and I learned a lot there. I still remember the names of some Native American tribes from my Native American History class. I made some good friends. I got summa cum laude.

But mostly I learned how to be bored. I learned that I was supposed to be bored, because lectures are boring, and you’re not really supposed to interact.

If you raise your hand too much, you’re sucking up or showing off. In the morning, my brain would sleep through everything the professor said until I raised my hand and said something, tricking myself into thinking we were having a conversation. I learned that grades are more important than knowledge, and getting a degree is much more important than anything else you might do in college.

And later, after college, I learned a very basic lesson that people my age are always learning: college doesn’t prepare you for anything except for more college. Which might be why so many people are applying for grad school now. Or maybe that’s because there are so few jobs. There are still jobs waiting tables, and there’s nothing wrong with waiting tables, except that when you go to a high ranking college, you feel as though you’re a member of an elite, special group of people who win at life and impress other people. And then it turns out that that isn’t really true. Which is very disappointing.

It’s possibly a little devastating because kids grow up in a system that emphasizes the essentialness of the Next Step. There’s always something being prepared for, and that something is going to prepare you for something else, and eventually, you get to college, which is supposed to prepare you for everything after college.

But college doesn’t prepare anyone for life after college. That’s where it all falls apart. Or maybe it falls apart in high school, where no one learns how to write, because they’re too busy learning how to get A’s instead, and no one has time to learn how to do things well, because no one has time to be thorough.

Delaying Real Life

In my opinion, one of the reasons why this entire school system, all the way up, doesn’t work very well, is that the world is always delayed. “Real life” is always a few years away. And so it never feels particularly real. But real life is happening anyway, even as we wait for it to finally begin, because it just can’t help itself.

We live in a strange, transitioning world. I guess that’s always how the world works. But it’s especially that way, with the recession, and with the information age, and the way the workforce has been transformed by the Internet and social media. Suddenly, everyone has a job that didn’t exist 10 years ago. It didn’t even exist five years ago. It has a title that your grandparents can’t remember three seconds after you say it slowly, and your parents keep shortening to “marketing assistant.”

College is not preparing people for those jobs. College is a lumbering, antiquated machine that has “core” subjects, 200 person lecture halls, semesters too short to explore anything in depth, and multiple choice exams. College is a business that makes a lot of money off its clients. College works very hard to make itself sound irreplaceable. People believe that without college, you don’t stand a chance. They also believe that about elementary school, and middle school, and high school.

But here I am, and there are a lot more like me. The world is changing.

College acts as a sort of cocoon, shielding many students from the reality of job searching and rent paying and food cooking and adult life in general. You might get the impression that adult life is full of things that college students need shielding from. Being an adult seems sort of mysterious. And then you get there, and everyone is talking about how they wish they were still in college.

Imagining Alternatives

We only need college inasmuch as we need a degree on our resume. And I can’t pretend that no one needs a degree on their resume. I also won’t say that college is a bad experience. It definitely isn’t. It’s a very expensive, often good experience that we need as long as we want to work for people who want us to have gone to college. I hope that the world will continue to change in the direction of choosing employees for their abilities rather than their paper qualifications, and people will begin to opt out or attend an alternative college or do their degree in a shorter amount of time.

My father is a successful entrepreneur who never went to college. His employees are a mix of people with and without degrees. I have two degrees, but I am a writer, and I don’t use either. As people continue to question a school system that fails to equalize even as it promises to give the kids who need it most a chance, and alternative schools and educational methods begin to appear everywhere you look, and the cost of higher education continues to rise, I imagine that new options will emerge more prominently, including the option to succeed without school, all the way through.

As an unschooler, one of the things I’ve had so much trouble understanding about the way education is structured is that it often has very little to do with life. Instead of taking classes about things that someone else decided a long time ago were the sorts of things people should be learning, why not learn about what’s actually happening in your world, and in the world you’d like to inhabit? Instead of sitting and sitting and sitting, why not stand up, walk outside, and talk to people who are doing what you want to do? Instead of waiting to get the key to unlock the Next Step of life, why not break the door down and see what’s inside? It’s much more fun. It’s much more real. It’s an adventure — which is exactly the way life is anyway, if only we would stop pretending it isn’t.

