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What Kind of (College) Experience Are You Having?

Added on by Sam Davidson.

Earlier this week, Carol Phillips blogged about the real ROI of college education. The case is clear (as highlighted by Phillips and Barbara Ray): people with a college degree earn more money (on average). The discrepancy of lifetime earnings between someone with and without a college degree is staggering:

So, college is clearly worth it. But how much is it worth?

At dinner a few weeks ago with my brother-in-law, we were discussing the finer parts of parenthood (he has a six-month-old) like poop and daycare when the conversation drifted to financial planning and the kinds of schools our children may want to attend. He and his wife recently met with a financial planner who estimated that 20 years from now, we'll need over $250,000 to get our daughters through college once you calculate tuition, travel, housing, food, and tattoo removal.

Granted, that amount should pay for itself over time, if our daughters have the right experience. To me, this is the crucial point of differentiation as to whether or not college is "worth" it. Sure, having a degree to your name qualifies you for better jobs. But, you won't get those jobs unless you can convert knowledge to experience.

Let's face it - a degree is just a fancy word for receipt. You walk across the stage and the university president hands you a large receipt with some Latin on it. All that sheet of paper says is that someone paid for you to pass your classes. It says nothing as to the experience you had.

When I speak to college students (roughly a few times each semester), I leave them with the following advice, no matter the topic of discussion:

  1. Never again will you have this much free time. Add it up. When you factor in spring breaks, summer vacations, winter holidays, and all the other days off, you'll have over a year of free time during the next four years. You won't get this at any other time in life. Use your free time wisely. Travel. Try new things. Get an internship. Diversify. Don't go to Panama City every March. Go once, then go somewhere else. Don't move home in the summer if you can get a job somewhere in an area that excites you.
  2. What you do outside the classroom matters. As a college student, you're only actually in class for 16 hours a week. That's about three hours a day. That's the only time you have to be somewhere. Spend the rest of your time (after you do your homework) joining and leading a club or campus interest group. Check out the free film screenings on campus. Make time to visit with your professors. Sit in on lectures. Go to football games. Meet as many people as possible. Your daily schedule will never be more free than it is now.
  3. Your major doesn't matter. Unless you're going to be a nurse or an architect, study whatever you want. If you follow the first two pieces of advice, you'll have great stories to tell at a job interview, and you'll learn a lot about a lot. Study what interests you. You don't have to do for a living what you study at college. You'll get better grades if you enjoy what you're studying. I picked my major (history) not because I wanted to be a professor or work at a museum, but because I looked in the catalog and it had the fewest number of required courses. This freed me up to take as many electives as I could fit in. History wasn't bad, so I didn't mind going to class and writing papers, and as a result I graduated with honors. Study what you want.

When I interview new hires or interns, I rarely ask them what they learned in class. I ask them what kind of experience they had (or are having) in college. The number one complaint of new grads is that they don't have enough experience to get a job. That's only true if you define experience by actual work performed. If, however, you accurately define experience as the sum of what you made from your opportunities, adventures, and activities, then students will find that college was more than worth it. It was the only place where they could try so many things to determine what they loved and who they wanted to become.

I'll be saving up for my daughter's education, but not just the kind she'll get within the walls of brick buildings around a quadrangle. I'll be paying for her tickets to study abroad, housing for her summer internship in the city, and her club/association/sorority dues. All of those experiences will be as valuable - literally and metaphorically - as what happens in a classroom.

College is worth it. Grad school on the other hand? The jury is out (and rightfully so)...

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