Columns
Premium

Notes From the Underground: What to Know Before Entering College

(Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash)

When I entered college less than a week after my 18th birthday, I had already been programming computers for money for almost five years. Since then, as well as studying computers, I’ve majored in about 11 areas over 7 years and 240 undergraduate hours — History, English, Business, and so on — as an undergrad (I had my own business so my boss didn’t really care what program I was in or if I got a degree, and I kept changing my major to take the “majors only” classes I was interested in.)

I was in graduate school for years, and post-graduate school I’ve taught in universities, in industrial courses, in boot camps, and since 2017 I’ve been teaching/tutoring/mentoring individual students through Wyzant, an online tutoring platform (where I’m still available if you or someone you know who needs help learning to program).

All this means I’ve had a lot — a lot — of experience in college, from both sides of the lectern. Especially in grad school, I saw a lot of the political dark side of the Academy, and after nearly 700 hours of tutoring mostly college students from all over the country, I’ve gotten a pretty broad sample of the student experience.

As a result, I think I can say that a college education ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Now just to be clear, I’m not going to rehash all the completely valid complaints about indoctrination, pseudo-intellectualism, and political correctness we’ve all seen at Legal Insurrection, the College Fix, and Instapundit. I’m sure I will get to those again myself, but right now, I just want to give you all an idea of what the college experience is like today.

Let this be a warning to you.

The college cruise line

Imagine college is like an ocean cruise. You are planning to go on a great cruise, an around the world cruise like the ones the British called the “Grand Tour.” The cruise isn’t meant just to, well, go somewhere, it’s meant to expose you to new ideas, broaden your perspectives, show you other cultures and make you a more worldly, cosmopolitan person and an informed citizen. And yes, I know the Grand Tour often just convinced callow upper-class twits that all those other countries were full of frogs, wops, and wogs who talk funny and eat too much garlic; work with me, I’m building a metaphor.

So you start getting brochures from cruise lines, with wonderful pictures of beautiful happy people enjoying themselves in an environment of endless joy. They show you shots of their cabins, they show you pictures of the recreational facilities, they do everything they can to convince you to fork over immense amounts of money for this experience that will shape your life forever.

The marketing is incredible: not just the cruise lines, but the media, prospective employers, and even the government have convinced you that going on the Grand Tour is the sole ticket to a Good Life, and anyone who hasn’t done the cruise and gotten the beautifully calligraphed imitation sheepskin congratulatory certificate is somehow, well, unfinished, rough-hewn, a man or woman of the land. In the words of the Waco Kid, “You know. Morons.”

The marketing has been so good that you have deep in your heart the conviction that not only are they right, but that a more prestigious cruise will make you even more qualified to live the Good Life. As a result, there’s a lot of competition to get on the best cruises; you have to apply and whether you are approved for the most expensive cruises depends on what the cruise lines see as the appropriate selection criteria to determine if you are the sort of person who deserves to go on their prestigious and expensive cruise.

The application takes a lot of effort, and a whole industry springs up to help you apply and get accepted to your most desired cruise. More money, but by damn you’re going to get into a prestigious cruise. And, sure enough, you’re accepted by the college, er, cruise line of your choice.

Your first day

It’s finally here! You walk up over the hallowed gangplank and arrive aboard ship, along with a few thousand other cruisers. The crew welcomes you, shows you your cabin — which is recognizably like the ones in the brochure, but smaller, a little shopworn and seedy — and takes you on a tour of the ship and facilities. It’s all a little overwhelming but exciting, and soon enough the cruise leaves port.

In college at last

Of course, the cruise metaphor breaks down as soon as you’re actually in college. Classes aren’t necessarily much fun, and frankly, a whole lot of the instructors aren’t actually very interested in teaching, or very good at it. You quickly learn that the college is not really much like the pleasure cruise the brochures promised.

That’s the point where you need to learn some things about college as it really is.

First of all, and most importantly, your classes aren’t really there to ensure you actually learn the material. They exist to give you a chance to learn the material over a relatively short time, and thereby prove your eligibility to continue your cruise. Depending on the college, some of your classes may be explicitly focused to be “weeder” classes, purposefully intended to fail a significant percentage of students, thereby weeding them out and relegating them to the lesser orders. In other situations, this might be called hazing, but it’s traditional and no one quite notices that it’s actually a sort of con game.

