Don't Go to College to Learn

By Philip Brewer on 6 October 2009 (Updated 8 October 2009) 27 comments
Photo: Ben Crowe

There are good reasons to go to college. And, if you do go to college, you will no doubt learn a lot. But you can learn anywhere — and probably learn more, better, and faster if you do so on your own. If you choose to go to college, make sure you know what you're paying for.

A really good teacher who moved the class along at just the right pace for you might let you learn faster than simply studying the topic on your own. But any large class will go too slowly for most of the students, while even so going too quickly for a few. There's also a community aspect to learning — other students will ask questions that you should have asked, except that you hadn't realized that you didn't understand — that you won't have if you study on your own. But you can get that other ways, such as with a study group.

College gives you two things that are harder to get on your own: a chance to network with your peers and a degree.

Networking

Working with other people is inherently valuable. Five people trying to solve the same problem can much more quickly think of and try out different solutions than one person working alone. Participating in such an activity can teach you things that you won't learn from a book, and teach you some of the things that you will learn from a book more quickly. Going to college isn't the only way to do that, but going to college does put you in the position of working with a lot of other people.

If you go to a prestigious college or university, the main thing that you're paying for is a chance to spend four years with the people of your generation who will be movers and shakers. Depending on how you want to spend your life, that may be hugely valuable.

If you want to be a politician, for example, or a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, it helps a lot to know the other people who are going to be politicians and CEOs. At a prestigious college, they're right there attending your classes and living in your dorm.

If that's why you're there, make the most of it. Pay attention to your classmates, with an eye to spotting the ones that are going places. Get to know them. Whenever possible, work with them. Especially then, but also when working on your own, do great work. The point here is not to get a good grade (although there's nothing wrong with that). The point is to make sure that your peers know that you do great work. Soon enough they're going to be hiring people. You want them to remember you as someone who'll make them look good.

Don't focus entirely on your fellow students — their parents and your professors will be hiring people even sooner than your peers will. But they'll also be retiring just when your career will be peaking, so make your fellow students your top priority.

Here's the key point: If you're going to an Ivy League or other prestigious college and you're not seriously applying yourself to the job of demonstrating to your fellow students that you're a can-do guy — the sort of guy that they'll want on their team when they're trying to get something done — you're just wasting your money.

Similarly, if your career path won't get much of a boost out of having made those contacts — if your plan is to come back to your home town and be a school teacher or a farmer — then, again, you're just wasting your money.

Certification

The other thing a college provides is certification in the form of a degree. For certain kinds of jobs, a certification from a top college can give you a big leg up. For most jobs, though, a degree from Podunk College is every bit as good.

A degree from a top college can also make it easier to get into grad school, but it isn't essential. Much more important will be good grades, good GRE scores, an impressive body of work, and networking with the professors at the grad schools that you're considering.

For certification purposes, it's really only the school that provides your last degree that matters, so you might as well go with the lowest-cost undergraduate option. A graduate degree from a top school is worth no more combined with an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League undergraduate degree then it is combined with an undergraduate degree from Northern Your-State-Name-Here University. This suggests that, once you know what your terminal degree will be, you should consider other factors than reputation — like cost and location — when choosing where to go for earlier degrees.

Exceptions

There are exceptions of course, which mostly boil down to opportunity and safety — two ideas that are often linked.

Learning how to defuse bombs, for example, would be hard to do on your own. First, because bombs to practice on are hard to come by, and second because you'd probably kill yourself before you developed the basic skills. Learning how to perform surgery is much the same, although you'd probably kill somebody else rather than yourself if you tried to learn that on your own. (Of course for surgery there's also the certification issue.)

If your studies depend on access to specialized equipment that you can't afford, or that would be illegal for you to own, or that simply would be difficult to arrange on your own (like a team and opponents for learning a sport), colleges and universities are one structure for getting access.

What else you get

I'm not saying that you get nothing out of attending a college besides certification and networking opportunities — far from it.

You get:

  • An educational path which has been designed by someone who's an expert in the field and has some understanding of pedagogy.
     
  • Some degree of supervision by people who will make an effort to keep you on track and learning at a reasonable pace.
     
  • Immersion in a community of people who are (to greater or lesser extents) focused on learning.
     
  • A position in society — student.
     
