A few weeks ago I was told to attend an event to share information about my employer’s programs and services. There would only be about 15 guests in attendance and general announcements would be made by all. I spent some time researching the venue and reached out to the coordinator. When I arrived, I was introduced as the Presenter and was told to share information for an event that we hadn’t yet planned. No one else provided resources or descriptions of services.
I made my best pitch and hid my frustration. After all, it was a great opportunity to build meaningful relationships that would hold significant long-term impact. It was important that I attend, and I was sincerely glad to be invited.
College (or at the very least, the way we present college) is much like this.
We know that it’s important that we attend, and we are thankful when we are accepted. We know it is a great opportunity to build meaningful relationships that will hold significant long-term impact. But it doesn’t actually meet our expectations, and we don’t come fully prepared. Worst-case scenario, we don’t feel like we get what we came for.
At the outreach event I was initially frustrated because I felt that we could’ve gotten more from it if we each knew more beforehand. I did my research, but my role wasn’t clearly defined. I didn’t come fully prepared because I didn’t know the expectations. I thought that I’d get valuable resources to take back to the community; without those, I felt like I didn’t get what I had come for.
A college diploma is presented as the magic ticket that will usher us into financial success and freedom, but we don’t give first-generation college graduates and prospective attendees the whole picture. We provide statistical data that links wealth, health, and happiness to post-secondary completion. College is presented as the answer to poverty and the great equalizer. With this degree, we can achieve our dreams; without it, only poverty awaits. There are unreasonable expectations tied to its results.
A few years ago my brother came to me for advice. He was almost finished with college, but he wasn’t satisfied with the progress he’d made. At the time I didn’t have the answers, and I don’t claim to now; but if I could relive our conversations all over again, I would’ve said this instead:
Don’t Do This
- Don’t believe that a college degree will propel you into your dream career. It might and it can, but not all degrees are treated equally. And sometimes your dream changes. And sometimes you live your dream, but it doesn’t actually satisfy you.
- Decide what you’re motivated by, and then figure out how your specific degree can help you gain the experience and skills that you’ll need in that industry.
- If you have a non-traditional interest, it’s important to be strategic and intentional.
- If you’re not sure what field you’d like to enter, it’s important to develop a solid base of tangible and transferable skills.
- Don’t enroll in a program without evaluating the associated costs. All of them. I’ve always believed that education is an investment you make in yourself; therefore, loan debt is a necessary by-product that will provide access to greater opportunity. It is better to attend a more prestigious school and take on more loan debt than it is to attend a lesser known school with a poor or average reputation.
Besides the fact that my elitism is a gross and obvious character flaw, the reasoning is also wrong:
- More prestigious schools don’t always provide a better education than lesser known ones. Sometimes prestige just means more expensive.
- Prestige doesn’t always open the door to better opportunities. I’ve lost opportunities due to lack of experience, not due to the merit of the schools I’ve attended. I’ve lost opportunities when my transferable skills weren’t aligned with what the organization needed.
- The cost of tuition doesn’t determine the quality of the education you’ll receive. If you are resourceful and committed, loan debt (in many cases) can be avoided if not severely minimized. It is actually more cost-effective and advantageous to attend a public in-state institution or community college, depending on your field. You may have greater access to hands-on experience and better connections as a result.
If you’re someone like me who is learning to make peace with her sense of entitlement and the myth of exceptionalism, find a cheaper way to get the validation you need. For realz.
- Don’t overestimate the impact of what a Bachelor’s degree can do for you. The ugly truth is that a B.A. or B.S. is usually just an entry-level certification, and right now the market is oversaturated. If you want to stand out to an employer, or if you want greater mobility and opportunity in the long-term
- Become a persuasive and exceptional communicator.
- Become an expert of something.
- Stay abreast of new technology and become proficient in the programs most used by professionals in your field. Stay ahead of and learn to predict the trends.
- Become multilingual, and you will be more marketable. Perhaps, more importantly, the experience will also give you a greater sense of the importance of language, communication, cultural bias, and humility.
This is what I would say to my brother five years ago, and what I would tell myself today if I could do it all over again.