Is college for everyone? That's pretty much the conventional wisdom today, but I don't think so. And, in fact, for some people, it may be actively damaging. In deciding whether to take on debt -- and give up years of their lives -- in exchange for a college degree, applicants need to think more about potential downsides. And alternatives.College is a huge investment of time and money. It's a shame that so many young people squander the opportunity they have to prepare themselves for a rewarding career by spending that investment on what they consider to be a good time. College should be a kind of intellectual boot camp, not a four year long party binge, but many students don't see it that way. Neither do many colleges, for that matter.
While some college students make friends, and memories, for a lifetime, others are lonely, depressed and uncertain, drifting from major to major until eventually they graduate with whatever degree is easiest, and a lot of debt. Or, sometimes, they don't graduate at all, but still have a lot of debt. For some, college is the beginning of problems with drugs, or drinking, or sex that will cloud their adulthood for years, or even a lifetime.
College can even make income inequality worse, despite its being touted as the great equalizer. In a multiyear study of female college students, Paying For The Party, sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton found that students who looked similar in terms of "predictors" -- grades and test scores -- came out of college on very different trajectories. The biggest danger was when smart women from less-well-off backgrounds got onto what Armstrong and Hamilton call the "party pathway."
The richer girls who did this usually emerged OK, with family connections and parental subsidies allowing them to snag good jobs and internships in spite of any partying-related stumbles. The poorer girls with similar credentials ("strivers") who got on the party track tended to emerge with low GPAs, unimpressive post-college jobs (frequently jobs that they could have gotten without a college degree) and burdened with debt.
They actually often wound up with downward mobility, rather than the upward mobility that colleges sell. (Interestingly, the "strivers" who did best were the ones who transferred to less-prestigious regional state universities, which were also often cheaper. These schools -- the Northern Kentucky Universities of the world -- focus more on teaching, and are often more oriented toward student success, frequently in a less party-oriented atmosphere).
In their recent book, Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa note that many students show little actual learning in college. Some students -- especially those from poor and minority households -- actually come out of college doing worse on assessment tests than when they went in. (Perhaps that's the impact of the "party pathway" again.)
It's sad enough when students whose families have the wherewithal to compensate for their kids bad decisions, but it's tragic when students who have only this one shot to give themselves the preparation they need to rise beyond the socioeconomic circumstances of their parents think this way. They're like a rocket straining to lift off the launch pad only to sputter and fall, crashing back under the gravitational pull of the party culture to the very circumstances they, and their parents, hoped they would escape.