Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Old College Try

One of my friends has gotten involved in the age-old "what's college worth" debate. My point of view is pretty unusual, so I thought I might as well spell it out.

In the broad strokes, I agree with the stranger he's trying to rebut. Not only is college overpriced, it provides very, very little actual advantage. To be honest, just the opportunity cost of attending college is higher than the reward of a diploma. IE, even if the education was free, college would still be overpriced.

There is, however, something very useful about college. If you know how to get the most out of college, it can be worth your time and money. Unfortunately, I think most people aren't ready to get the most out of college until they're in their mid-twenties - after having graduated and worked in the rat race for a little while.

Everyone will tell you to learn all you can at college, but in truth the things you learn either aren't very important or will be picked up even without classes. Classes aren't taught very efficiently, anyway. With the possible exception of things like doctors, you can learn everything in a quarter of the time by reading it on-line and doing projects. Sure, there's some pressure to work hard at learning while in college, but you could get that same pressure by hiring a random person to badger you about it four times a day, and I bet you can get that service for significantly less than $30,000 a year.

(New start-up idea: badgerMe. Have someone you don't know call you up several times a day (videoconferencing extra) to ask what you've accomplished towards your goal, and to bitch at you if you slacked... I'm taking investors!)

The real way college can benefit you is that it offers an almost unique combination of free time and companions with diverse but compatible interests (who also have free time).

Nobody really stresses this properly. Frat houses might stress the interpersonal relationships, and how they can help you get jobs and so on, but that's old fashioned. Not obsolete, per se, but only a tiny part of what can be accomplished.

These days, it is completely possible to publish a book, paint beautiful murals, write a game, create a social network, innovate a new kind of cuisine... all of these things can be done rather easily by a small group of people stuck in the same place with a lot of free time. Even if the final product sucks, you have gained a lot of really, really valuable experience. And, if you do it over and over, eventually the final product doesn't suck, and things can take off.

Unfortunately, most college students are right out of high school. A few may intellectually understand that they can do these sorts of things, but inertia pushes them to do the same things they did in high school. Even if they were honors students, it's unlikely they ever really tried to create something for the world. It's a different mindset, a very unscholastic mindset. One that can really only be learned by trying and failing to do so in the real world, first.

After college ends, it is much more difficult to start up projects with other people. You have less free time, and there are fewer people nearby, and the people nearby have less free time. We have very few of these "pressure cooker" situations where people can get together and create something over weeks and months. College is one of those situations, and instead we tell people either A) it's worthless, or B) you need to focus on learning.

You don't need to focus on learning. That's the mindset that makes it worthless.

In my mind, the ideal college setup would be:

Freshman: Spend a year working shit part-time jobs and desperately trying to make your hobbies into a business.

Softmore: Come and live on campus. Take a few classes, but more importantly, join a review/testing team for an industry that interests you, and take small roles in random projects.

Junior: Team up with other students to do lots of small, cool, shitty projects. Learn to promote your stuff as well as create it. Begin to pick up best practices and advanced theory from classes and random other students who need you to know it.

Senior: With a fat resume of shitty projects, turn your attention to somewhat larger, more polished projects. Cement your team of trusted allies. Take pseudo-classes to keep up to date with recent advances and shore up your weaknesses, but focus mostly on getting your projects out there.

Graduation: Does there need to be one?


Rocky said...

Your observations are legitimate from my experieince. If you didn't see this in the WSJ last week, give it a read. Dilbert's Scott Adams had some similar reflections.

Craig Perko said...

I don't normally read the WSJ, so that was a good link, thanks!