College has Changed!

I’ve had several conversations this past week that have served as stark reminders of how much college has changed since the days when those of us with approaching-college-age kids attended.

My cousin’s son is graduating from college next month. (Congratulations, Nick!) He has done everything “right,” exactly the way we coach today’s young people. He earned loads of college credit while still in high school: he was given some credit for the year he spent as an exchange student and earned additional credit by taking classes at a community college during his senior year. As a result, he was a junior after just two quarters in college and will complete his BA in only three years (one term of which he spent in the town where he was an exchange student). He chose a public university and will now have a degree from one of the country’s top schools with no student debt. Did I mention that he just turned 21? And he has no idea what career to pursue. Fortunately Nick is an amazing guy with a strong sense of adventure and although he can see a number of potential long-term paths, he knows he isn’t ready to commit to one right now so he’s looking at things like the Peace Corps. While I’m sure that Nick will sort things out and have a life of incredible adventures, success, and personal fulfillment, it’s worth remembering that when we push our kids to finish college early, many of them actually do. And when you look back at your own life, do you recall having a strong sense of long-term direction at 21? I definitely don’t, and I feel for young adults who feel like they have to choose what they generally seem to see as the “forever path” at such an early age.

Yesterday I attended my alma mater’s “Say Yes” event for local kids who were accepted. (Go Bears!) There was a large group of alumni representing graduation years from the 1950s through 2013, in addition of course to the newly-admitted students and their parents. In talking to my fellow alums, there was a pretty consistent theme: for each of us, college had been an early, if not first, step on a path towards adulthood, career, and personal growth and satisfaction. There were adventures, job changes, moves, graduate school, and more that eventually pointed us in a direction that led us to where we are now. Some figured it out more quickly; for others it’s been their life’s work. But unlike today’s students, we definitely did not perceive college as job training– even those who earned degrees in fields such as engineering that point to specific career paths. And as a result, our college years were not a source of anxiety or pressure, except the kind of pressure that high-achieving kids put on themselves when they find themselves in an environment that challenges them intellectually as they likely have never been challenged before. The class of 2019 were a terrific group of kids– smart, energetic, enthusiastic. And every single one of them could tell you what they wanted to do after graduation. I know they’ll have a great four years at Cal, but I think it will probably involve a lot less time spent hanging on the steps at Sproul trying to connect the dots from Goethe to the Cure or planning a costume for the Gatsby party. And I couldn’t help but think back to my college roommate’s assertion that degrees in electrical engineering are all well and good, but being able to hold a drink in one hand and an appetizer in the other and still carry on an intelligent conversation is also a marketable skill– one that these kids will have far less opportunity to practice than we did.

To those who are just setting off on the path to college, I hope you have a fantastic four (or three, or five, or however many) years, and I hope that you know you don’t have to decide today who you’re going to be for the rest of your lives. If you choose the right school, though, it will be an important step in figuring that out.

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