small change toward a rich life

Two things I wish my teenaged self had known about college

In my last post, I talked about my early misconceptions about choosing a career and a major. My next big life decision was selecting a college, and I was pretty woefully misguided there, too.

I approached college selection in my usual methodical manner: first I sat down with two huge catalogs — each two inches thick on newsprint-thin paper — that listed and rated every accredited school in the country. I made a list of desired criteria and started winnowing the possibilities. Then I sent a letter to every school that met those criteria — well over a hundred of them — asking for course catalogs and other materials.

college marketing brochureI had also qualified as a National Merit Finalist, so from the moment my PSAT scores were released, I had been getting unsolicited college brochures in the mail as well, often several a day. I saved everything in a brown lawn-size garbage bag under my bed.

Eventually, I gathered up all of these publications — by then overflowing the bag — sorted them into piles by college, and began the process of deciding which universities I would apply to. I was confident that I would make good choices, because I had collected ALL the information.

There was just one problem. I didn’t know it, but I wasn’t actually getting information. I had a 39-gallon garbage bag full of advertising under my bed.

That’s the first thing I wish someone had explained to me — that colleges are selling a product. Their main goal is convincing you to give them your money … or in the case of outside scholarships, convincing you to give them someone else’s money. Even if the school is footing the entire bill, because you were valedictorian or a National Merit Finalist or whatever, the aim is still money: they’re using you to bump their statistics and rankings in order to convince other prospective students to give them money. Whether the school is a good choice for you is completely beside the point.

hamburger compared to photo on boxIn most cases, the picture of college life that you get from a brochure or a campus tour is no more accurate than the hamburger in a fast-food television commercial. The fluffy golden bun, sizzling grill-seared meat, curly green lettuce with water droplets arcing outward in slow motion, all bear no discernible resemblance to the smushed hockey puck you actually unwrap.

•   •   •

Even hard facts are suspect, because you can’t possibly know the whole story. For example, I chose my college in large part because it had an entire Fiction Writing department, with its own classes and a separate major. Many colleges offered a few writing courses under the umbrella of the English department, but to have a full curriculum at the undergrad level was rare indeed, and I thought it bespoke a dedication to the craft that I wouldn’t find elsewhere.

soldiers climbing in training exerciseI transferred in to that college as a sophomore and immediately signed up for my first fiction writing course. On the first day I was alarmed; by the second class I was horrified. It was like military boot camp for writers. The entire purpose seemed to be to break everyone down and build them back up again in a very particular mold. I was seriously afraid that it would ruin me for writing altogether.

Fortunately I had drawn one of the more lenient grad students as instructor, and I found a loophole, a way to pass that one class without being completely undone by the freakish method. And then I abandoned the Fiction Writing degree and fled the department.

By the time I’d been at the school a couple of years, I had gotten to know some of the professors well enough to piece together the real story. As with most universities, fiction writing had started out as part of the English department. But one professor was an egomaniac who had developed his own paint-by-numbers approach to the teaching of writing. Most of the existing faculty disagreed, but he had more political power with the administration. When the dust settled, he had his own department, supported by the single professor who agreed to follow his method.

All the other professors — many of whom were published novelists — were thereafter only allowed to teach literature and essay courses, not fiction. (By contrast, almost all of the FW courses were taught by grad students, and no one, not even the full professors, had actually published fiction outside of the school’s own press.)

young Karawynn accepting writing awardFreed from the constraints of the FW major, I took literature classes from several of those novelist professors. For writing practice I fled to poetry, which had remained with English in the political schism. I returned to Fiction Writing only once, for the class in Science Fiction Writing, which was taught by a visiting instructor who was an actual science fiction novelist. Being not properly part of the department, she was able to ignore most of the idiotic methodology and teach the class her own way. (My final project for her class became my first published short story, and won a major award. At the time I thought of it as my personal middle-finger to the head of the FW department.)

That was the most dramatic example for me, but by no means the only one. The second big thing I wish I’d understood is that college doesn’t actually revolve around the students. Universities, like any organization, are chock-full of personal politics. College professors almost universally have goals quite unrelated to teaching yet another set of kids the basics of whatever for the umpteenth time. They have personalities, and ambitions, and foibles. There will be struggles over power, over money, over prestige. And all of those things will define your experience as a student — sometimes in ways you come to understand, but often entirely behind the scenes.

•   •   •

If I could go back and give advice to my teenage self, here’s what I’d tell her:

Any assumptions about college you make in advance are likely to be wrong — there’s just too much you can’t know until you have boots on the ground. All that advertising under your bed is actual garbage: toss it out now. Same with campus visits — they’re still marketing, and give you a very poor idea of reality. College ratings are rigged — ignore them. Don’t succumb to flattery. Don’t pick a school for the major you think you want. Don’t assume that any circumstance that exists today (class, teacher, program, department) will be the same next year, or four years from now.

university students listening to lectureInstead, remain flexible. Pick the largest, most diverse university you can afford and keep your options wide open. Try lots of things, because your favorites will surprise you. When you find a teacher who inspires you, cultivate her acquaintance and take every class she has to offer. If something stinks, bail. Let go of preconceptions and adjust to the real circumstances in which you find yourself.

•   •   •

It’s been almost a quarter-century since I sat on my bedroom floor surrounded by stacks of catalogs and brochures. Marketing has only gotten more sophisticated, and I feel confident that academic politics are as pervasive as they ever were. As far as I can tell, teens today are no less naive or idealistic — if anything, they may be more likely to have unrealistic expectations.

In fact, the only significant difference is that a college education costs a lot more — over than three times as much, while wages have remained the same. That’s a lot of money to spend barking up the wrong tree.

