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College Academics: Myth vs. fact

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JULY 07, 2017

Preconceptions about college, like most things, run rampant. News stories, movies, television shows and anecdotal evidence paint a picture of college that distorts the reality of the ebb and flow of semesters.

If you’ve been following this column, you’ll know I’m something of pseudo-expert on higher education. I’ve attended an elite private institution, a community college, a small liberal school and a large research university. With all this experience, I am happy to report the truth about college life.

The first myth I want to tackle is the notion that college students spend most of their time partying. From “Animal House” to “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” pop culture would lead you to believe college is the most expensive party in America. Most media depictions of university life emphasize the Greek system, rife with themed nights, dance parties and boozy bacchanalia. This portrayal is particularly unforgiving of women, who strut around fake college sets as if their sole reason for existence is to satisfy the heterosexual desires of their male peers.

It’s true that there is partying at every college, except for maybe commuter-driven community colleges. But on-campus partying is tiresome, a lot less wild than it seems and only there for a cross-section of students that can afford to pay for Greek fees, alcohol and costume-y clothing. And when women do party, they do it for themselves, not to serve their heterosexual male peers.

The reality is, when college students aren’t working a job or internship, they spend the majority of time in class, reading, studying, writing and generally fulfilling the requirements of demanding classwork. While I’m not anti-party, the idea that it is the only thing young people do on campus is frankly absurd –– especially for women. After all, women tend to do better across the board in higher education. Female students are worth a lot more than their to-be-looked-at-ness.

The second academic myth is perhaps more believable. It’s the idea that college rankings actually matter.

The U.S. News & World Report is a widely used resource for prospective college students. It ranks colleges in different categories, but generally Ivy League schools and private schools do the best year after year. These schools are, of course, unattainable for most students because of a variety of financial and logistical reasons.

This myth is particularly damaging for high school students that jockey for the best possible school they can get into, a mistake I’ve made more than once. College rankings can make high school students feel like they need excellent grades, strong extracurriculars and the charitable work of an aristocratic philanthropist just to compete.

These rankings are bad for a number of reasons. First, they don’t actually predict how well you will fit in on campus. Just because you can get into Harvard doesn’t mean Harvard will meet your particular scholastic needs. It may turn out to be the institution that propels you into a lucrative career, or it may saddle you with debt without giving much in return.

Second, what do the rankings even mean? If Princeton is number one and Stanford is number five, does that make Princeton five times better than Stanford? Even more alarming, Northwestern University, which is currently number 12, taught me a lot less (read: nothing) than community college.

U.S. News & World Report relies on retention rates, selectivity, alumni donation levels and a host of other factors that indicate almost nothing about how you, a college student, will learn and grow on campus.

The final myth is that students can figure out what they want to study after they start college. While I’m sure this works for some students, my observational and personal experiences suggest that knowing what you want to study before college is preferable.

Taking an introductory sociology and economics class probably won’t tell you a lot about what upper-division classes will be like, much less what a career as a NPR sociology correspondent or J.P. Morgan accountant will be like. Plus, while the standard two years to declare a major may seem like a lot of time, it flies by quickly. That’s only, on average, 16 classes to decide what major you like the most.

Moreover, the students that come in with a profession in mind often seemed to be the most focused. While their course loads aren’t small, they have goals in mind and pre-professional resources centers to reach out to for advice.

So what’s a confused student to do? Take time off before starting at a four-year university. Try courses at lower-cost community colleges. Work in a field you think you might be interested in. Slowing down the oftentimes automatic high-school-to-college-path will give you time to make an investment in your future that is deliberate and worth your time and money.

Samantha writes the Friday column on undergraduate myths. Contact her at [email protected].

JULY 07, 2017