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Why college?: The question high-achieving students don’t ask themselves

| Monday, October 12, 2020

Despite being an exam so quirky and interesting that many people actually love taking it, the LSAT is not the kind of exam for which a typical education directly prepares you for. While taking an LSAT practice test back in May, a friend and I began to discuss how our respective high schools prepared us for college and for this exam. Even though both of our high schools strongly encouraged students to attend college, he and I both knew plenty of people from our high schools who never ended up at a four-year university and never wanted to. This led us to a broader question:

“How many people do you think have a college education in this country? 50, 60%?” I asked him. He shrugged.

We Googled it. I was shocked to read that just 33.4% of Americans over age 25 had four-year college degrees in 2017. Why were my expectations so off? Perhaps because, like many Notre Dame students, I was privileged to grow up in the kind of environment where going to college seems to be an expected milestone in one’s life. My parents are highly educated, and they encouraged me to attain good grades and higher education, too. The formula of K-12 success to college success to career success was probably fed to me with my baby food.

When I began thinking about college, my parents and I saw the American university education system from different angles. My search was their first encounter with American undergraduate education, and their first encounter with five-digit tuition fees (public higher education in Syria, their country of origin, is free). I remember my dad urging me, in the 10th grade, to pursue online degree programs. He earnestly claimed, “It’s the same information, with none of the extra stuff you don’t need.”

“Dad,” I protested, confusedly. “You’d really want me to go to an online school instead of Harvard, or Notre Dame, or Yale?”

As if!

But as we learned more and more, both my parents and I discovered that the “extra stuff” — things like name recognition, a robust alumni network and scenic, amenity-filled campuses — do more than just inflate tuition. Of course, in the age of COVID-19, tuition hikes and online classes challenge the value of a prestigious college degree in new ways, though some scholars have always cast doubt on the value of a diploma. Behavioral economist Bryan Caplan, author of the controversial book, “The Case Against Education,” writes this about diploma signaling in the Los Angeles Times:

“If a student wants to study at Princeton, he doesn’t really need to apply or pay tuition. He can simply show up and start taking classes. As a professor, I assure you that we make near-zero effort to stop unofficial education … At the end of four years at Princeton, though, the guerrilla student would lack one precious thing: a diploma. The fact that almost no one tries this route — saving hundreds of thousands of dollars along the way — is a strong sign that students understand the value of certification over actual learning.”

Caplan has become known for his polemic against the compulsion to attend expensive colleges for the “signaling power” of their issued certificates. Much like Caplan argues here, some people suggest that college is an overpriced waste of time unless you are majoring in STEM or receiving some kind of technical or industry-specific education. But before I lose the humanities majors and my own place in the class of 2022, be assured my view is much less extreme. I think a university education is one of the most wonderful things in the world, my own Notre Dame experience included. But I’ll also say that the in-person classroom is certainly not the only way, let alone the best way, for every student to learn, grow or get their tuition money’s worth. And though I’m a good student, I might include myself in the latter category at times, especially in light of my current gap semester.

I promised in August I would write more about how my gap semester has altered the course of my education. People often asked me what I planned to do with all of this time. Why would anyone in their early twenties willingly agree to spend 11 straight months at home with their parents and two mischievous brothers?

But in the past five months or so, I have been busier and working harder than I ever did in school. My gap semester gave me an important second chance to reevaluate why I started college in the first place. So far, I’ve worked on everything from founding a tech startup, to volunteering, to getting more of my writing published, to knitting several wool scarves. The college lifestyle is wonderful, but when we let our classes, club meetings and social events form such rigid boundaries on our time, we may not be using our resources to serve ends that are genuinely important to us. I think every college student, no matter their year, can benefit from seriously pondering the question: “Why am I in college?”

In February, like 9 out of 10 students who take gap years, I’ll return to school again. While I’m very excited to return, I’ll miss the trimmed-down simplicity of the past few months: just me, my laptop and the boundless possibilities I can see from my bedroom window.


Renee Yaseen is a junior who majors in international economics and Arabic. She’s currently on a gap semester doing lots of creative stuff and lots of un-creative stuff. She can be reached via the chat on a shared Google Doc at 3 a.m., on Twitter @ReneeYaseen or by email at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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