What important things about college do you wish you’d known as a teenager?


7 responses

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  1. Matthew Amster-Burton says

    Needless to say, I agree with every word, and this post reminded me of something I haven’t though about since high school.

    When I was in high school, in the early 90s, our counseling office had a big shelf of college course catalogs, something I assume no college still produces. I don’t remember ever pulling one down and looking at it, but I do remember that one catalog was extremely thick and had a colorful spine and looked nothing like any of the other catalogs. I figured it must be from one of the best colleges.

    The college? Cal State Hayward. Which I’m sure is not a bad school (and doesn’t even exist under that name any more), but if US News had done a ranking of America’s Top College Catalogs, it would have been #1 in 1992, easy.

    • Karawynn says

      Yeah, I guess the paper catalog is probably a thing of the past, huh? Makes me feel old …

      • Bill says

        I have a course catalog from Tx state that was given to me when I enrolled. I don’t think I’ve ever opened it. It’s still available, just about as useful as a yellow pages.

  2. Amanda says

    Great post. I have to differ about the campus visits, though: for me it helped enormously to sort through the hype and get a feel for the culture, and my college turned out to be much as I thought it was. I also felt I got a somewhat unvarnished look at the other schools I visited. They were all small liberal arts colleges, though, so maybe they didn’t spend as much time on the “spin” of the visit and indoctrinating guides as large universities? If you get the chance to talk to real students unsupervised, you get some real information, albeit filtered through those individuals.

    With the cost of college these days and so many accessible resources for autodidacts, I’m skeptical it remains a practical choice for most kids. I wouldn’t mind if mine doesn’t go.

    • Karawynn says

      Hey, I’m glad the college visit worked for you. But I think you just got lucky. The college I talked about in my post, which was wildly oversold in more ways than I had space to go into, was a small liberal arts college. Certainly the small colleges have as much incentive as large ones to sell themselves, and private colleges usually have a greater incentive than public universities (since a greater proportion of their funds comes from tuition and fees).

      Your point about talking to actual students is a good one, though. I didn’t get much of that during any of my campus visits — only student guides operating in official capacity, and various people (instructors, department chairs, administrators) employed by the college. If one has the opportunity to have frank conversation with an assortment students third-year and above, that might help counterbalance the inevitable salesmanship.

      My gut feeling about college is the same as yours: college has become insanely expensive and it’s not hard to get a bachelor’s degree’s worth of education for cheap or free, so why bother?

      However, current statistics still show that having the actual college degree makes a substantial difference in lifetime earning power (as compared to high school only), so I’ve stopped short of recommending against it. For the moment, the best option for most people seems to be to take the cheapest route available to an undergraduate degree.

  3. Jan Spoor says

    One comment I would add: there’s a difference, often a big difference, between large universities and small colleges.

    My sister in law, who works for a large state university as an admissions officer would, I think, take issue with some of your statements about the motivations of admissions departments. There are a lot of people who work in them who are, actually, quite motivated to find the right place for their applicants and open to the idea that it isn’t their institution.

    But I’m prepared to believe that, because of their size, universities can often have the sort of distance between the purposes of the institution and the needs of the student, that you describe.

    But I went to a very small liberal-arts college, and at least my experience, and that of almost all of the college’s alums I know or have heard from, is quite different.

    Yes, any sort of organization staffed by humans is going to have a lot of politics, a lot of egos, and a lot of individual agendas being pursued. Faculty will arrive, or depart, carrying their specialties and vision and teaching skills (or lack thereof) with them in both directions. But that doesn’t mean that the college isn’t there primarily for the students.

    I know it isn’t the case everywhere, but my alma mater has an endowment that allows them to offer admission to any applicant they choose to accept, whether the student and their family has two cents to rub together or not.

    And that endowment comes from alumni who are concerned with the school’s history for innovative teaching and for forward-thinking social policies and ethical practices, not because it has a football team that plays on network television (in fact, we’re home to the nation’s oldest football rivalry, but as far as I know no students get scholarships based on athletics).

    The classes are generally small and none (that I know of) are taught by TAs–all the faculty teach, without exception (including, for several years right before and after I graduated, the president of the college, who was appointed from the faculty).

    Education is more than reading books (as much as I love reading). And undergraduate education is not, IMO, something that one can just generate for oneself. A huge part of my undergraduate experience, and, I believe, that of my peers, was the socialization, the trial and error, the learning by doing, and the interacting with a varied and diverse set of peers that we got from being part of a student body. And college is also a (semi)controlled environment where young people can start learning the practice of being an independent person living on his or her own, while having at least some safety net to work with (food, housing, and healthcare, most of the time).

    So, yes, absolutely, prospective college students should take all the pitches they are going to get with a grain of salt–with several. And they should not lock themselves into an academic track without at least trying other things, whether that’s just taking courses outside their chosen field or being open to going something totally different to what they expected going in. But (in my opinion) they shouldn’t simply ignore all the information that’s out there and abdicate all chances to learn about the options available to them.

    • Matthew Amster-Burton says

      Jan, all of the experiences you describe are available at a big state university. I went to a small liberal arts college, dropped out, and latter finished at a state university. When I got to the state school, I found that it offered all of the advantages you ascribe to liberal arts colleges but with more varied options for what to study. I ended up in a field I never would have predicted.

      Was my state university unusually good or student-focused? I’d like to believe so because it’s my alma mater, but that would be bias. The fact is, you can live in a dorm, find a group of diverse peers, get into all sorts of small-time mischief, take classes from great professors, and so on, at what appears to be a huge, anonymous, research driven university. That may not work for some students, but when the price difference–and its effect on your lifetime standard of living–is so enormous, most families and most students should make public school their default choice.

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