  • A structure for daily living and a protected environment within which to make mistakes — a dorm room and a meal plan are a welcome safety net for someone who has never had to pay bills and a good first step toward learning how to run your own household.

My point is that none of those things have much to do with learning the course material.

If you want to learn, as I said at the beginning, you can probably learn more, better, and faster on your own. Get a text book and work your way through it, doing the exercises. Look at the bibliography and read the books that the textbook author recommends. Go to a university library (or the internet) and get the latest papers by people doing cutting-edge work in your field. Plenty of universities have been putting lectures on the internet (in case you think you learn better from a lecture than from a book) and plenty are providing outlines for whole courses of study on-line.

A lot of people go to college simply because it's the next thing to do after graduating from high school. And I'm certainly not suggesting that you shouldn't go to college. I'm just suggesting that you understand what you're paying for if you do, especially if you choose an expensive school. If you pay all that money, be sure to get your money's worth.
 

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Guest's picture

It is all about the networking. Not that we go through life on a mission to schmooze each other to death, but you meet people in college you you'll rely on and collaborate with for the rest of your life.

Everything I've done professionally has been done with a link to my college days. I got my first job because of the college Career Placement staff. I got my second job because of a friend from college who had gone to work for a different company. I started a small business with -- you guessed it -- a guy I know from college (and some others who I met through him) who I trusted and knew was bright.

When you are put in an environment with like-minded people who can elevate your thinking, you tend to want to stay in touch with them for life.

Guest's picture
Craig

Agree, depending on the major, college learning can sometimes be outdated by the time you graduated from when you started. There are so many life experiences you can learn from college and how to grow up as an adult that you can't learn in a classroom.

Guest's picture
Guest

It is worth pointing out that one of the things that is being purchased along with a certificate and access to a network is the time to study and think. Certainly a determined individual can pursue study on her own, but when such study must compete with remunerative work, it invariably gets short shrift. Successful autodidacts are always exceptional cases.

Guest's picture

an appropriate title would be "Don't Go to College JUST to Learn"

Guest's picture

I learned little in college from textbooks or a professor talking off of a power point.

The majority of my learning has come from reading non-fiction and a learning on the go mentality.

Guest's picture
Guest

Most professors are absent from classes whenever they can be because they really don't want to be there. As for networking the Dog Eat Dog mentality is more so now then in the 90s.

I have the opportunity to go back to school but I feel any profession I choose, I will not be able to find work in.

Guest's picture

Luckily at the time my father could pay for my Ivy League education - this is rarely true nowadays. There I met some of the most intelligent people I have ever met. I decided to study languages, as I thought other things I could learn on my own!

There is college and there is life-long learning. Surely you can be an autodidact but there is an old saying that he who has himself for a teacher is a fool....

Ironically, I have benefited from my alumnae status and ended up doing a lot of work for my college. There have been continuying fringe benefits from my college years after graduation.

And I DID learn a LOT - and in unexpected ways...

At the Ivies and better (& probably more expensive) schools you DON'T just get power point presentations and run of the mill textbooks - In fact textbooks are for the most part an anathema - one has reading lists. And one reads and reads and reads!

Philip Brewer's picture

@ pam munro:

A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, but I've never heard the same thing said of teachers.  Wise people teach themselves all the time.

However, I wouldn't say it's "ironic" that your alumnae status has helped you line up work for your college--that's exactly how these things work and is entirely to be expected.  In a very real sense, that's what you're paying for when you go to college--the connections that will help you find work in your field.

Guest's picture
yoshhash

Although I don't regret my education (I am a recent architect grad), I sure wished I researched it better, or paid heed to the warnings I did get. Totally "artsy" world that I barely understand/ do not feel comfortable in. I have learned to put it to use without actually practicing as an architect, but boy, I sure wished I'd come to this realization earlier.

Guest's picture
Tyson

I think going to university (in the states) is like an expensive extension of high school. I think that those personalities that have always found school easy in a boring kind of way - should take some time outside of the school environment to learn how to learn all over again.

My degrees were easily earned, but along with the theme of this post - I didn't look into what I would be on the other side. (Who would to hire a pysch/phil major?)

My main motivation as a young man was to make money - I thought that university would provide an opportunity to do that. And, it did. However, I have learned more, and created a great deal more wealth being outside of the classroom, making mistakes, and developing the skill to recover from those mistakes.