—–

Kate Fridkis blogs about body image/life at Eat the Damn Cake and education/homeschooling at Skipping School. She has written extensively for AOL and been syndicated many times on the Huffington Post, Jezebel, Mamamia, and plenty more. She is 25 and lives in Manhattan with her husband, who thinks unschooling their future kids sounds pretty fun, as long as it involves painting a giant map of the world on the wall.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • Todd

    College isn’t supposed to prepare you for a job – that’s the point of vocational school. College is supposed to teach you to think critically and develop problem-solving skills, how to approach problems and do the research and data-gathering necessary to form a solution, and then put that solution into action.

  • http://www.calissaleigh.com Calissa Leigh

    I’m 30 and I work part time and live well doing so. I thought I would have some fun and go to college. The government was paying my way with grants (price for attending school at my university is cheap!) so I thought I’d enjoy learning some new tricks.

    When I got there, I never thought I’d be bored, but I was. There’s a handful of classes I was interested in, and I have high hopes for some additional ones I’m taking, but by the end of my first year, I don’t think I learned much more than I learned from home the last some odd years I’ve been on my own.

    When I look at other students and the way the college treats them, I feel sorry for them. They have no idea how free life is. I giggle when college professors are talking about “real life” and I’m going… that’s not how it is. I’m amazed at what I’ve learned so far and I still plan on finishing (don’t start something you don’t plan on finishing), but my advice to a lot of smart young people: don’t unless you’re just wanting to be lied to about what you need in the “real world”. Save your money and get real life experience instead.

  • http://www.nancymucklow.com Nancy

    There’s only one flaw with un-schooling: School forces you do study things that you would never study if you were choosing for yourself. That makes for some boredom, but it also pushes the mind in new directions. That opens the mind to possibilities.

    Of course, that benefit is buried in an old-fashioned system meant to create an obedient workforce, not a new age of thinkers and doers.

    My 15-yr-old is struggling to get his business going. Unfortunately he has so little experience of life and the world that he can’t grasp the basic concepts of a business. School has taught him only school. We’ve arranged for him to do volunteering in a nonprofit business to get more exposure. But real education about real life is so sadly lacking…

  • http://www.dallasbthompson.com Dallas

    I think this really, really, really depends on where you go to college. It is short-sighted to write of “college” when that term spans experiences from Deep Springs College in California (approximately 40 students) to the huge 30,000 plus state universities.

    A lot of what you say, including statements such as, “College is a lumbering, antiquated machine that has “core” subjects, 200 person lecture halls, semesters too short to explore anything in depth, and multiple choice exams” just absolutely did not apply at my small, private, liberal arts college.

    I never had more than 60 students in a class (and that was biology 101, the largest class I had, with lab subsections of 15 students). Most classes, particularly in my major, had 10-15 students. Our professors rarely gave multiple choice exams, instead preferring essays or projects. As an upper level student, I took courses such as “North Carolina, 1860-1970″ and “The War in Vietnam”, which certainly allowed for in-depth study.

    I was extremely active on my campus of 650 students, engaged in student government, campus clubs, internships, and jobs. I graduated with a resume that launched me into my first job as an AmeriCorps member, and has given me confidence and a solid foundation as I move into my career.

    I can respect your experiences, but quite frankly, I believe it’s from a position of privilege that you speak about your experience. Not everyone was unschooled. Not everyone had a family environment able to produce such an experience. Not everyone was capable of what you were apparently capable of. For many students, in the right environment, with highly trained professionals who truly care about them, college is an environment where they learn, grow, and discover themselves.

    I absolutely think that higher education institutions need to grow and adapt, but a wholesale condemnation and dismissal is incorrect.

