Is College a Gilded Cage?

Dylan Palmer | @dylanpalmer22

We’ve heard it all before. The mountainous debt, constant partying, and falling academic quality offered by many universities across the nation have begun to call the value of an undergraduate degree into question. Yet, more and more students head into college. Why are we, the nation’s youth, so prepared to cast ourselves into tens of thousands of dollars in debt for an increasingly devalued, but increasingly expensive, piece of paper? The answer is one part psychological and one part cultural – but all parts social.

The Proud College Student

College marks the start of an independent life for most individuals in the western world. In that independence, many well-functioning young adults will find confidence and self-sufficiency. This is an important first step in life psychologically, but we shouldn’t ignore the pitfalls.

A third of university students change their major at least once, often extending their enrollment and enlarging their debt. Over a third of college attendees do not graduate with a degree; this only magnifies the pointlessness of their debt. And finally, nearly half of college graduates do not pursue a career relating to their degree, trivializing their time and money spent studying in their specific field. These statistics are worrisome, but they shed light on problems all prospective university students should be aware of.

Don’t enter university believing that you have it made just because you got in – you’re going to have to plan your future and pursue opportunities yourself.

The fact that more people than ever are entering college is an issue for individual students. There’s only so much time and resources that any one institution can offer. The more people there are competing for that attention, the less they’ll get. Some public schools have as many as 20,000, 30,000, or 40,000 undergrads enrolled. In populations that large, the individual is trampled under the pressure of thousands of competitors. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd at university, but avoiding obscurity is how one can glide over the aforementioned pitfalls.

Paying for the Party

The prevalence of sex, drugs, and alcohol on the college party scene is no secret. I’m not here to judge its morality. What I am here to do, however, is judge how partying can affect the life outcomes of those who partake. Studies have shown that drugs, alcohol, and frequent partying at college can not only lower the GPAs of students, but increase their likelihood of dropping out.

Having fun is all well and good, and partying, of course, has the benefit of increasing one’s perceived social acceptance. Partying is inextricably linked to the college experience; it’s a part of the culture. But when that ‘fun’ interferes with your future, it may be time to take a step back and evaluate what you’re aiming at accomplishing during your time in university.

It’s not the nights spent drinking with friends that’ll justify your time and (more importantly) debt, but the hours spent becoming an expert in your field of study, getting your degree, and channeling that into a better future. Portion your time productively, and future you will thank present you for it.

But What about Private Universities?

Many reading these criticisms of overpopulation, partying, and drop-out statistics may protest my assertions. These problems are typical of public universities, private colleges are the solution to much of these issues, they’ll say. It is true that there’s less overpopulation at private universities, it’s easier to put limits on on-campus partying, and drop-out rates are marginally lower at private non-profits.

Yet, private institutions have a host of their own problems. Not least among them being the average 3.5x greater tuition fee than the average in-state public option. This inflated price tag becomes even less justified when you consider how it doesn’t safeguard against the increasingly tumultuous state of higher-ed.

The Increasingly Tumultuous State of Higher-Ed

The college campus in America has become, in many ways, a political battleground. Certain political speakers are routinely de-platformed, election results can cause classes to cancel exams, and studies have found registered Democrat professors outnumber registered Republican professors 12 to 1. As higher education becomes more and more politicized, people come to value it less and less.

Furthermore, politicians like Bernie Sanders have mainstreamed the idea of a free college education, which could be the final death-nail to college education. A highly increased supply of college-educated individuals would decrease their demand, making a bachelor’s degree effectively worthless.

These political problems, compounded by debt, degenerative culture, and the high supply of college grads already are calling the purpose of higher education into question.

Who’s University for, Anyway?

Far be it from me to determine who should and who shouldn’t go to college, but the realities outlined in this article present a few important truths about mapping a successful college career.

Take the affordable college over the dream college; the dream college may handicap your future more than you think. Don’t take your acceptance letter for granted; to truly set yourself apart you’ll have to work hard and avoid distractions. Finally, know what it is you’re working toward. If you’re accumulating debt without knowing what you’re going to do with that slip of paper after graduation day, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and turmoil. If you’re unwilling to do these things, college will be a gilded cage, rather than a leg-up in life.

University is best for those who control their education to transform themselves for a specified purpose. Not for those who let their education control and transform them without purpose.

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