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. My oldest took six years and the next one took five, 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.