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  • Writer's pictureDr. Brian Harke

College is (not) a waste of time

Among today’s CNN headlines you’ll find the following: College is a waste of time, written by Dale J. Stephens, a 19-yr-old entrepreneur and recipient of a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship.

I salute Mr. Stephens’ independent spirit. Read his article, and you’ll see a talented, creative thinker bound for glory.

While Stephens’ early success is admirable, his article is anything but. Boldly stating that “higher education is broken,” Stephens lambasts the college experience, stating: “our creativity, innovation and curiosity are schooled out of us.”

We’ve all heard the argument that college doesn’t make you more successful – that the returns are not worth the costs. But Stephens takes this one step further, seeing college as an impediment, as an obstacle that takes you two steps backward in life, not one step forward. Read his article as a high school senior, and your future will begin to look like something out of a Huxley novel.

The irony is, of course, that Stephens’ argument shows a failure to apply critical thinking, a tool students learn throughout college. He takes his own unique experience and views it as universal. Take a class on logic in college, and you learn that one of most common fallacies is relying on anecdotal evidence to plead your case. Furthermore, his take on sociology professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s assertion that “36% of college graduates showed no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning or writing after four years of college” could be read another way: two-thirds of college graduates have shown improvement in critical thinking, etc. In other words, while some students may not gain much from college, most will in fact grow in exactly the ways Stephens seems to value.

But that’s not why I’m up in arms about what Stephens writes. The real problem is the danger of an article such as this. I work with students from all walks of life. I meet students like Stephens, who will be “successful” with or without college. Yet, I always advocate the college experience because it goes way beyond what you learn in books, or whether or not you regurgitate professorial lectures. It becomes four years of figuring out what you want – and don’t want – out of life. Four years of discovering your passions in an environment that exists primarily to support such endeavors.

Finally, college is a safety net in a world where things aren’t so secure anymore. Mr. Stephens is right: taking risks and failing are valuable experiences to have. College prepares you to pick yourself back up when you fall.

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