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Post-College Perspective: Is It Worth It?

Mc Gill University
Photograph by Getty Images

One of our sons is in college, and the other two have graduated. They are, officially, adults.

My sons have learned a lot from us, and the rest they learned by being away from us, out in the world, where experience teaches far better than we ever could. (Good Parent Adage #4: You can’t teach them everything. Some things they have to learn for themselves.)

But what did they really learn from college? What was the point of all that preparation and stress and (it has to be mentioned) money? Was it so they could be exposed to advanced mathematical principles that were unavailable in high school? So they could take Mandarin? Organic Chemistry? Read Ancient Greek Poetry? Write a paper without Mom in the next room to consult on their use of apostrophes?

Yes, yes and yes. All that. Higher education teaches us about the history and diversity of thought in our world, and how to better communicate our insights and opinions. And if the knowledge students absorb in college prepares them for a life of fulfilling work, even better. But it’s not enough. And, fortunately, it’s not all they get at college. College turns out to be a great place to learn a whole lot of things about the “real” world.

What do you want to do with your life and what do you need to learn in order to do it?

It begins with the process of leaving. Leaving turns out to be a learning experience in itself. For many kids, no matter how worldly, the first time they really leave home is when they go to college. All of a sudden they have to work harder than ever before to stay close to family and old friends. When they come back, home isn’t quite the same because they are different. And then they have to do it again when they graduate from college four years (plus or minus) later. The perspective they gain from this process is invaluable.

At college, they find themselves in a dorm full of new people. Though cable and the internet have made for a lot more culture-in-common than existed when I went to college, our kids are still plunked down in a new world. They need to learn how to present themselves, their backgrounds, their core beliefs. How to be themselves with others and also, when that might not be the best idea. Our kids learn that throughout their lives, but in college—well, it’s unavoidable.

There’s a lot of practical knowledge, too. At college, they plan their own schedules, or at least as much as fulfilling academic requirements will allow. Film and Art History meet at the same time? Figure it out. You have to make choices, and if you need help, you have to find someone to ask. That’s huge.

An extremely practical corollary of making their own schedules turns out to be getting themselves out of bed in the morning without adult intervention. (After years of being our boys’ personal alarm clock, this may have been their most shocking accomplishment.) Now that’s practical knowledge. It’s right up there with doing laundry and sewing on buttons.

And then there’s bigger scale decision making. Who do you want to live with Sophomore year? Do you want to keep eating school food or make your own? After two years of memorizing scientific equations and the number of bones in a foot, do you still want to be a doctor? Or did Political Philosophy change your mind? What do you want to do with your life and what do you need to learn in order to do it?

I’m not sure that statistics exist to show that finding new friends or coping with crazy roommates makes anyone a better future employee or employer. Yet quantifiable or not, common sense says these things are helpful skills. There are other ways to learn them, but for those who are lucky enough to go, college can offer it all.

However, if I were to choose one great accomplishment each of my sons brought back from college, it is so very basic. In high school my sons’ rooms had floors invisible under piles of clothing and schoolwork and I-don’t-want-to-know-what (including coffee-cup-science-experiments). But they all got surprisingly neat surprisingly quickly when they moved into college dorms. Clothes mostly hung up or folded. Desk surfaces mostly visible. I can’t tell you how much that is worth because, as they say, it’s priceless.

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