This could, however, all be the product of my university experience - albeit not directly related to my certification

Guest's picture

So college is essentially the vehicle that propagates the American form of aristocracy (equity-lords?) with a little bit of meritocracy thrown in? In that sense, most of the sorting happens before college in terms of being born to parents that have the money to pay for an Ivy League education and students who show the right attitude towards earning high grades, that is, work hard, repeat what you have been told by your professors, and don't ask too many questions. Nice.

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

Don't underestimate the power of a degree from a well-known institution. I know it "shouldn't" matter, but out in the real world—it matters.

People look at your resume and feel differently when they recognize the school. Sorry, but it's true. You're paying for that when you go to college, which sucks, but it's worth keeping in mind.

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Guest's picture
Guest

Sad. Sad. Sad. :-(

Guest's picture

In Napoleon Hill's book Think and Grow Rich he mentions the benefit that people get by having a mastermind group in their life. A group of people who challenge and push them to achieve more. This sounds very much like my college days.

I had a core group of friends that helped each other out, that pushed each other, that strengthened each other. Since graduating, it has been difficult to recreate that environment. Work, family, other obligations make it tough to have a mastermind type group unless you consciously decide to include it.

College is about the environment, the direction, the network and the degree. The degree serves to get you in the door at a place of work but the foundation you have from college gives you the basis to grow.

Learning is a life long desire and we all learn in different ways.

Guest's picture
Kristina

Am I the only one here who sees a college education as more than a means to a career or an income? I grew up on a farm outside a small town, and getting out of here (I'm now a farmer myself, after multiple unrelated degrees, which I still don't regret) was one of the best things I've ever done. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by a lot of people who were different from me in so many ways, which was in and of itself a learning experience. My university also had a study abroad program, which allowed me to study for a semester in London, which, like a lot of people, I would never have done on my own.

Like anything else, you get what you put into a university education, and I suspect that if you treat a university like a technical school, you will simply get training rather than an education.

I agree with Guest that college is a time to develop a mind, not just a career. Such things tend to be less tangible, and (alas) undervalued in our society.

Guest's picture

Imagine if you took 4 years and devoted it to learning your field by yourself without wasting time in class. You would benefit much more if you could force yourself to do this and actually study. You also wouldn't have to worry about paying tuition.

When I was about to go to college I thought it would be a bunch of really smart people who cared about learning things and intellectual pursuits. I thought it would be challenging intellectually and that I would have to work really hard. What I found was quite different. The classes were easier than what I was taking in high school and the other students were of just average intelligence. I guess if you go to MIT or Harvard it's a different experience, but I thought all colleges had smart people.

College for me turned out to be a waste. I dropped out and joined the military and now I'm making more money as an Arabic linguist with a 2 year degree than many people I know who are still fooling around in college with liberal arts degrees.

If I had it to do over I would have skipped the college all together and joined the military right out of high school.

Philip Brewer's picture

There are lots of paths.  Going to college is a perfectly good one--even a great one, for the right person with the right goals.

But if you do go to college, take advantage of the things it provides!  As people mention above, it provides lots of great stuff--peers who push you to excel, peers who provide perspectives that are new to you, a safe opportunity to develop skills like working in groups, access to the facilities of the institution, experts in the field who can save you a bunch of time by correcting your errors, and so on.

A lot of these things are mixed blessings.  A course of study devised by an expert is much less likely to have big gaps in it.  On the other hand, a course of study that you devise yourself is much less likely to have you wasting time on things that don't apply to what you want to learn.  (Of couse, things that seem to you like they don't apply may well have been included for good reasons.  Trying to skip them may well result in lots of unnecessary struggle.)

My point, though, is that you can learn either way.  If you invest the time and money that it takes to go to college, take full advantage of the opportunities that college provides.

Guest's picture

A couple of things come to mind here. In my experience the pedagogic purpose of a higher education course is often undiscussed. Most students are unaware that they are being educated in ways that are based on educational philosophy. When I explain to my business students about Bloom's taxonomy for example the scales fall off their eyes and they see the connection to marking schemes and so on.

The other thing that most students overlook is the transformative experience they are going through and the generic intellectual skills they pick up.

