Chances are you’ve been faced with the college question — “Will you or won’t you go to university?” — posed by (hopefully) well-intentioned guardians, mentors or friends. Otherwise, you might be like me, someone from a community where college was never seen as an option, but as an imperative.
Many point to college as a road to success in all areas of life, including finances, relationships and health. People love vouching for college, and for good reason. Those with bachelor’s degrees have significantly higher median lifetime earnings compared to those entering the workforce with high school diplomas. College graduates are granted a certain degree (no pun intended) of job security, specialized skills and professional networking.
The college experience is assigned a wide range of adjectives — from the oh-so-underhanded “mid” to the exuberant “slay” (I feel a distinct need to promise that I don’t actually use Gen Z slang in real life, no cap). Many dream of the “classic” college experience: sunlit afternoons on green campus quads, bonding moments in communal bathrooms and weekend fraternity parties after long days (and nights) spent at the library.
College is an opportunity to explore different academic fields, meet wonderful people and engage in extracurriculars you might never try otherwise. And it is, truthfully, a great privilege to even have the question of college at hand, to have been born into a situation where higher education is, with enough work and effort, within reach.
The counterpoint I would like to pose to the college question is this: Just because something has merit doesn’t mean that it holds merit for you. College may be a road to success, but perhaps it’s just that one road among many.
Plenty of people without a college education have accomplished groundbreaking feats. The CEO of Spotify dropped out of college after a short eight weeks; Bill Gates is a Harvard dropout. College can't be the one defining factor that determines the trajectory of someone’s life, if there even is such a thing. College can certainly be a game-changer and an immensely rewarding experience, but I don’t think whether someone goes to college is the be-all and end-all.
The traditional bachelor’s program is one option among many, all of which offer their own merits and drawbacks. Apprenticeship programs, which provide on-the-job learning, are growing in popularity. Trade schools are less expensive than bachelor’s programs and graduates have high employment rates. Gap years provide time for young people to explore other interests before committing to a certain career path.
What we should really be asking prospective college students is the same question we ask those across all walks of life: What is it that you care about? It might be financial success or being present for your loved ones, finding the best bubble tea in Baltimore or determining the existence of objective moral truth.
No matter the answer, it remains key to ask. Nearly three-quarters of individuals who attend college for the sake of doing “what is expected of them” drop out or transfer. Personal circumstances, goals and preferences need to be taken into account, and for that to happen, we can’t pose the college question with a right answer in mind.
As the adage goes, education is an investment. But if we give our whole selves away in the pursuit of a distant payoff without a reason we truly care about, how much of ourselves will we have left once we get our degrees? What we can do is find a path that fulfills and sustains us. College may very well provide this for some, but it remains that no two people are seeking the exact same experience from life. So, isn’t it counterintuitive to funnel everyone through the same college pipeline?
Attending college is a decision — a big, scary one, but a decision nonetheless — to be taken into consideration with all the rest of one’s aspirations, interests and passions in mind.
Kaitlin Tan is a freshman from Macao majoring in Writing Seminars and Neuroscience.