Earlier this week, after I dropped my wife and one of our children off at the airport, I decided to make a small detour on the way home. The airport was only about a mile away from the college I attended, so I thought I’d swing by the townhouse where my roommates and I used to live, just for old time’s sake.
As I made the turn off the freeway down The Alameda, the memories came back swiftly. I pulled up close to the townhouse complex where we lived, but I had forgotten there was a gate leading into the parking lot, so I couldn’t fulfill my desire to stroll around the place and think about old times. So I just parked in front of it, gazing up at the balcony where we used to throw water balloons at the unsuspecting traffic (Puerile, I know, but one of the better memories of my misspent youth).
I then began to ponder a question that had drifted through my mind before: did I get anything at all out of college? Should I have gone in the first place?
Now, as before, I decided the answer was a resounding “no“.
Many eons ago, when I was actually approaching college age, the question as to whether or not I would go wasn’t even considered. Everyone in my family had gone, including my parents, and I had it all figured out: I was going to get accepted into Stanford, along with my girlfriend, and we’d attend it together and have a grand old time. We talked about it incessantly, knowing without a doubt that this was Our Destiny.
The acceptance rate back then, about 12%, seemed like a pretty high hurdle (those of you in the back snickering, please refrain; I realize the acceptance rate these days is 4%). I was pretty much a “B+” student, and my test scores were good, but not amazing. However, I had the unusual distinction of being a high school student who had his own software company and had about ten published books under his belt, so my achievements were unusual enough that I thought it would make up for these deficiencies. (My girlfriend, who had no such distinctions, had better grades than me, and somewhat better scores, but I figured her admission was less certain than my own).
Well, you can probably guessed what happened. She got in. And I didn’t.
Getting that thin envelope in the mail on that April afternoon was, to that point, the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I rushed over to my girlfriend’s house and, finding no one at home, just sat on the porch feeling miserable, waiting for someone to arrive so I could tell them the news. I don’t quite remember if she got the yearned-for thick envelope that very day, but she probably did, since all the decisions were sent at once. It was a terrible blow for me, since the clean, simple future we had worked out had suddenly gone up in smoke.
As they say, if you want to make God laugh, just tell him your plans.
I was making decent money those days as a writer, so I ultimately decided to skip college for a year and work. (As an aside, both Brown and Princeton accepted me, I suppose due to my peculiar background, but I declined to attend). My girlfriend started at Stanford and, after they rejected me a second time, I wound up going to a different school. Eager to enter the world of work, where I was most comfortable, I got my bachelor’s degree in a mere 2 1/2 years, and I was done with school for the rest of my life.
Thinking back on it, though, what did I get out of it? Have I ever used or applied anything I learned in college? No. Did I establish a single relationship that meant anything at all to me later in my life? Nope. Do I wish I had stayed there a single day longer than I did? Not in the least. I wanted to get a degree and get out of there as soon as possible. So much so that, even having skipped an entire year, I was done with college even before my girlfriend was.
To my way of thinking, unless a person is actually garnering skills – – cold, hard skills – – that they need for a desired occupation, going to college is virtually pointless (with a prominent exception that I’ll discuss later). If you’re going to be a civil engineer, you can’t just wing it. If you’re going to be a surgeon, that’s not something you’re going to learn by buying a Great Course DVD set from an advertisement in the New York Times. Humanity has created a vast body of knowledge over the span of its existence, and there are some professions that demand acquisition, synthesis, and deployment of such knowledge.
But for someone like myself – – a person who simply wanted to created products in the high tech world – – college was basically a complete waste of time and money. I got a Marketing degree (God forgive me), and every single class in the business school was a waste of time. Ironically, the class at the very bottom of the list with respect to utility was the one I took in computer science. The only classes I truly enjoyed were those related to religion and philosophy (and, since it was a Jesuit school, the instruction in those fields was particularly good).
Hundreds of years ago, seeking higher education was something virtually no one pursued, with the exception of divinity students and lawyers. Harvard, after all, was originally a divinity school, and for hundreds of years after Harvard’s founding, only the most elite of society would consider sending their progeny to any college. Even back to my parents’ generation, college attendance was exercised by a slim minority of the population. In those days, a high school diploma was considered absolutely enough education for virtually any citizen. Only in the past century has it become de rigueur.
Thus college, regrettably, has become expected of any self-respecting youth today. My viewpoint is that the thousands of colleges in the country are, with few exceptions,roughly equivalent in rigor and scope with the high schools of one hundred years ago. If you have ever seen one of the tests givens to students from a century past and, like me, decided you probably could get maybe 10% of the questions right, then you know what I mean.
The point I am attempting to make is that going to college has become a culturally-ingrained habit, and a habit that will probably never be broken. Whereas a century ago, a high school diploma was seen by society as a solid, even exemplary, level of educational achievement, now someone with “only” a high school diploma is perceived as a person who has chosen to drop out of life early. Therefore, higher education has become a gargantuan for-profit business whose prices vastly exceed inflation by the access to free money in the form of federally-guaranteed loans. That trillion dollars of student debt didn’t come from nowhere.
Where I live, of course, it is many times worse, because not just any “college” will do. Only the best-of-the-best will suffice, which is why the parents caught up in the college admissions scandal unwittingly set their lives on fire by trying to get their dim-witted brats into the likes of USC by paying millions and millions of dollars in bribes since they – – yes, yes, I know – – love their children and wants what is best for them.
I mentioned earlier how my dismissal of college as important did not apply to those who actually need real knowledge (essentially very high-end vocational education). There is one other exception, however, which can be expressed in a single word: Contacts.
The elite institutions – – the Stanfords, Harvards, Princetons, and the like – – are where the hoi polloi of the future are right now, and everyone there knows it. Although the admissions committees of such places will piously speak of these places as citadels of learning, diversity, and everyone collectively seeking the greater good for all humanity, the cold fact of the matter is that, deep down, some of the most ambitious and venal souls have elbowed their way into these places, since the members of future boardrooms and the occupants of private jet planes line the dormitory hallways.
As George Carlin once said: it’s a big club, and you ain’t in it.
But, look, I’m just as guilty as any other parent (although our own offspring got in legitimately as opposed to oh, say, Lori Loughlin’s). I’ve witnessed and been neck-deep in the college admissions process, this time as a parent, and it’s brutal. Seen in a kinder light, it is a filtering process like no other. And, knowing just how breathtakingly hard it is to get into any of these elite schools (super-rich families notwithstanding), I am confident that probably 80% of the kids who get in are actually very smart, talented, and great to know.
But, for me, looking back, I could have skipped the whole thing. There’s nothing I’ve done with my life that was made possible by attending school, and not a morsel of knowledge floating around my semi-functional brain that was garnered during those 2 1/2 years. Driving away from my townhouse, it dawned on me that the most lasting memory I have from the entire experience was a stainless steel bowl filled with freshly-tied water balloons.
And nothing else.