Better writers than I have articulated the benefits of attending college and earning a degree. In previous posts, I have attempted to point out the individual and societal benefits. I have mentioned some of the mechanisms that seems most relevant to attaining these benefits. But to me there still seems to be a lack an overall compelling argument for the college experience. There is not an overarching theme that clearly delineates the college experience from other potentially transformational experiences. In this post, I would like to suggest that theme should be about how the college experience changes the trajectory of the individual’s future.
Of course, the immediate thought might be that the college graduate’s future earnings should and likely will be higher. However, a change in trajectory goes beyond potential income. The process of attending college, exposure to and mingling with diverse thoughts and experiences, students have struggles and success, and the plethora of other events that make up college not only transforms but also raises the consciousness of the individual. Aspirations and dreams change, tolerance of risk and differences increases, and even the skills at self-learning with critical evaluation are honed and enhanced. The college experience changes the individual’s awareness of the world and their unique journey through that world.
To many of a college graduate, the phrases above might well seem like I am stating the obvious. However, even that familiarity with the statements above provides evidence and testament to the change in trajectory. Life has moved beyond occurrence to direction and malleability. No longer does the college graduate react and adapt to life’s circumstances. Rather there are aspirations and intentionality to their path through life. This purposeful direction is the change in trajectory.
The change did not occur quickly. Rather it is the fulfillment of the four-year journey through college. It happened through the synergy of the college living experience in conjunction with the academic studies. Interestingly, the process and change is subtle and almost indiscernible to student. However, ask any professor or college educator and they can expound on the huge differences between first year and fourth year students. This change is not simply a growth in maturity. Rather, it is as though a different and substantially transformed individual has emerged.
Through each of these posts, I have attempted to avoid direct commentary about non-traditional collegiate paths. I will however note that the synergy of college life with academics seems paramount to the change in trajectory. The student that leaves the home environment and is in a physically and psychically diverse place in both thoughts and people will inevitably grow. This is not easily accomplished with either online or community college experiences.
Occasionally in the literature, we read or hear the phrase downward spiral. The term refers to a person’s life moving from on tragic event to an even more tragic event. It seems as if the person is on an inevitable degradation of their life. Each event and occurrence seems to reinforce problems and actually contribute to the next level of challenge. Rarely, do we hear or read of an opposite effect.
I have been writing about this opposite effect. The college experience that I mention is an upgrading experience. The change in trajectory that I mention is the upward spiral of the college graduate’s life experience. The college graduate will continue to enjoy events and experiences that reinforce and form the foundation of new and uplifting future experiences. The foundation of this upward spiral is the college degree that leads to the inevitable change in trajectory. That seems to be the overarching benefit of college.
Work, careers, hobbies, sports, and life in general is becoming more complicated every day. Achievement and success in most endeavors takes aptitude, motivation, and quite often a highly developed skill set. Therefore, it really was not much of a surprise when I recently received an inquiry from a member of my state’s legislature about “what skills are students in your major developing?” I do not think this legislator was wondering about critical thinking, historical perspective, and other “meta-skills.”
While I generally do ascribe to the belief that college is more than just a sum of skills in a particular discipline, I occasionally wonder if we could not achieve both but a different way. For instance, in my area of marketing students, often students do not start on their major course work until their third year. With each year costing the student anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000 in direct costs, not to mention opportunity costs of lost income, it is a fair question to ask if there is a better way.
However, in today’s rapidly changing society, one key meta-skill regularly refutes the accelerated program approach. That meta-skill is the ability to learn to learn. Most people upon even a short reflection will recognize that skills developed three, two, or even one decade ago are insufficient for today’s demands. In this evolving work place and society, skill sets can rapidly become obsolete. This can be as mundane as the ability to program and use a VCR (videocassette recorder for those too you to know) to learning a computer program language such as FORTRAN (now I am really dating myself). Knowledge of how to perform these tasks was seen as essential skills during the day.
There is little doubt that anyone can learn to learn. However, as mentioned in previous posts, over the centuries the liberal arts program of study as a basic of the college education has had phenomenal success. In addition, it is not just the college courses that help students learn to learn. Learning to learn comes from the college experience with its inherent introduction to divergent views and lifestyles. Learning to learn comes from the college experience that challenges and changes or reinforces students’ preconceived worldviews. Learning to learn comes from the college experience with all its uncomfortableness in combination with periods of sublime connectedness.
Of course, these same activities in college build other strong traits and characteristics such as flexibility and tolerance of others. However, for today’s student, these must be combined with current skills. There is little or no argument against engineers learning how to understand material stress loads or chemists grasping fully the implications of molecular structure. Both historians and experts in literature need to understand the search devices available today. And all students need skills in tools such as WORD, EXCEL, and others. With that said, there is a caveat. The need for some of those skills can and will decay.
So for the legislator or any person wondering about the skills being developed by the current group of students, it is important that they remember the bigger goals of college that are relevant. Those skills are extensive and momentarily relevant. They provide a great launch point. But they cannot replace the continuing need for development of new skills. Moreover, those skills are very likely self-taught. Therefore, the final skill or trait that we most want of college students is that they have learned to learn.