steering wheel

Remember: you're in the driver's seat.

I’m just kidding with that title – kind of. It’s not my purpose to discourage prospective college students, but to discuss how higher education can and does offer rewards for those who deliberately take control of their own learning. In other words, college helps those who help themselves.

Often I’ve asked students, at the beginning of the classes I taught, “Why are you here?” (That is, why are you in college in the first place?) I’ve had many responses along the lines of “everyone has to have a college degree nowadays” and “I will need a college degree to earn a living.” These are fair answers to the question; but rarely did I get responses about loving to learn, or eagerness to engage in material that would expand and stretch the mind and thereby broaden one’s academic, personal, professional, and spiritual horizons.

This seems a shame. Although certainly, we all need to earn a living, we don’t live by bread alone; and students should let the desire to learn be their guide in higher education. If you’ve got a passion to know more and are humble enough to recognize that you (like the rest of us) actually know very little about the world, welcome to college. If you are a student who does not have an attitude of entitlement and who does have a good work ethic and a healthy attitude about what college can and cannot do for you, you’ll be much happier as you pursue your degree and afterwards.

Again, the right attitude involves a dose of humility: do not expect grades of “A” or “B” for mediocre work. Do not view yourself as a “paying customer” and your professors as subjects who should hand over those grades you purchased. Too many students today believe they should get above-average grades for fulfilling the minimum expectations for the course (1). College is challenging; college is demanding; and it needs to be that way.

If college is hard, it’s also true that a college degree will not (normally) make you rich, famous, or better-looking. It does not automatically guarantee a high salary, or, unfortunately, even a job right away. (Some years ago, after I’d graduated from a good college with a good academic record, my best option was to complete an internship for around minimum wage; that, in turn, led to my first full-time job, which was low-paying, but a good learning experience. Now, of course the job market is notoriously tight, and many new college grads are unable to find work in their chosen field.)

Given all this, what’s a degree worth? Consider this: if you realize that your learning is up to you, you will be practicing self-sufficiency and strengthening your problem-solving muscles. If you see college as an opportunity to learn and not a hurdle on the way to the Good Life you believe you deserve, you’ve got the right attitude. That’s because regardless of your life path, college teaches you to think creatively, analytically, and critically about the world you encounter inside and outside the classroom. At its best, a college education enables and encourages you to sharpen the tools of the mind; how you use those tools is then up to you.

(1) A study published in The Journal of Youth and Adolescence and cited in The New York Times shows one-third of surveyed students expected a grade of “B” for attending lectures, and 40% expected a grade of “B” for “completing the required reading” (“Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes,” Max Roosevelt, The New York Times online, 2/17/09).

Related reading:
“’Adrift’ in Adulthood: Students Who Struggled in College Find Life Harsher After Graduation,” Dan Berrett, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/25/12.

Image via / matthew_hull