College Is Seriously Messing Kids Up

I’m going to write this without much editing or fact checking. Forgive me for anything totally off. I want to get it on internet paper because if I don’t now I won’t, and to me it’s a scary situation.

I’m not a parent yet so my two younger brothers are the closest thing I have to parent-like love. And parent-like love indeed I have. I think my brothers (they are twins) are the coolest. This feeling extends to many of their friends — I’ve spent so much time with some of them that they feel like little siblings too.

That’s why it sucks, so much, to do what I just did. For the second time in three years I finished a letter to my brother Thomas after the death of one of his friends. A third friend of his passed away in between. I was abroad and didn’t find out about it until I was home, so I didn’t have a chance to write him that time.

The letters I write Thomas aren’t just condolences. They’re that, deep condolences, but they’re also my way of checking that he’s still got his head above water in the midst of such shitty situations. It’s me reaching out to let him know that I’ll do literally anything to make sure that’s the case.

In the last six months my parents have been to two funerals for children of their friends. In both cases the kids, in their twenties, were dealing with depression or substance issues or both.

What I see is a generational trend: a group of young adults who should be in their prime, but who instead are struggling for purpose and even for their own lives.

As a society I think we’ve come to a place where in many ways we’re wiring people wrong from the day we’re born. We teach kids to covet fake, addictive foods and then wonder why we’re an obese nation failing at getting healthy. We encourage individuality and teach kids to fend for themselves, and then wonder why young adults aren’t caring for their aging parents.

We continue to reinforce unhealthy wiring into adulthood. We applaud industries that require 80 hour work weeks while employees are having heart attacks in their 40s. We perpetuate social habits like drinking and medicating, knowing that we’re damaging ourselves from the inside out and only crossing our fingers for the best.

We’ve forced many of these habits down our own throats. For decades we proactively unlearned what was natural and healthy, to the point that now unhealthy and backward is all we know. For the life of us we can’t agree on what’s right to eat. To change our habits is to rewire years of ignoring what was right and memorizing what was wrong. Only now are we getting serious about things like unplugging instead of overworking, meditation in place of drugs, harvesting sustainably rather than setting ourselves up to kill the planet.

But one thing in particular has my current attention, and that’s the culture of college in the states.

The more I think about my own experience and that of many of my peers, the more I believe college is doing far less good for us as a generation than it is bad. For some, dare I say many, it’s destroying lives.

DEBT VS. VALUE

I’m one of the very lucky ones who walked away from four years of college without debt. For so many this isn’t the case, and the obligatory college years have set thousands of young people free into their adult lives with baggage that ties their feet to the ground. It’s hard to believe that there is any education out there that is so good, it warrants clipping your wings like this.

But tuition keeps rising and college is still a prerequisite for getting a job in many fields. Oftentimes nobody seems to care what you learned in school, just that you went.

There are so many other ways to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. It blows me away when I travel to meet kids from the UK, Australia, Canada, Europe, who have taken 12 or 18 months “out” of their lives to explore the world. They don’t feel bad about what job opportunities they might be missing. Their families aren’t rushing them to get back and “start” their lives. And they’re definitely not uneducated or uninformed — they often know more about American politics and issues than I know myself, let alone world affairs. They read, they discuss, they share experiences.

These young people are learning a lifetime of lessons about themselves and the world, an invaluable experience in this era of globalization. Who’s smarter in a room of young decision makers, the 23 year old who never left his campus in New York or the 23 year old who’s navigated three continents and interacted with dozens of cultures?

College makes sense to me when it was still possible to work yourself through school if that’s what you wanted. But in our situation today I just don’t see how thousands of liberal arts degrees saddled with decades of debt is doing our generation any good.

NO SKILLS

We all want employees with relevant experience, but where do we expect young people to get this experience? It’s not happening in college.

I know more people my age who don’t use their degrees than who do. Understanding this reality, it feels pretty ridiculous that we continue to demand that college is by and large the best route.

Alternatives like MOOCs and skills-based education are great, but our thinking around higher education needs to change altogether. College should not be required for all knowledge worker jobs. Companies should invest in training to build the skills of motivated, intelligent young job seekers. This way in the door should be as feasible as a college education.

My first real job was at a startup and I don’t think my degree factored much into them hiring me — but that was the rare product of getting in early and the founders’ personal disenchantment with universities. Later on we required a college degree from everyone who joined the company, in any role, just because.

My education didn’t factor into the work I did in my four years at the company either. I was given the opportunity to learn on the fly, observe talented people and take risks. At this point, only one job into my career, I’m 5 years out of college and considering taking it off my resume to make room for more practical achievements. You’d think that a degree should be relevant at least as long as it takes the average student to pay off loans (21 years).

RECREATIONAL HABITS

For many, myself included, college is a four year (plus) free-for-all that we’ve weaved into the story of American culture. It’s a sort of suspension of reality: everything is paid for (by family or loans or a combination) or at least many payments are put off, and at the same time you’re essentially accountable to no one. What is this preparing us for? Life will never be like this again.

You drink until you can’t remember, and it’s OK because that’s what everyone expects college kids to do. You feel terrible but you drink again anyway. If these habits raise a red flag, they don’t even give you, as a college kid, a normal alcohol abuse assessment because you would fail. We tie the blindfolds on ourselves.

For four years you cycle between extravagant take-out and ramen because first you’re hungover and then it’s all you can afford. People don’t talk about the Freshman 15 (pounds) as if it’s something to be super wary of — it’s basically an inevitability we’re taught to accept. After four years of living like this we’ve confused ourselves with a whole host of unfavorable new habits.

And for all the habits of indulgence we build, it’s not even like we’re learning good study or work skills. We skip classes and take shortcuts for a grade. We steer clear of the library until the day before finals and then spend 24 hours there. What type of training is this for a healthy professional life? Terrible training, and it’s both expected and accommodated.

As a result, so many young adults take their first dive into adult life with the unnecessary baggage of bad habits. This college thing that we encourage every young person to do hardly creates the freedom at scale that we’re still pretending it does.

LASTING EFFECTS

All of this baggage has an effect on a generation of young adults. Sometimes it rears its head during the experience of college itself. A friend of mine founded a peer-to-peer support organization called Spill when she didn’t see enough being done to help overwhelmed students.

Sometimes unrealistic expectations and poor life preparation get young people down after college. The return to normal life can be a real shock to the system, and especially during this time (broke and discouraged) the outlets for support might seem quite limited.

Sometimes early adult life is spent in part unlearning some of these habits. Buzzfeed documents this well with countless articles about life in your twenties.

And for some — for whom college actually is the right choice — we take the good and learn from the bad. We’re very lucky.

There is a lot to consider when we think about college. It is definitely one path to success, but there are many paths to success and inflating the value of college undermines other ones.

I see a lot of people in their twenties struggling. What was supposed to set them up for success seems to be failing them. So I think a conversation worth having asks what changes we need to make to the college experience itself, the rhetoric around it, and the alternatives to it, to change this trend.