Not All Vehicles (or Degrees) Are the Same

In the last post, I discussed the ways that college education is like a car.  In extending this analogy, I also want to talk about elements of the vehicle (degree) that again, not all students really consider. 

Vehicles can indicate a great many things about a person.  Some of these things might be true and some may not; and often, the car-owner’s opportunity to explain choices comes when being asked.  The person driving a new Porsche might be perceived as financially stable and potentially successful while the one driving a beat-up shitbox be poor or a slob.  The person driving the hybrid might be understood as an environmentalist or an elitist.  Driving a big-truck and tailgating people could be understood as aggressive and anti-social behavior or someone in a rush.  The clich├ęs and stereotypes are endless; we all know them. 

A person’s degree (and the transcript, resume, etc) are going to be interpreted in many different ways, often well-before the person has a chance to defend it by a prospective employer, admissions office, etc.  That is, the degree and work in college comes with its own sense of assumptions and thoughts.  Many of which are inaccurate, but may still hold up.  For instance, a B average at an elite Ivy League school is going to be understood differently than a “B” average as a state school or community college. 

So we come to the problem at hand.  Not all degrees are equal.  Not all will open doors.  But that’s not the only problem.  Each year, the college degree becomes LESS valuable in our economy.  With 1.5 million people graduating annually with a college degree, which means the market value of a degree is substantially less.  Meanwhile, of course, the price of college continues to go up

We’re putting more money into college while the same time our education is becoming less valuable and all the while, the particular schools we go to are weighted differently.  It’s enough to send one fleeing from college and seeking alternatives and bypassing it altogether.  But if that isn’t enough to send you fleeing from the college scene (and I hope it’s not), then the question is, what can one do to improve the odds?  How do I as a student, distinguish myself above and beyond the 1.5 million others I will graduate and the millions others already with degrees. 

My thoughts on this are purely from personal experiences (my own, my friends, my family, former and present students etc). 

1.  Engage with every class.

    Some classes are required; some are choices depending on the degree.  But make it a point to take as much from each class as possible.  After all, you are paying with your time and money, get as much from the course as possible whether it is directly related to your life or not.

2.  Do the work.  

    Half-assing your way through college is clearly possible.  Many people do it in various capacities (and who am I kidding; I did my fair share of that in college).  But doing the work and doing it to its full capacity will provide you with a range of skills (such as planning and attention to detail beyond whatever the specific skills the assignment is working).

3.  Learn why you are doing the work you’re doing.

    Why are certain courses required?  Why does the instructor require or expect certain things from you?  These things are often found the school’s publications (such as student guides, syllabi, etc) and you should take the time to understand WHY; it provides you with a clearer purpose.

4.  Ask questions.

Whether your instructors like it or not, it is important to and your right to question the work and its purpose.  In fact, if it’s not clear why you are doing certain work, you should ask.  If you don’t have a clear connection, then it’s even harder to be motivated to actually do it.  So ask for clarifications about why you’re doing what you’re doing.

5.  Reflect at the end of the semester.

    Most semesters, you have been studying several different subjects for a significant amount of time.  You’ve taken in a lot of information and (hopefully) gained a good amount of skills in a very short time.  At the end of the semester (or a week or two after finals; before you sell your books back), take a few hours and review what you’ve learned and studied that semester.  The purpose is two fold.  The first is a method of congratulations; observing everything you’ve accomplished.  The other is to reinforce what you’ve learned and reinforce the different connections your brain has formed over the last few months. 

6.  Take advantages of school opportunities (events, lectures, presentations, etc).

    Don’t’ treat school as a place to take classes and go back to your life.  There are ample opportunities and things to experience on campus; much of which you are paying for with your tuition and fees anyways and might as well take advantage of regardless.  Plays, lectures, presentations, parties, and the like are available almost any day of the week on a campus.  Keep your ears and eyes open to such opportunities and go to them.  They’re often free; sometimes include free food; and can be both fun and educating—not a bad way to spend an evening.

7.   Get involved in group organizations and clubs.

    Like #6, this one is important because it gets you in more contact with your peers and others within your college.  Also, it allows you to explore an interest.  Most schools have myriad groups and clubs and there’s always something you can support, participate or attend that will benefit yourself and your college community. 

8.  Make connections with instructors.

    They’re human (most of them are, I swear!).  They don’t want to see you as automatons and it’s in your interest that you make yourself a human being in their eyes.  Not just for the course, but beyond.  Building strong connections with all your instructors will result not only in a pool of people for you to get recommendations from but it also widens your professional network.  There have been several times where past instructors have been the key to getting new jobs or exploring new opportunities for me and many others.  But most importantly, instructors teach because they enjoy the classroom dynamic and they like to know their students; it makes the experience for both instructor and student more valuable. 

9.  Make it a point to meet people within your field and beyond your field.

    Like #8, meeting people within your field at the school and beyond is in your best interest to keep up with and get ahead in your field.  Learn to meet and interact with the faculty in your field but also don’t hesitate to engage others in fields that are not yours, particularly if it is something you are interested in, but not necessarily directly studying.  The fact is just because you are going for Degree in Subject X, does not guarantee you will get a job in Subject X and having contacts in Subject Y or W (both of which may be similar to Subject X) may prove useful in the long run. 

10.  Pace yourself.

    Everyone wants to get done sooner than later.  Students pile up lots of classes each semester and push to get it all done and over with.  Unfortunately, this tends to invoke the fable of the tortoise and the hare.  The student who believes they can get through it all, often takes 6 or so courses and ends up scrambling the first 2 months of the semester; doing poorly in all courses.  Finally, the student drops 1-2 of the courses (adding another W to their transcript), just in time to manage only doing marginally decent in the remaining classes.  Don’t rush your education; go at a pace that allows you to do well in your work.  Otherwise, you’re wasting time (in all those classes you withdraw from) and money (the books, extra commuting, re-taking the courses). 

As I said, these aren’t sure-fire ways to distinguish yourself, but they certainly help and turn your education more into just a degree; but something meaningful to you as a person.

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  1. First of all I wanted to say that I really liked your analogy where you've compared cars to degrees. It's good subtle analogy. I agree with you that its important to highlight that education isn't just that you recieve a certificate to state that you gained a degree in a discipline but the tools, skills, contacts, opprtunities, experiences you've developed as a person.

  2. Thanks Anthea--I appreciate the comments. As you can see, I spend a good deal of time thinking about such things :) And I know from my own experience, the degree was much more than a piece of paper saying that I'm edumacated!


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