You can still say “no” to college

Illustration by Dan Nacu.

Shane Wade
Opinion Editor 

The end of the semester is nigh, but how could we end the semester without our annual increase in tuition?

Once again, VCU students face a 3.5 percent tuition hike as the state budget for funding higher education is further decreased. While in previous years, I’ve been a outspoken critic of both the state government and the university for raising the cost of tuition, when the news came out this year, I had one thought: “Good.”

Becoming a college student is hard and actually being one is harder still. When the sticker price of college increases, as it repeatedly has, it dissuades prospective students from pursuing the venture. When students and parents see a university raising its cost of attendance, they’ll rethink their prescribed plan.

What we’re experiencing is a surfacing reality of what prospective students and families should come to know and expect: College is an expensive educational investment. It’s not a job factory or the next step after high school. Students, if they’re coming straight  out of high school, should come to college to undergo the transformative educational experience that leads them to higher aspirations, including entrepreneurships, post-graduate education or research projects.

Not enough people understand that. We’re constantly pushing people to go to college and it isn’t healthy for the students themselves, for students currently at college who will have to compete with those extra bodies and for colleges that have to accommodate the population demands.

Even if current facilities, including residence halls, dining halls, recreational centers and staff and faculty resources, can satisfy both the incoming and current population, the fact remains: Higher education is a transformative experience. Every incoming student body has different needs and will want to know why they should be choosing this particular school over another. Just as much as students fill out lengthy applications to be accepted into colleges, colleges fill out lengthy checklists of ways to become more attractive for future clientele, whether that be expanding an athletic program or renovating academic buildings or hiring certain faculty members.

That’s not to say we should entirely discourage students from attending college.

Instead, we should encourage them to delay attending a four-year college and instead go to a community college or trade school while working part- or full-time, so when they’re ready to make the committment to college, they have a financial stock and skill set backing them.

The value of a community college education lies primarily in its low-cost. The first two years of a four-year college experience is filled with general elective classes that do little to develop a student’s academic pallet and provide little assistance to their personal growth, despite what college officials might advertise. VCU’s own College of Humanities and Sciences’ general education program consumes a total of 33-49 credit hours, depending on your major’s foreign language requirement.

After spending the equivalent to three semesters in general education classes that I could have instead taken at a community college at a third of the cost, I feel entirely comfortable renouncing my first year of college. I wouldn’t be alone in doing so: In their book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” economists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that 45 percent of students “demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communications during the first two years of college.” A full 36 percent even showed “no improvement over the entire four years.”

While it is logical that student’s need to experience a light period of acculturation when they first arrive at college and that there’s a need to train students to think collaboratively, develop critical thinking skills and the like, we don’t need to spend a full year of tuition and housing costs to teach students basics they should have learned in high school or that they could easily learn at a community college.

By dissuading students from immediately attending college, we’re benefitting parties most affected by prematurely entering college and also crafting a more constructive environment.

When it comes to the value of a college education, I’m not jaded. Degrees are valuable. They set you apart from people that, for a myriad of reasons including initiative, supportive parenting or socioeconomic status didn’t go to college. It shows that you are committed to whatever you put your mind to, including putting yourself thousands of dollars in debt to fufill your personal educational goals and a better chance at upward mobility.

Degrees are valuable, but authentic educational experiences and real-world work experience are invaluable and not enough students are obtaining the latter because they’re so focused on the former.

As a society, we’ve so successfully marketed, promoted and anointed four-year colleges as a standard, that anything but completing a degree in a four-year period is marked as failure. Older, returning students are given a second glance. Peers that drop out are pitied and derided. Friends that don’t immediately go to college are written off entirely.

In this country, we don’t encourage quitting. We’re so obsessed and myopic when it comes to college, that only 27 percent of college graduates with a job actually have a job that relates to their major. Staying the course, however, isn’t always the best course of action and can be destructive. When we tear down the philosophy that promotes a four-year degree earned in four years as the benchmark of success, we increase the pathways to personal, academic and financial success for students.

If you’re currently a student and you feel unsure about the direction you’re going academically, dropping out, however temporarily, is a viable option. You do yourself a disservice by taking out loan after loan to march toward an unclear ending.

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