I was recently talking to a high school student who was struggling with a decision about where to go to college. ‘But the thing is, it’s really important. It’s supposed to be the best time of my life!’
While I think it’s important for a student to find the school that ‘fits,’ I think that comment suggests something worrisome in society. That is, the belief that somehow, college is the end all, be all of modern happiness.
If you tour a university with your children (and I have several times now) it’s clear that universities are working hard to create an environment that attracts students; and attracts the dollars they necessarily bring with them.
I have to admit, these are beautiful, well-groomed and vibrant places. Students who lead tours are bubbly about the wonders that their schools have worked in their previously mundane lives.
The lawns and buildings are either old and venerable, with attached history, or young and shiny; energetic and inviting. (Although I will always be nostalgic for the dark, steam-heated, dungeon-like atmosphere of my medical school.)
The food options are glorious. In one school I counted four waffle irons in sequence. I nearly wept. The activities and organizations sound thrilling, and the options for individualized study, foreign exchange, internships and all the rest are grand. I can see how any young person might think that college should be the grandest experience of life. Particularly when that person has only been around for 18 years or so.
And yet, there is also a kind of deception. I don’t think that it’s usually intentional. (Although the recent admissions scandal makes the entire process seem a little tainted.) I believe that those who run universities fully believe in their products; as they should. They are convinced that higher education is essential to ‘the good life,’ because it not only educates, it purportedly expands minds. It theoretically (but not always actually) connects students with opinions unlike their own to open up new horizons of thought.
However, the sad fact is that many students and parents believe that when they save and struggle, study and work for the right expensive, competitive school, they are indeed opening a door to the best time of life. They seem convinced, consciously or not, that the rest of their years after college may be a bit of a disappointment after the wonders supplied by four (or more) years of expensive freedom.
This belief is marketed. It’s pushed not only by schools but by the entertainment industry. And even by government since many politicians believe everyone should go to college. No wonder students, impressionable and anxious about the future, swallow the whole thing, hook, line, sinker and loans.
And yet, what a ridiculous thing to believe! Don’t get me wrong. I loved my time in college. I found my wife in college. My cut-rate, state-school education led me to my profession. Which in turn allowed me to do a thing I take pride in doing, and to support my family. But looking back on my life? It was hardly ‘the best time of my life.’ Not even close.
For many students, college can be a difficult transition from the comforts of home. In those times, it may not seem like ‘the best time of life.’ For others, college can be an expenditure that doesn’t pay off in hoped for jobs.
And for still others, it just isn’t the right fit. Some amazing young people just want to have jobs, military careers, lucrative trades or simply grow and raise happy families. They may realize this after a few semesters; or may never go to college at all.
Still, lots of others find college a pleasure palace of delight, and one in which all the stars align to give them a new view of the world, a valuable education and a career. I wish that for all students!
But even for them, even for those for whom college is the perfect experience they always dreamed of having, I hope this: I hope that it isn’t the best time of their lives. I hope that love and relationships with spouses and children, parents, siblings and friends continue to be more joyous. I hope that struggle, service and purpose give them depth. I hope that vocation and avocation all yield ever greater delights in the passing years.
And I hope that every student learns that college is a stop along the journey; not the end of the line.