The colleges have the advantage that most of their customers are young and inexperienced, and so don’t realize this. And, of course, the environment encourages them to think that if you paid then $50,000 for a year’s tuition and you don’t master the material, it’s your fault and not the college’s.

Examined with a critical eye, you start to see that the whole process isn’t built around educating the student-customers except secondarily. Undergraduate students are reasonably important because they’re a profit center — the revenue is a good bit of running the college, the graduates’ good opinion and perceived benefit a claim on a revenue stream that continues for the rest of their lives, with sales on everything from souvenir shot glasses to naming rights on buildings.

Of course, some students are more valuable than others. Athletes, especially in favored sports — football, basketball, to a lesser extent some others — are major profit centers, providing much more revenue to the school; they get favored treatment, as do the staff members who serve them. (Look up who the highest-paid staff members are at any SEC or PAC10 school.)

Foreign students, particularly from China or OPEC countries, are the next step down; they pay full fare and often can be counted on for parental contributions now, personal contributions in the future.

Regular undergrads are mostly buying at a discount. Still, they provide a big part of the income. For reasons that would take too much time to explore here, within the category of undergrads there are more and less privileged groups. Almost none of those distinctions have anything to do with you; don’t take them personally.

The tenured faculty are a cost center, and are expected to bring in cash through grants and help marketing by being notable — and of course, they know it, and like professional athletes, they expect to be compensated for a good year.

Below the tenured faculty are the tenure-track instructors, working to get tenure. And below those are graduate students who are, with a few exceptions, an expense item. Below them are adjunct faculty, the sharecroppers of academia, who are allowed to work, but for minimal wages and little actual support. Adjunct faculty with Ph.D.s often make less than they would if they worked full-time in fast food.

Go in with open eyes

So here’s what you should know when you start looking through the cruise brochures.

Education is only secondary to their business

One reason I like teaching in industry is that I’m actually rewarded for my ability to deliver to the students what they think they’re buying. In any industrial course, the students’ reviews are your measure of success; a student can’t fail an industrial course, but a teacher can.

Buy a class from Thinkful or tutoring from Wyzant and they are promising they’ll do their absolute damndest to make sure you’re happy with what you learned. And bootcamps like Thinkful, Lambda School, and others are actually offering you a money-back guarantee, or better yet a guarantee that you don’t pay until you get a job.

Colleges don’t make any such guarantee — and basically couldn’t in many fields.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get an education at the elite schools, as well as a lovely cruise experience. You can, but you have to remember it’s not the school’s actual primary concern. Look for instructors who like teaching; ask around for opinions, and make sure the instructor can really give you time if you need it. This means, practically, that you need to look for older, tenured professors with a reputation for actually liking teaching — remember that for some professors, tenure is an opportunity to retire in place — or look for adjuncts, who actually are rewarded for teaching.

Be aware of your “place”

Since your education is not the college’s primary motivation, you’re not very important to them. Learn to live with it. Yes, you have a right to expect good service, clean facilities, and respect. Just resist the urge to demand it. Refer to the list above to see where you are in the hierarchy.

Look for other resources

Yes, I am going to make a pitch for places like Wyzant here. They’re not just for computer science: tutoring is available for everything from the STEM fields to English, writing, and foreign languages. And yes, they cost more money. But at least with your own purchases of tutoring, you’re getting someone who sees your education as their job, instead of a somewhat necessary evil.

Pretty facilities aren’t free

When I was an undergrad, the gentrification of college had just started — there was a nice new recreation center, paid for by mandatory student fees, but dorm rooms were still cramped affairs with bunk beds and bathrooms down the hall. A modern dorm may or may not have private rooms, but they’re usually arranged to have at most a few students sharing a private bath, and surrounded by attractive grounds.

All of which is great; it would be nice. But there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch: housing, tuition, and fees are rising much faster than inflation, and have been for 30 years or more.

Know what you’re buying

I’m not trying to argue that college is not worth it for some students — although for a lot of students, a four-year degree in Sociology or Psychology, or English or History without a teaching certificate as well, might be a much worse investment than going to plumbing or welding school. If your friends sneer, show them a paycheck.

Of course, if you want to be any kind of engineer, it’s a lot easier with a Bachelors’s degree, and if you aspire to the Supreme Court or the Foreign Service, going to the elite colleges is the way to go. But four-year college for everyone is basically a scam.