August 26, 2018
College Starts Again
This week and the next marks the first day of classes for most colleges and universities in the United States. It is an exciting and anxious time. As a professor and father of one college student and two high schoolers, I have some insight and advice.
You need to know what you are getting into. A four-year college degree consists of about 40 classes. In the better schools, half of those will be general education courses. The remainder will be split between courses in your area of study and those specific to your major. That means that over the next four years, you’ll likely attend only ten courses specifically designed for your major. Contrary to what you may have heard, the general education courses are the most important ones you will take.
The best schools recognize this by offering the most rigorous general education requirements. My advice to students is to treat these courses seriously; learn and enjoy them. As an economics professor looking back more than 35 years, I value that painful year of physics, chemistry and history more than another field course in economics. You will also.
College is more than just required courses. Here you can entirely reinvent yourself in ways that will never again be possible. Use this opportunity wisely, and move outside familiar circles. Talk to people who are different from you, have lunch with them, talk about your families, church and worldview. Go to parties with them and date them. This experience will shock you in surprising and wonderful ways.
Except perhaps for military service, you will never find yourself in a more ethnically, religiously or socially diverse group. However, in the most important ways you’ll never be with a more homogenous crowd. The people in your school will all be apprehensive, uncertain, smart, ambitious and ready to embark on a grand adventure. What binds you together is vastly larger than what divides you. After all, by simply attending an American university you are all entering the global 1 percent elite. You are the most advantaged group in the history of the planet; you’d be wise to recognize that fact.
I do have one caveat to the beauty of a college experience. If you have come to hear a vibrant and intellectual political debate you will be disappointed. Nowadays, a reactionary on American campuses is simply someone who voted for Hillary Clinton for the wrong reasons (electability, not gender). Public universities are oftentimes dominated by extreme leftist politics. This is wholly unlike the rest of the world, and nearly all college students will find this disorienting, as well they should. This lack of political diversity is the Achilles heel of academia. Like other unchallenged dogmas, it will ultimately fall under the weight of its own absurdities. My advice to students is to recognize and ignore it.
The good news is that there is little room for political activism in the classroom. One of my better professors was a committed Marxist, which I discovered only after taking his balanced and technically rigorous class. Political proselytizing is mostly not part of the classroom experience, in part because it is counterproductive. After all, college graduates tend to be more conservative than their non-college graduate peers in voting, marriage and other key areas.
Many new students will feel anxious about their career choices or what program of study to follow. That is normal and appropriate. My advice is to ignore folks who pressure you to make a quick career or major decision. They do not have your best interests in mind. The fact is that a teenager today can expect to work 40 plus hours a week for nearly 50 years. Most of you will have no idea what most workplaces are like today, much less 2065. Take some time to figure this out, and don’t get discouraged because you fail or struggle along the way.
Still, higher education is costly, but it need not bankrupt you. Students have two ways to cut the cost. The first is to do well and earn scholarships. These are abundant. The second and most important lesson is to spend less. Lavish university food courts are always full of students until mid-semester, as money runs low. Starbucks is a very bad place to spend student loan money.
All new college students should take some time to talk to professors. There is literally no downside to asking questions, both with regard to the class and the major. We have all attended college and know a great deal of what you are experiencing. We chose this career because we care about research and teaching, and want to help you find the joy in these subjects that we do.
Finally, embrace the challenge and opportunity of college, but be grateful for it. Literally two billion or three billion people worldwide would give anything to be in your shoes. Done well, this education will better your life, that of your family and your community. This time of your life should be both challenging and deeply rewarding. If it is not, you are doing something wrong.
About the Author
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