College Education: Why we Go

Penelope Trunk is the author of “The Brazen Careerist” and in my opinion has one of the most well written blogs out on the Internet.  I also find myself not agreeing with a lot of her posts.  She is what I like to call a great blogger:  One that you can really get into her writing, even disagree with, and yet still go back and read more.  She has an interesting life and perspective.

I caught one of her recent blog posts: How to manage a college education.  It is an interesting read, which discusses how obtaining a traditional liberal arts degree is elitist and overpriced.  She mentions how the Internet already has places for learning and discussion, and all that needs to be supplemented is experience.  She tells us that career centers are generally terrible, and concludes that prospective students should pick a college based on a good track record for getting student jobs.

I didn’t graduate with a Liberal Arts degree, so I cannot speak to this this mentality directly.  My gut tells me it’s missing two important advantages college offer which work experience right out of high school doesn’t: trying new things in a safe environment and it’s difficult to find a first job in a field you desire when the employer generally requires a degree, such as application development.

I graduated with a degree in Information Technology from RIT three years ago.  When I was 18, I was convinced I wanted to build circuits and design computer chips.  I was accepted into the Computer Engineering program.  After 18 months however, I decided engineering was not what I wanted to do.  I then was convinced I wanted to be in network administration where I would help set up routers, learn the OSI model, help decipher IP address and sniff packets.  I joined the IT department at RIT in hopes of doing this.  What do I do now?  I am a lead web developer, developing and maintaining a platform for Brand Integrity — far from networking, and I am STILL searching for my career path!

I’ve changed my career path 3 times in the 5 years I was at RIT.  I could have gotten all the information for my current path online.  There are millions of resources out there that teach and discuss web design and database architecture.  But being part of the student body, seeing my peers go through exactly what I was going through was invaluable.  Making mistakes in class planning would at worst make for an uncomfortable 10 weeks (at least at RIT).  Having access to teachers to reach out to was also a perk, one I don’t think a majority of the student body really appreciates as much as they should.  Guidance from those teachers really helped me figure out where I was going.

So the question to ask is, “Which is more useful– four years of education, or four years of experience?”  In my field, the former is true.  Sure, we can all come up with the raising stars– those who have not gotten formal education.  Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are always good examples… but how many of us are a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates?  It’s a great goal to strive for, but we ALL cannot be Steve Jobs!

Penelope does bring up a great point in her post however… schools need to learn how to get their students great jobs. The relationship shouldn’t end with education.  Schools need to become more aggressive in alumni affairs, teach how to effectively network, and provide networking events.

So in conclusion, why do we go to college?  Because, at least for us in IT, it’s required by most desirable entry level job postings, and it’s a safe environment to experiment on what you THINK you want to do with your life.