I just returned from Akili's graduation from San Diego State (which was on Saturday). I have had children in college for 10 years, with 3 more years to go for Sudi to finish up at California College of the Arts (if he can complete in 4 years, which seems likely because of the nature of a small fine arts college). I read in the paper that only one-third of students who graduate from California State schools are able to graduate in 6 years or less, and only 56% of those who enter ever finish their degree at all. Akili took 5 years, Yael took 6, which is apparently better than the norm. (Back in the 1980s, it took Ron 10 years to graduate from San Francisco State.) I think the low completion rates and extra years have a lot to do with the cost of college. Not just the tuition, but the years and years of low-income living, scraping by on part-time jobs, eating beans. Lately many students at the Cali State schools can’t get the classes they need (because of budget cuts) and that prolongs the process. It is a magnificent accomplishment to complete college. But what does that investment secure for a young person?
I have to confess that I have not needed to have my college degree to land a single one of the significant jobs I have had during my more than 30 years in the world of work. For the past 10 years, I have worked as a freelance writer and made more money at that than at any of the 9-to-5 jobs I had prior (none of which required a college degree). Yet I treasure my degrees (I have a bachelor’s in English and Drama and a master’s in English Language and Literature). My years in college were happy years. I didn’t need to work (I had scholarships, fellowships, and family help) while in college. I had the rare opportunity to dedicate my time to the study of literature, theater, art, the humanities, politics, philosophy, etc. I had the luxury of time dedicated to creative reverie. I adored writing papers, as well as a great deal of sophomoric poetry. I adored reading and discussing. I adored thinking so hard about life and all that. I think every person deserves a few years learning and pondering before embarking on the great adventure of living. In the words of Flaubert, I had “A Sentimental Education.”
I know my children did not savor every moment of college in the same way that I did. I am more of an academic than they. But they enjoyed much of the experience and I am gratified that I have managed to find a way to give them those years of discovery and learning, whether they need them to land a job and launch a career in the real world or not. There are many types of education and a college education is one that I cherish and wanted to pass on to my children. Having a college degree does not make you smarter or better than anyone else, it certainly doesn’t make you morally good. It makes you proud of a significant achievement. It demonstrates a level of perseverance, the ability to face a challenge and conquer it. It makes you accomplished in your chosen field of study. It makes you think. It makes you feel lucky to have had the experience.