Many more students are going to university and seeing it as an extension of school rather than a process of intellectual development that turns them into critically reflective indidviduals. Here and now, gimme the subject content don't ask to me think hard and be aware of what I'm doing seems to be more and more the norm.

Guest's picture
David

I'll agree that if you go to college and get a liberal arts degree then you're not learning a whole lot of anything useful, but if you're studying something real, like engineering or a physical science or art/graphic design or a trade, then you will actually learn a lot of useful things that you probably wouldn't otherwise. Not to mention that you'll have access to some of the leading people in the field you're studying which is well worth what you're paying. I'm also assuming we're just talking about undergraduate work, because grad school is a whole other animal and to claim grad school is worthless would be almost insane.

And even besides all that, just having a degree is worth more money than what you paid for school, so if you have the means to go then you really should.

Philip Brewer's picture

I'm certainly not trying to say that going to college is worthless.  I'm trying to say that "learning the subject material" is only a small part of what you're paying for.

I'd say that "access to some of the leading people in the field" is one aspect of networking and that "just having a degree" is one aspect of certification--and those are precisely the two key advantages that I listed.

Those aren't even the only ones.  There are plenty more.  My point is that, if you're going to pay extra for those advantages, take advantage of them.  Access to the leading people in the field is of little value unless you spend time with those people.  If all you want is "just to have a degree," then it may well be that a cheap one from a state school will turn out to be just as useful as an expensive one.

Guest's picture
Mia

Everyone seems to be saying to be "it's all about networking" - I am shy. This is not good news for me at all ;)

Guest's picture
Kram

Have you read Robert Kiyosaki's "Rich Dad" book series? It's really exciting. I believe it when someone says "college is not for everyone" and I think it's not for me. I want to be like Robert Kiyosaki and start a business part-time while I do my temporary 9 to 5 job.
The business I plan to do is to be an independent distributor for a Multi-Level Marketing company (also called Network Marketing or Direct Selling). It is a wonderful business system. Anyone thinking of doing a business should look into MLM.

Guest's picture
IntrepidExplorer

The key, of course, is finding a school that has like-minded students. Otherwise, you're fighting a losing battle and will end up with a network of people you have little in common with and less desire to work with in the future. Sometimes you don't know this until you've already arrived at the university and have accepted funding for your education. Then it's on you to network with people outside your school, but in your field or area of interest. That's what I had to do in grad school as I soon discovered that the students in my department were studying things that held little interest for me and the professors were resistant to the research track I wanted to follow (one well within the bounds of my field, but too controversial for their tastes). I ended up spending my time with people in other departments more open to the subject matter and with students from those departments. I also made friends in other areas of life -- like outdoor sports and writing groups -- in my local community.

Sometimes your university is not the right place for you to network. But it's a good start if it's the right fit.

Guest's picture

The networking opportunity is invaluable! It's all about who you know in this world, and having a large network is a great reason to go to school.

Guest's picture
Kyle

To get as much value out of the college experience as you can, you have to be take it upon yourself to be productive. You need to take what you learned in the classroom, and learn more about these topics outside of class. You need to meet as many interesting people as you can while in college. Networking is definitely key. You also have to get involved. There are so many resources available on campus (speeches, clubs, groups, scholarships, awards, etc) outside of class. If you are not taking advantage of these, you are wasting you money. As an undergrad at Syracuse University, I started a business and was able to get tons of resources from the school and was able to join an entrepreneurial community. for this reason, I decided to continue my education by pursuing my M.S. at the SU School of Information Studies.

Guest's picture
GuestMartian

Uhhh it definitely depends on what you want to do with your life. I went to a prestigious university (Northwestern) but dropped out . I realized I wanted nothing to do with the type of people who attend these schools, corporate america, a 9-5 job, etc. etc. I decided I wanted to be a chef and open my own restaurant and live out in the country with horses. All things that college would help absolutely nothing with, it was actually delaying me from pursuing this. Luckily I was mostly on full scholarship so didn't have too much student loan bills. I guess however that taking some of the classes I took in college, mainly the literature and philosophy courses totally turned me off to college or many possible life paths I might have gone down if I didn't get put down the path of certain texts. Go figure.

Guest's picture
Sarkari naukri

Great ideas i too think same on the topic. Most private colleges are here just to make profit they don't provide any quality education at all, just bookish knowledge.