On the College Experience

Updated: Oct 8, 2021

What is the college experience? I've always been intrigued by this question partially because people take it for granted. What is most confusing is that people say "college experience" without a clear definition of what it is. Although this point could boil down to a semantic one, it clues us into a way to view the question. For colleges to give a specific kind of experience, it has to have a purpose. Luckily, The Point Magazine's new issue symposium is all about this question (highly recommended). In it, a handful of students were asked questions relating to college. Here are some excerpts.

What is college for?

For me, college is for growth and coming into the understanding of who I am, and what I want for my life.
To become wise.
College is for the pursuit of knowledge, but also for finding our purpose for existence.

A professor I really admire writes:

A university is a place where people help each other access the highest intellectual goods.

Another I also admire, disagrees in a separate blog saying:

Most complex social institutions don't have a single thing they are for; they are for many things. And the functions that most shape our institutions are usually substantially different from the functions we wish would shape them.

When asked what was most surprising about college, one of the students said:

The lack of parties there really are, or maybe I'm just not in the right crowd. American movies tend to depict college as a nonstop party with booze and love, but I find that may not be so true. At least, it may not be true if the student would like to maintain a GPA that allows them to graduate with Latin honors.

No matter what you think about those answers, one thing is abundantly clear, no one knows what universities and colleges are for. In fact, almost every answer given applies to other domains outside of the four walls of a classroom and/or can be gotten from other places. This is not to say that colleges and universities are useless. In fact, it seems to be quite the opposite. There is a steep premium for what colleges and universities provide. For more evidence, see the current student loan crisis. Also, see the 2019 admissions scandal that clued us to the many failings of the higher education system. Principally, the premium people are willing to pay for their children to get whatever colleges provide. If that is the case, then what exactly is the college experience?

Well, the zeitgeist identifies the college experience with experimentation. In the university, you, supposedly, experiment with ideas, parties, drugs (in some cases), alcohol, study abroad, etc. If this is genuinely the college experience, then colleges are massive scams. A cursory look at colleges shows a striking level of inequality that exists in this experience. A handful of people get to experience some of these things, and a smaller percentage still gets to experience all of them. The inequality here is not the issue, per se. The real problem is the poverty of these experiences. Meaning, if experimentation is the 'college experience,' then colleges do an awful job of democratizing it. One of the students interviewed for the magazine says:

College has made me more socially anxious and apathetic.

This is made worse by considering the number of people who spend the time and money to attend these institutions. The frat parties that are supposedly part of this experience are essentially an exercise and display of status. You only get to attend these parties if you are a part of the frat or you know someone who finds you cool enough to invite you. Even these parties are experienced by a small number of universities in the United States.

What's even sadder is that despite the cost of college, this experience is not a sufficient long-term strategy. Partying or experimentation without specialization is detrimental in the long run. For better or worse, specialization is what society expects of everyone. If I were to interject a life lesson here for the aspiring college student reading this, it would be this: adopt strategies and behaviors that are compatible with long-term success, broadly defined.

Others view the college experience as a "combination of the daily grind, worrying about classes, note-taking, social life, exams, essays due, projects due and dozens of other things some huge in scope and other things minuscule" as a quora user puts it. Even this assumes that most people do care about their classes. To this, I say, this piece is brought to you by "three C's:" C's get degrees, cost of living in college, and Covid-19.

Here's the bottom line, no one knows what the college experience is, and the easy answer is that it is what you make of it. This author finds that the fact that the college experience is not easily defined is the entire point. This is pernicious because 18-year-olds seek this out fervently and actively trade their meaning in life for meaninglessness. Evidence of this is the effect of a college education on people's faiths.

I believe the college experience is a myth that won't go away because Americans have become too conformist in many areas. Here's the advice I will give to aspiring college students, especially if they are intelligent:

1. Hold on to most of what your parents and grandparents teach you.

2. Try to not intellectualize stupidity.

3. Adopt a small group of friends.

4. Use the time college affords you to mold your life around a specific thing or field you find interesting. There will be upfront costs in each area. For instance, if you want to study economics, you will take a ton of courses in mathematics and other courses you might not enjoy at the moment. These costs are your ticket into an entire world of things you will indubitably find interesting.

5. More importantly, if you don't know what major to choose, pick one. Each field is broad and exciting and if you hate it, switch to another one. Don't get lost in the infinite!

6. Don't forget to go to a volleyball game here and there.

7. Pick up an activity outside of college that you can sustain outside of college. Specifically, any form of a lifelong struggle with immense rewards.

Don't trade what gives you meaning for "the college experience," as cynical as it sounds. Your college experience is what you make of it. Make sure you are proud in the end!

Certainty Rating: 83%


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