The Problem With College

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The Problem With College

In 2012, Marina Keegan died when her boyfriend fell asleep and flipped his car on the way to Cape Cod, days after her graduation from Yale, and days after the publication of her final essay, “The Opposite of Loneliness.” The piece was full of hope, humor and youth. The sad juxtaposition of vibrant life with sudden death pushed her writing into the public consciousness. “The Opposite of Loneliness” went viral and catalyzed the publication of an eponymously titled collection of her work that has since become a New York Times bestseller and an airport-book-store standard.

I give all that backstory to provide a context for both her work and her popularity. Besides our collective obsession with unfulfilled promise (the most exciting part of any home run is the ball’s first rise off the bat), she wrote with the urgency of youth. There was writing in that book she probably would have found cringeworthy if she lived to look back on it, but from a reader’s perspective (and in the context of her death) it feels refreshingly earnest. All of it certainly rang true to me, save one article, titled “Even Artichokes Have Doubts,” written for the Yale newspaper in 2011. I’ll crudely sum it up like this: Marina wonders why nearly a quarter of her graduating class will end up in consulting or finance, and she worries that these choices are forced by a fear of not making money. “Is working for a bank inherently evil? Probably not,” Keegan writes. “But the fact that such a high percentage of students at top-tier schools enter an industry that isn’t contributing, creating or improving much of anything saddens me.”

While I sympathize with the disappointment she’s experiencing there, I think it’s easy to poke a gaping hole through this essay’s bleeding heart: The total cost of attendance for one year at Yale is $63,250. Read that sentence again. You cannot spend over $250,000 on four years of college and criticize the decision of others to go chase money. This is like protesting deforestation while warming yourself by the world’s biggest bonfire. I wouldn’t agree with this argument from a state school student, let alone ivy-league, but I think it raises an interesting question. What is the point of college anyway?


Marina Keegan’s article struck me because she didn’t even mention the cost of attending Yale, as if that detail wasn’t pertinent, as if it wasn’t the boat upon which the entire enterprise floated. I don’t blame her; this is the temperature of the country. It’s now normal in most strata of society to just accept college as an inevitability, our American birthright. It’s as if college still conjures images of a young farm boy packing his bags to go be a doctor, his parents misty-eyed with pride. But you’re deadbeat, stoner buddy? He’s going to college, now, too. You are no longer in college to be special; you’re in college to be normal. We all know the stats: You make a lot more money with a degree than without it. But attendance outpaces job growth, costs increase, and the likelihood of getting a good job out of school continues to decline. The bubble is real, and it’s obvious. I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t go to college; the alternative is still far worse. I’m arguing that you should know why you’re in college. If your honest answer is either “to have a good time” or “women’s studies,” then, woo buddy, you might be fucked.

You are not owed your dreams. You can’t do anything you set your mind to. You are not a snowflake. So it may be time to start considering college with the same risk-reward analysis as we view a small business. Should you spend 120K on a film major? Maybe. You may make connections I can’t even conceive of. Maybe you’ll find like-minded talent and forge a path you never could otherwise. On the other hand, I’d argue that if you can’t commit yourself to an endeavor outside of the rigidity of a curriculum, then why do it at all?


There’s a great story I was told about Jerry Seinfeld. He frequently gets asked for advice by young comics and his answer is always the same: “Stop doing it.” His logic is that if the person then stops comedy, they never had the courage to be successful anyway. He did them the favor of ending their careers before they invested more. If, on the other hand, they continue with renewed fervor — ignoring the advice of perhaps the most famous comic of all time — then they just may have the goods. Perhaps this is my version of that very advice. Passions are important and we are not just our careers or our money. But we’re also not all Marina Keegan. Talent is not an inevitability and the world needs accountants as much as it needs poets. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t explore what you love in college, so long as you understand the gamble you’re taking. It’s just that it’s obscene to me to think that getting a job that pays well is some kind of failure. I guess that’s the luxury of youth. Take heart that the luxury of getting older is knowing it’s not.


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