  • http://www.rainmakermarketing.com/blog Vernon

    This is such a great post, and I really wish your perspective could be shared with more parents and students. Having gone to a prestigious college, I cannot deny that it hasn’t opened a lot of doors or provide certain opportunities for me in the professional world. However, I’ve begun to realize that many of the “prestigious” jobs I suppose to have… say in banking or consulting, I really have no interest in, so it really makes me question of the value of my degree as it relates to my professional goals. Looking back I would have been better off with a business mentor and a few web design books. But then again, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I was in high school, which is something that a lot of students struggle with.

  • richard Byrne

    this was pure truth. college loans are now a scam that cannot be forgiven in bankruptcy. You could ruin you life going to college.

  • http://www.ylearner.com Ope Thomas

    I agree with greater with your post. I’m developing an online platform called ylearner to help enhance the way college students learn. I’ll love your take on the concept you can email me at Ope@ylearner.com

  • http://www.jonbishop.com Jon Bishop

    I wrote a post about this awhile back after seeing this awesome YouTube video From Sir Ken Robinson (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U).

    I agree with you 100%. Never finished school and I think I’m better because of it. I got a 2 year head start on all of my peers and am happily doing what I love while most of them still struggle to get interviews.

  • http://www.theunlost.com Therese Schwenkler

    Well said, Kate. I did go to college and I learned some important and valuable things… but the things I’ve learned that have been the MOST essential and the MOST valuable are the things that they DON’T teach in college. Simply “getting a degree” or “getting good grades” does NOT prepare you for the real world, nor does it guarantee you a job offer after graduation.

    I’ve written more about this in my post, “Why Your College Degree Doesn’t Mean Sh**”: http://www.theunlost.com/?portfolio=why-your-college-degree-doesnt-mean-sh

    Loved this post. Thanks.

  • http://baseballengine.com Tyrone

    I think your point about college is an interesting one, but I believe you’re taking a narrow view of the type of learning that may occur at college. Consider hard sciences and engineering. Can I simply understand synthetic biology via osmosis by exploring the world? Can I understand material science or electrical engineering without hard work, effort, guidance, and practice? I think that you can study history anywhere or psychology by interacting with people or political science by living in DC or Spanish by learning to speak Spanish or marketing by learning AdWords, etc., etc. I think, however, college has done a good job of creating an institution where science and engineering can be learned and adapted to ‘real life’ after college.

    Perhaps your post gets at the larger issue impacting the United States that we are not spending enough time on science and engineering in college. Maybe we need to reconsider the type of information we seek from colleges.

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  • http://www.youshouldgotoschool.com/ Paul Richlovsky

    Kate, very intriguing ideas. Nice take-down of the educational establishment, especially colleges with their heads in the sand as far as quality of their degrees and employ-ability of their graduates. Your thousand words inspired a five-hundred word response from me: http://www.youshouldgotoschool.com/blog/index.php/future-of-college-examining-an-unschoolers-manifesto/

  • http://twitter.com/peopledothat Jeff Lovingood

    Awesome post. I believe there are some benefits of going to college, but most are not found in the classroom. True, for specialized professions (my wife is a scientist), there is no substitute for college or her advanced degree. However, for the vast majority of undergraduates who attend college, there is very little focus to their effort outside of figuring out how to pay that semester’s bill. Between “undecided” and those who change their major, millions of dollars are wasted on tuition and interest for worthless classes. The average graduate obtains their four-year degree in over five years! Schools, for-profit or not, will all take student’s money for that extra elective or changed major. The real lesson in critical thinking should come before students waste another dime!

    But it’s the students who are to blame. Going to college without a focus is like getting in the car and driving without a target destination. That is why I have started People Do That! to help high school students make great career decisions before they take the next step. This is the only way to really change expectations and ultimately change the system!

