I have been exchanging messages recently on Brazen Careerist with Demetra Allen. (Find her website here.) We were both part of a thread about how going to college has helped everyone leverage their talents, and get to where they are today.
When I answered that it had not in any way helped me at all, she became very curious, because she had not encountered many people who responded in such a manner about their college education. She asked me if I might be willing to expound upon the issue. Not being able to do so within the character limits of a Brazen Careerist post, I opted to post a blog entry about it.
Yet where to start? When something fails to live up to so many expectations, and is so far off of the success curve of so many other people, it can become almost impossible to pinpoint all of the exact reasons. But I will make an effort to illustrate some of them through the use of broad categories. This isn't a thesis or a study, so the categories are informal. This is just me sharing some observations and thoughts with you, as always.
To begin with, let's talk about the degree itself.
The bachelor's degree in this country as a whole has been quite devalued over the last 30 years. I knew going into college I would never be able to walk up to my dream job, wave a diploma at them, get hired, and become rich and powerful. I was wise enough to avoid that delusion.
Yet I wasn't wise enough to realize that all of the time, expense, and work to get a degree might not ever open any doors. And it certainly did not for me. I thought that it would at least get my foot in the door of a mail room somewhere. Maybe a small cubicle on the first floor of someplace. Or at least get me some interviews.
I was given no full time job in 5 years of looking, and was granted only three interviews.
Having gone to a career counselor here and there, I was advised more than once to "hide the college experience." That when employers in my area see it they assume I am going to want more money than they can pay, and assume that my liberal arts background would make me restless and unwilling to sit down and do "real work".
As the years passed, the same advice was given because, "employers are going to wonder why someone with a degree has never been able to get a full time job."
So at first college was a drawback because I looked too smart. Later it was a drawback because I looked not smart enough. Same diploma.
Then of course many jobs advertise a need for people with a diploma. A diploma I did not have. A job I know I was perfectly capable of doing, but for which I was not qualified because I majored in the wrong thing. College graduation is not a reward in and of itself anymore.
So one reason college was a waste of time and money was the empty degree.
Another failure was the weak network.
I made friends in college. You almost have to. But that is just what they are. Friends. I don't want to get into a discussion of shallow friends and personal betrayals, but let's just say my friend pool from college was thinner than most. Even when friends bothered at all to keep in contact with me after college, they had no connections to any industry for which I would be qualified. Or they were going through similar post-collegiate employment difficulties. Or they all lived so far away that any connection they would have would prove to be of little use to me. Even if someone knows a guy who knows a guy in Oregon, what good would that do me in Maryland? Especially given that I had never made enough money to even think about moving to another state?
The career center at my college was not much more helpful. I went there once or twice before realizing they were not telling me anything I didn't already know. They would ask to see my resume, and advise ways to punch it up. They would offer, (though I declined) to give me a mock job interview and critique it. They would suggest things like, "Hmm, maybe if you look in the phone book under your interests and start making cold calls..."
Thanks! As obvious a tactic as that was, it was never going to happen. In other words, they had no personal connections to share with me. Half the point of a career center is to connect you with people that work with the college, or alumni of the same. But the only time the career center really had any thing to offer in that department was if you were looking for the corporate life. The business majors, or the PR people. Those looking to get into computer tech and that sort of thing. Want to get involved in community non-profits?
"Well, we don't really have anything like that at this time..."
Then there were the wonderful, life changing internships everybody always talks about. Lord how people love their internships. How they put them on the right path, and all that song and dance.
Not so much with mine.
It was a requirement for all political science students to have an internship. I figured I would go to my adviser, see the list of places with whom the college had relationships that led to previous internships before, and pick one that fit my style.
They basically had none. No relationships with businesses in town. My professor didn't know anybody. There was literally no sense of the college having established ANY community ties for internships. Nobody my professor could introduce me to. It really felt as though the department had never helped establish an internship before. It was as though students had always been 100% on their own in finding a connection and building an internship. I didn't know how to do that. I came to college because I didn't know how to do everything, after all.
It took over a year. A YEAR of looking for internships, with several falling through in my own home town during the summer. ("We really don't have anything an intern could learn here. We're such a small town.") Finally, I went with one of the few connections the college did have, which opened up locally near campus. An internship with the local Congressman's office.
This sounded exciting. Meet a Congressman maybe. Help people. Maybe get to go to some speeches.
