Don't Go to College to Learn
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.