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  • guest

    I have an eight and ten year old whom I have always homeschooled. We went so far as to backpack through South America with them. We did this to instill in them that it is good to take risk and explore the world. Thank you for your article. It reinforces my belief we are educating, or rather allowing them to pursue thier education, in the proper way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/MorganBarnhart Morgan Barnhart

    Hi Kate!

    Really great, thought provoking piece you’ve got here. I enjoy learning new things on a regular basis. Except, for me, sitting down in a classroom is not the way to learn it.

    While I believe that some careers do require an educational background in a college setting, the whole system is a bit out of touch with what students really need. They don’t need lectures, they don’t need to be ‘well-rounded’ in irrelevant topics and they certainly don’t need to be bored to tears with boring material or homework.

    If I want to be well-rounded, I’ll go read a book or watch a documentary. People can argue all they want about the validity of ‘core credits’ but if it doesn’t involve their choice career, then they aren’t going to remember squat from it. They’ll do whatever they have to to skim by so they can get to the important classes.

    Real life has taught me more than college ever did. Most people come out of college these days and say, “Oh great, now what?” Most don’t even want to pursue a career in their chosen degree. It’s a flawed system, to be sure.

    Great article!

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  • http://www.tariqwest.com/ Tariq West

    Thank you for this thought provoking piece. My reaction is mixed. On the one hand I tend to agree that many of the benefits of college could be had by other means. This is especially true as knowledge repositories and forums for the exchange of ideas are digitized and democratized. On the other, the social and intellectual space of the university can provide some unique and extremely valuable experiences.

    For instance, you suggest, “Instead of sitting and sitting and sitting, why not stand up, walk outside, and talk to people who are doing what you want to do?” As someone who went to college but didn’t go to “class” all that often in the traditional sense, this is exactly what college afforded me. When an idea seized me, I was surrounded by people who could help me explore it and flesh out my understanding – peers and professors and practitioners who formed the ecosystem of the university.

    One particularly poignant example comes to mind – I was in a guest lecture on Design Thinking which touched on the idea of engineering public spaces that engender the development of shared values and social fabric in heterogeneous communities. The idea fascinated me.

    Later that day, (at an outdoor concert in White Plaza, a student space designed to engender personal/intellectual interaction) I ran into two people – one an economist deeply interested in interfaith bridge-building, the other a jazz saxophone playing electrical engineer researching next-gen photovoltaics. We had an exchange of ideas, in turns idealistic and humorous and philosophical and technical, which touched on topics from vertical farm engineering to religious politics – all relating back, amazingly, to the original lecture takeaway about engineered public spaces.

    I realize that this encounter represents the university at its best and may not be typical. But I would point also to a couple of other important experiences that I suspect are more typical and are not provided for in many other spaces in American life.

    For instance, as a black kid raised by liberal parents of modest means in deeply segregated and blighted communities in DC – I was paired for three of my four years with deeply conservative white and Indian roommates. It was one of the most valuable intellectual and personal experience of my life. I had my values and beliefs tested in ways that were often uncomfortable and which I might not have sought out. I learned powerful things about social graces and financial literacy and privilege (my own and others’) that inform my personal and professional path.

    Another opportunity that a college experience may afford is the space to test out ideas in the real world in a fairly low-risk and potentially high-reward way. Even as I explored broadly in the humanities, I was interning at tech companies and prototyping products and pitching ideas to peers and investors, many times as part of class projects. This is an increasingly common model in higher education.

    All of this is anecdotal, and I realize it represents a remarkably privileged and perhaps atypical college experience, but I do think it bears witness to some important underlying truths about the unique place and value of the university as a space intentionally structured and uniquely resourced to converge diverse ideas and people in ways uncomfortable and magical.

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  • Anonymous

    Because there are now lots options to be able to get there desired bachelor’s degree. Online education is one thing because they can do both the wok and the studies. And very convenient.

    ………………………………..

    http://www.jobtrainingplace.com/online-courses/quickest-online-degree
    Quick College Degree

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