The internship consisted of my sitting at a desk and cutting out newspaper articles that contained certain keywords. I would then fax them to another office where they would do all the interesting stuff with them. I would just cut and fax.
Halfway through the internship, the woman that ran the office started leaving early, letting me lock the place up. Most of the time I interned, I sat alone in an office, cutting newspaper. Never even met the Congressman.
Believe it or not, this didn't open any doors for me either. I didn't even bother leaving it on my resume for any more than two years after I graduated. What would be the point? Do you know how embarrassing it is to try to spin that into something worthwhile to a potential employer? I wasn't even buying it myself.
Alumni Association? There is one for my alma mater. But like the career center it caters to certain types of students. And they, like anybody else, want a proven track record and long resume before they will even touch you. It helps if you already know somebody important that you can leverage within the Alumni community, too. In other words, useless for someone like me.
Plus, as I mentioned in a previous post, no professor took any active interest in me. So I lacked the advantage of having a professor for a friend.
So college didn't exactly grow my network.
College is also not personal enough.
There are a lot of colleges out there, and I can't of course speak for every one of them. But based on what I have read, and what I have experienced myself, not enough of them are tailored to the specific needs of individual students. Yes, I know that is a favorite bit of copy included in virtually all advertisements put out by all colleges ("tailored to the individual student's needs") but in practice, nothing is tailored. Colleges of any size tend to subscribe to cookie cutter mentalities. They have declared, within their insulated sphere what an education is, and those who wish to stay on campus must conform to same. My college certainly did, and it was a disservice to me. I graduated, and did so with good grades, but only because it was the only game in town. That was the system. I bucked it a few times, and predictably only managed to piss off well ensconced and out of touch professors in the process. That "outside the box" thinking they were famous for was never to be applied to the college itself.
A truly personalized experience would allow any given student to form their own approach to what they want to do with their lives, and remain flexible as those goals change. Not free reign to be willy-nilly, but the freedom of a self exploratory education. With faculty that is focused on helping students find who and what they are, not digest the next exam's answers, promptly to be forgotten during spring break.
My college didn't make things personal in this manner, and I have realized, in the years since, that despite my dedication to my education, I didn't belong, and was not served by the standard educational model I just described.
That lack of a personal approach sort of dovetails into the final category. College failed to teach me how it really works.
Again, I wasn't naive, but I was caught off guard by how different jobs, job hunting, and leveraging my degree, (not to mention student loans and debt) worked after college, as opposed to how they appeared to work while there. Most colleges, not just mine, offer no training for what to do after college. There are no mandatory classes about networking, or job hunting, or debt control, or how to handle your loans. Being a business themselves, they avoid telling you how it really works, and instead let credit card companies harass you outside of the lunch line. (I didn't get one!) They have career centers that tell you what you already know, but nothing you WILL need to know. They laud heaps of praise on the importance of getting an education, and the prestige of getting it with them, but don't explain that such an advantage truly died off in the 1960's.
In other words, they are not preparing you for life. They are isolating you from it for four years. And while I knew that for the loftiest, prettiest claims this was true, I didn't realize it was true even for the most modest, every day, run of the mill claims, such as, "this will be useful to you when you get out there." It wasn't.
I could go on, but I really think the point is made. And I think that any other reasons I could think of pertaining to college's failure would basically fall within the four meta categories I laid out here; the weakness of a degree, a failure to make it personal, the lack of a built in network, and the failure to prepare students for any real life experiences.
Many people will suggest that really all it takes is the right attitude, and hard work to succeed, and that college is what you make of it. That may be true for some people at some colleges. And while I confess I may not have had the highest fire under my ass all the time in college, I will not succumb to the notion that the reason it did nothing for me was because I didn't want it enough. The fact of the matter is that college, as advertised and explained in this country today, is supposedly the place to go to become prepared to go out and do those things. It is the place where that fire is supposed to be set, not the place where you have to already be on fire from the get go in order to succeed on campus.
College isn't what it used to be. People like me need a place where we can be educated in ways that both suit us, and prepare us for what's ahead. We don't care about school spirit, the proximity to historical landmarks, or the famous people that went to this school before us. We care about learning. Learning in a way that will make it worth the time, money and energy in the end. Getting an education that will actually guide us towards success. Not education for the sake of having gone to college.
I don't know if any college really acts like that anymore, but that is what I needed, and did not get. And if nobody gets that from college anymore, the perception we have in this country of what college is should at least adapt to it's reality, so those who can be helped by it can go, and those who are Too XYZ can go elsewhere.