Dale Stephens asks, Why Go to College at All?

Dale J. Stephens.

Dale Stephens, just 20 years old and himself a college dropout, asks in a Times Blog, Why Go to College at All? In response to his questioner he pretty much rejects the reasons people give for going to college. All  except for one, status. That one he allows. College does confer some status, especially if you’ve gone to one of the big name schools, and even if for only a semester or two. (In regard to that I’d like to ask him if the status obtained, say from Harvard, is worth the $200,000 price tag?)

The other arguments he demolishes with a few well chosen sentences and I find myself mostly in agreement with what he says. My own grandchildren are not old enough yet, but when they too are thinking about college I hope I’m still around can introduce them to the ideas of Dale Stephens. Actually well before then, because his ideas apply to school generally, not just to college. I wonder if he has read John Holt?

So, how does he respond to the usual arguments? College, they say, is where you go to learn. No, he says, you may go there to learn, but if you’ve spent much time there you’ll agree that there very little learning goes on. Yes, I agree, and I would add that when the student does learn it probaby has more to do with what he does for himself than what being in a college environment is doing for him.

In regard to, —college is where you socialize and develop a network of important contacts if not friends. That and status have always seemed to me the most convincing reasons. But at what price? For much less than the cost of a college education you could easily put yourself in situations where you would “socialize” as much or more than in a college dormitory, and make friends, and establish “contacts.” That sort of thing doesn’t have to be confined to college. Work and travel are two other such situations that come immediately to mind.

Then what about “self-discovery?” Isn’t that what happens in college? Stephens would say, and here I would strongly agree, that college, not to mention school, may be what most puts off one’s discovery of oneself.

There’s certainly no evidence that people learn more about themselves in a classroom or college dorm than in any number of “real” situations, such as being away from home and having to work and fend for oneself.

The last of these reasons for going to college, and in fact the one that you hear most often in the media, — that college graduates earn more than those who have not been to college. In other words you go to college to grow your earning power, to get a good job. Stephens dismisses this argument neatly when he says,

“The key factor may be not the degree itself but the degree earner. It’s not that college creates success. It’s that smart and motivated people in our society tend to go to college. I bet if you took those smart and motivated people and put them out into the work force [without college], they would [still] earn more than other people.”

Bravo! And I would stress, as Stephens does, that all that money spent on college might be put to better use. Not to mention all that time in classrooms and other situations when you may be enjoying yourself but probably not “learning.”

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