Is college worth it?

Many of us  end up on different career paths than those we studied in college, so what value does it have? Beyond a degree, college offers valuable lessons in self-sufficiency and responsibility. 

Sabrina Schaeffer/the Daily Progress/AP/File
In this May 2012 file photo, University of Virginia College graduates walk from the Rotunda to the Lawn as commencement exercises begin in Charlottesville, Va.

Over the last several months, I’ve had conversations with several people about the value they got from college.

One person went to college to study chemical engineering and became a high school teacher.

Another person went to study agriculture and became a database administrator.

Yet another person went to law school and is now an English professor.

I started off majoring in the sciences and now I’m a writer.

Life rarely hands you the path that you expect. If you had told my college-age self that I would spend five years of my life in my late twenties and early thirties as a stay-at-home writer and dad, I would have assumed you were lying. At this point, I’d probably believe just about anything when it comes to where my path will lead in ten or fifteen years.

The question really becomes this: if my path in life led directly away from what I studied in college (and I’m far from alone in this), what value did college have in the first place?

I actually had lunch with a friend just a few days ago where we discussed some long-reaching solutions to this, including moving much of what college now delivers and many of its students to a trade school format.

However, I’m not as interested today in looking at such wide-ranging solutions. My question looks directly at my children. What advice can I give them to make sure they actually get lasting value from college beyond their first career shift?

In thinking about this, I not only looked back on my own experience, but I sought some advice from people in varied careeer paths and in academic environments whose opinions I trusted. The same few themes kept popping up.

Self-motivation is king

If you don’t have the motivation to get to class and do the other things suggested below, then you’re going to have a difficult time post-college. Self-motivation is king. You have to be a self-starter.

This can be built up over time. Focus on accomplishing things each and every day. Make it to every class and focus on paying attention in those classes. Make forward progress on the workload in every class. Dig into new areas and take on challenges in those areas.

Sitting in your apartment hung over and talking yourself out of going to class today? That’s just about the worst thing you can be doing.

Transferable skills are absolutely vital

In order to succeed in life along a twisty career path, a person needs transferable skills. Time management. Communication skills. Basic computer skills. Information management skills. Knowledge absorption skills. Task prioritizing skills.

These are skills that help out in virtually every workplace. They’re also skills that an awful lot of people don’t have. I’ve seen many, many technically proficient people not succeed because they didn’t have those fundamental transferable skills. On the other hand, I have witnessed many people succeed in fields in which they were not trained because they had these skills

College is a perfect time to build those skills. Academically challenging courses can help in some ways, but they should be balanced with classes that teach communication, how to process information, and how to think.

Relationships are vital, too

Even though my life path has drastically changed, I’m still regularly drawing on the friendships and professional relationships I built when I was in college. Those relationships are still helping me out (and I believe I’m helping many of them as well).

Build lasting relationships with people. This doesn’t mean just adding them as a friend on Facebook, hiding their posts, and not talking to them for years. Communicate one-on-one with as many people as you can. If there are ways where you can help someone, do it. Recommend person A to fill a need that person B has. Introduce person C to person D.

If you’ve got a value-based relationship with a lot of people, you will have lots of different avenues to tap no matter where your life goes. Remember, very few people follow a straight and narrow path in their career these days. The paths of the people you build relationships with will go in all sorts of surprising directions, and yours will likely intersect some of them in ways you never expected.

Make your resume diverse

A resume with a person who got a 3.75 GPA is good, but if it’s devoid of anything else, it’s not going to be outstanding.

I would far rather hire someone with a 3.25 GPA coming out of college with a diverse resume – internships, interesting jobs, organized activities, and other achievements – than a person with just a 3.75 GPA and nothing else.

Go to class in college, but don’t just go to class so you can hurry home and party or play computer games all night. Take advantage of the many, many opportunities a college campus has for you. Join and get involved with some interesting organizations. Try to score a summer internship or a job on campus connected to your major or to something else you’re interested in. Start a big, audacious project.

Those things stand out, and managing them builds you into the kind of person that can tackle anything life throws at them.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

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