Why College?

Posted by at 4:18PM

Have you thought carefully about why you’re in college? Can you articulate what you want to get out of these four years? Now is an especially good time to ask these questions, because William Deresiewicz, author of a popular article on The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, will be speaking at Stanford this Tuesday, April 12th. While his thought-provoking article has a fuzzie slant, most students will see some truth in Deresiewicz’s critique of universities like Stanford.

In the meantime, if you feel like you sometimes struggle to reach your potential as a student, take a look at Cal Newport’s blog Study Hacks. Newport advocates the radical notion of a college experience centered around simplicity, and is also the author of two student advice books. In stark contrast to the mindset that academic success = more units + less sleep, he suggests taking fewer classes, performing outstandingly in them, taking on original projects that set you apart, and many other ideas. Some of the blog’s suggestions are probably best ignored, but overall it offers a ton of helpful and unique advice about college.

As you develop academically, though, it might be useful to investigate what type of student you are. In 1985, a Stanford psychiatry professor published Careerism and Intellectualism Among College Students, categorizing students into four types: Careerists, Intellectuals, Strivers and Unconnected. According to the study, careerists “remained relatively fixed in their purpose throughout college, taking courses that would reliably lead to careers…[in] business, law, medicine, or engineering,” but also described “repeated fear of failure,” “a great deal of anxiety generally,” and “an erosion of self-confidence.” Meanwhile, intellectuals (who included “many students from families of very high socioeconomic status”) were “highly involved with their professors,” and tended to major in the humanities; these students gave their college experience “high marks.” Strivers—I think my roommate is one of these—were “often interested in two or even three major fields,” yet “many spread themselves too thinly and ended up with lower grades”; still, strivers “indicated the highest level of satisfaction with their undergraduate experience” and graduated with “strongly positive feelings about college.” Finally, unconnected students, whose majors “often stemmed more from default than active choice,” typically came from “very high and very low social status but rarely from the middle class”; these students were “notably less involved in extracurricular activities” and had the lowest level of satisfaction with their college experience. While some of these findings may strike you as debatable, it’s an interesting framework—for more context, check out this related story, which describes how Stanford students change after graduation.

So far, though, we’ve avoided the most basic questions: Why do we even go to school in the first place? And what does it mean to go to Stanford? I once asked two professors what they saw as the purpose of higher education. They answered, “Socialization—and learning how to think.” Following that logic, they advised me to seek out professors who did the best job of teaching students how to think. Since there was no list of the “best” professors at Stanford (although there was a list circulating of the “best” classes), I tried to create one. While my attempt was not nearly as successful as initiatives like Robin Thomas’s Make Stanford Better project, I still see the potential for an organized list of excellent teachers to supplement what we read on CourseRank or hear from our friends about classes and professors.

But let’s tackle the most basic question of all: Why go to school? First, it’s important to recognize that while education, performed by teachers and learners, has always been around, mass schooling is actually a recent development which quickly spread around the world; schooling has not always been a big part of human life. However, you may also have seen current statistics which indicate that the more degrees a person attains, the more money they are predicted to earn during their lifetime. Surely this is a big motivation for many people who go to school. Cynics might go so far as to claim that the only purpose of college is to get a credential (i.e., a degree), regardless of whether any content is actually learned or not. After all, in ten years we will have forgotten much of what we study here, and moreover, many important things are not even taught in college, as Stanford alum Susan Su points out in Stuff I Never Learned at Stanford. In light of these observations, some might view time at college—specifically, time at Stanford—as an opportunity to network with future leaders, or to explore areas (such as entrepreneurship and computer science) in which the university is advantaged by its Silicon Valley location.

Regardless, in trying to understand what it means to go to Stanford we need to acknowledge several points. First, going to Stanford does not mean that we’re geniuses. People end up at Stanford for a variety of reasons, which do not necessarily include being smarter than people who do not go to Stanford. Second, going to Stanford is not a promise that we’ll become rich and famous. When you consider how few people in the world achieve fame (and how many Stanford alumni are churned out each year), a more sensible plan is to strive to be influential, not famous—in other words, try to change the world, but don’t worry too much about the recognition itself. Viewing life from this perspective, even small actions, like raising happy and productive children, can be influential. Third, we are lucky to study in the United States, a country whose top universities dominate globally (see the U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of the World’s Best Universities as well as China’s Academic Ranking of World Universities). Going to Stanford is not a guarantee of success; it’s what you make of it. At the end of the day, though, our opportunity here is huge.

Before I came to Stanford, I took a year off and wrote an article entitled Why I’m Not In College. Now that I’m a student again, I’m fascinated by thinking and reading about how to get the most out of the college experience. And while the blogs and articles in this post don’t provide all the answers, they’re a great place to start.


7 Responses to “Why College?”

  1. Gigi says:

    I can’t believe more people haven’t commented on this. In high school, it always seemed like every teacher, counselor, etc. was telling me that it was go to college or doom yourself to a life of poverty and sadness. I’m exaggerating, but only a little bit.
    It’s interesting now that I’m in college and I decide to do things simply because I want to do them. Although I am one of the few students I know whose parents would support me regardless of my major or life choices, I think there is a lot that this Stanford education can give students that they are afraid to take and there are also a lot of things that Deresiewicz points out that a Stanford education does not give its students.
    It is interesting that I was at an alumni event lately where alums were worried that students’ parents were pressuring them too much to stay away from less lucrative humanities majors. And that a lot of alumni that I deal with at least don’t have jobs in the typical fields that “successful alumni” go into (i.e. doctors, lawyers, executives, etc.).

    My point is that I think Stanford students, myself included, have this track we think we are supposed to follow from high school to Stanford to success and we are afraid to jump off and do whatever we want with our lives instead. I’m not saying that Stanford can only lead us to these typical fields, I just think we are afraid to let Stanford take us there.

