Why College? Part 8 — Learning to Think
It’s graduatin’ season once again, and all over the country newly-minted bachelors are making that terrifying leap from College (wahoo, col-lege!) to Real World (gulp). Not because they want to, but because, well, they have no choice. And with the job market the way it is these days, leaving the cozy confines of campus is downright terrifying. Some prominent academics, aware of employment trends and today’s job market doldrums, are calling for the development of more viable alternative pathways to college. In schools across the country, a trickle-down effect is at work too, as the tribulations of new college graduates are making waves with the next generation of students, leaving high school students to wonder “what’s the point?”
But higher education is not about money, not at the heart of it. Higher education is about learning to think, and while the ability to think is not as tangible as a cold, hard paycheck, saying “No way!” to college is saying “No way!” to a lifetime of both financial and cultural growth.
This is not an easy pill to swallow amidst today’s recession: many economic indicators show that college may not be the savviest financial investment for the immediate here and now. Average starting salaries for college graduates have dropped, down nearly $1,000 from a year ago. Student loan debts are ever growing. To top it off, employers are increasingly reluctant to tap into the recent-college-grad talent pool when hiring, from 79 percent in 2007 to a projected 44 percent this year. And that talent pool is supposed to be more talented, no? So jobs are in short supply, and the jobs that are out there aren’t paying as well as they could or should. Factor in the overall cost of obtaining one’s degree, and the odds of being instantly gratified post-college (financially speaking) are less than favorable. For one, this writer’s first job out of college was waiting tables for not even minimum wage.
Yet the most telling statistic still remains in the pro-college camp: those with higher education are more consistently employed than those without. What’s more, workers with bachelor’s degrees earn an average of $26,000 more per year than those with only high-school diplomas. So while the wounds of debt are still fresh after graduation day, with some patience, a bachelor’s degree does in fact promote financial growth.
Still, financial growth is not the point. What I learned from college was not that waiting tables doesn’t pay—who doesn’t know that?—but that there is further to go, always. There are symphonies to be written, theorems to be proved, histories to be learned and taught. Cultural growth. As Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker last week, higher education exists to “nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind… ”
Anyone can be programmed to wait tables—no fancy degree required. But the ability to think critically is what separates man from machine. The ability to think critically is what promotes, what Mead calls, an “engaged citizenry.” It’s the difference between waiting tables indefinitely (as the listless, unengaged citizen) and waiting tables transitionally. So while that medieval philosophy class I took never came in handy as I was wiping down counters, at least not in the What-Do-I-Use-On-This-Mustard-Stain kind of way, it challenged me to engage the world, to question the world, to grow.
No, the gratification may not be instantaneous. Far too many overqualified college graduates are waiting tables in ill-fitting aprons, or stocking bookshelves for minimum wage, or selling hot dogs to tourists, working to pay back student loans. But when it comes to financial and cultural growth, college is still the best bet out there. Because in the end, the ability to think is far more profitable than the ability to be programmed, no matter how much it may cost.
San Francisco, California
The author earned his BA in English and Music from Fordham University, and more recently his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of San Francisco. His short fiction has appeared in several literary magazines across the country, including The Chicago Quarterly Review, The Madison Review, Inkwell, and Storyglossia. He now lives and writes in San Francisco.
“Why College?” is a series of op-ed articles written by Better Grads staff and guest contributors about why we chose to continue educa tion after high school, how we got there, and glimpses into what we learned. To begin at Part 1 in the series, click here.