  2. Chris Frederick says:

    Hey Gigi,
    Thanks for the response. Just some other thoughts:
    While I recognize that for some students, just graduating high school is a big deal, and it might seem like there’s too much at stake to get off track by not going straight to college (I’ve heard this argument), it kind of surprises me that more students accepted to Stanford wouldn’t take the opportunity to be out in the world for a year before they came here.

    Also, something I worry is whether techie majors see Deresiewicz and say, “Well, that’s great for a fuzzie, but I have so many prerequisites, I just don’t have the luxury to take classes that interest me”…and give up on the article. Any thoughts from engineers/CS majors/others?

    It’s so easy to lose perspective here, and the options for our four years are overwhelming, so I think it’s important to think through what college is about, and how to make the most of it, rather than just coasting. I heard someone say once that a lot of college is wasted on 18-21 year-olds because of their age: it would be much better if we went to college as adults, when we could really appreciate it. It’s an interesting thought.

    On the other hand, obviously my post (and Deresiewicz) are pretty heavy on the intellectual side of things and don’t talk much about the social side of things, which is also important.

  3. George says:

    Chris, this is an excellent post.

    I just saw a piece about Peter Thiel on TechCrunch that approaches the issues you highlight from another angle: http://techcrunch.com/2011/04/10/peter-thiel-were-in-a-bubble-and-its-not-the-internet-its-higher-education/. Thiel deals with the supposed value of a college education from an investor’s standpoint. He concludes that there is currently an education bubble in this country, and nobody wants to admit it.

    Thiel’s solution? A program called 20 under 20, in which he gives out $100,000 grants to the 20 best kids he can find under 20 years of age if they drop out of college and create their own companies instead. Now there’s a way to socialize and learn how to think.

  4. Chris Frederick says:

    Thanks George!
    A Stanford kid who took a gap year the same year as me, Max Marmer, applied for 20 under 20…
    That’s crazy, though, that 17 people from Stanford have applied!

    I’m really curious to see what happens.

  5. Robin Thomas says:

    The only thing that really kept me at Stanford was the “Stanford” brand name.

    Yes, I love many of the people at Stanford, I love the scenery, and I love the food, but odds are I could have found all of those things many other places. I really came to Stanford because:
    1) I expected to have all kinds of deep, meaningful conversations until 4am about peoples’ interests. But it turned out most students seemed to either be too busy to do so, or were more interested in partying (number one regret: I should have done SLE!)
    2) I thought the students would all be smart, nerdy kids who nonetheless were confident and could have fun and be crazy, and could help me get outside my comfort zone. Instead, the students were only crazy and confident when they were in large groups (like the Band), and turned out to be some of the most insecure, risk-averse people I’ve ever met (to quote myself, great at being superhuman, but no good at being human).
    3) I hoped the classes would be engaging and would really teach me something. Some of them did, but plenty of them didn’t. That’s not just the fault of the professors — I was still too much in that high-school-AP/honors mentality where I would just study enough to pass tests, and then promptly forget everything — but I’m disappointed that Stanford didn’t do more to encourage students to get out of that mentality.

    Eventually, I realized that what I was really looking for was classes that taught me to DO something, and gave me a skill. Stanford doesn’t really do that. You have to look very, very hard for skills classes. If this was 60 or 70 years ago, when the majority of college students really wanted to be scholars, and study things out of academic passion, then I think that would be fine. But any more, while there are still those who are in school for scholarship, it seems like the vast majority of college kids either (a) want to be prepared for some specific career or (b) are just in college because they’ve been bred to think they ought to go to college. Both of those groups could, I think, benefit a lot from hands-on classes that teach actual skills, rather than just the theory classes offered at Stanford. Sure, you might say, “Ah, but Stanford teaches you how to think!” If I wasn’t in that AP/Honors mentality (like so, so many other students also appear to be), then I think it might have. But as it stands, Stanford, and the education it provided me, felt very far removed from reality, and I felt pretty sure that I could graduate from Stanford without knowing how to actually do anything.

    So, obviously, I ought to have transferred somewhere else, right? Argh, something about having that “Stanford” brand name on my transcript kept convincing me to stay. I’m a big hypocrite, because while I was at the Stan I spent so much time running my mouth about breaking the college bubble, taking risks, spending time away from school, not binding yourself to a 10-year career plan, blah blah blah. But I was still too scared to walk away from the massive safety net having a Stanford degree would give me.

    One of the branch campuses of Miami University, here in Ohio where I grew up, offers a bachelor’s degree in “Integrative Studies.” It’s a way of contouring your education to you, instead of contouring yourself to your education (muddling through a bunch of classes that don’t interest you yet are required for your major, for instance). My understanding is you can design your own degree pretty much from the ground up, affording you the flexibility that I think is essential in education. Having that kind of freedom, and the ability to focus on what really interests me, would motivate me so much. It’s ironic that Stanford is the school with the motto “The wind of freedom blows,” but whose Individually-Designed Major program is basically non-existent.

    Anyway, now that I’ve gone on leave from Stanford (come on, Marine Corps, let me go to Boot Camp already…) I’ve come to realize just how silly it is to stay at a place in which you feel miserable but safe. Maybe now I’ve grown enough of a pair to pursue the academic career that actually interests me. I guess we’ll see.

  6. naruto-kun says:

    Thanks robin,

    for your very good analysis.

    Every university are the same, I am in a french university, and it seem your talking about it.

    It is not like a ninja school, lol:


  7. ELmo Melodya Santana says:

    I like the comment “how silly it is to stay at a place in which you feel miserable but safe” but for some students, there is a need for that feeling of safety. For others, they might benefit from spreading their wings and exploring change.


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