Tuesday, September 2, 2008

10 The Easiest Route to the Most Valuable Degree

So far I have done my best to put together a rough sketch of the system of higher education. It’s a tricky task. The sketch has to be brief enough that you will read and remember it. But it also has to be detailed enough so that it is worth reading. It has to be applicable to everyone but not bore everyone in the process. 

What I have thus far failed to do is outline a real map through college. It’s an impossible task. Super Mario Brothers was a two dimensional platform game; if you did this thing at that time, the result would always be the same. Neither college nor life is like that. 

That said, I am going to give you a narrative guide, some thoughts combined with a story, which is my best broad advice on understanding the system of college in the United States of America at the beginning of the 21st century. Put on your explorer’s hat and get your whip, young  Indiana Jones, because here we go!

Now you may have known from birth what you wanted your college major to be. More than likely, you’re like most college students. You have at best the vaguest idea of what you might want to major in. I personally changed my intended major once a month for two years. If I could have done it online it would have been once a week. 

If you haven’t already started college, and are not hooked into an Ivy League, Big Ten school or private school via scholarships, this is my best advice: Go to a community college. I understand that you may want to “go away” to college. You want to meet new people and have new experiences. You are sick of your family and hometown. I am completely sympathetic to all these and any other feelings of flight you may have. I understand that the last thing you may want to do is to go to that damn community college, a.k.a. 13th grade. But in most cases, it’s really a smart move. Here’s why:

Your first two years of college are spent in general education classes, which are basically advanced reading, writing, math, and sciences along with some electives. Since you will take general education classes wherever you go. Why on earth should you pay a dime more for the exact same classes you could take someplace else for less? After your first two years, apply for acceptance into a well-known program at the school where you really want to go. 

Picture this: You went to Big Cool College because it is “the school” to attend in your state. At the end of your second year you apply to and are accepted into your intended major at said school. You go home for summer feeling great. 

You are telling all this to a friend at a party, where everyone from your senior class is off doing a little underage drinking—except you, of course. While talking to a friend, you relate the experience of your first two years at college, not to brag, but just to let him know that you were accepted into the major you’ve been talking about since high school. Your friend looks at you a little funny and says “That’s your major? Why didn’t you go to Little Podunk State College? They have the best program in the nation.”

 “What?” you offer defensively. 

“NO, dude really. Check it out in US News and World Report. I only know because my cousin’s friend’s sister goes there for that.” Reality still ringing in your ears, you sigh and consider doing a little underage drinking yourself. 

Stay sober for a moment though because you have just learned a valuable lesson. Not all the programs in any school, even the great schools, are of equal value. Schools can be strong in lots of areas and weak in the one area you are interested in. Big Cool School sounds great and it may be true that all the hip kids go there, but that doesn’t count for much if it doesn’t meet your academic and professional needs.


Unless you know what your major is, how can you decide which school to attend? Ah, yet another great reason to spend two years working on a General Studies A.A. at the community college. Then, once you know your major, pick a school. 

Right major, wrong school is what I call a “luxury problem.” It’s like being stuck on the freeway with four flat tires in a new Lexus you just paid for in cash. It’s not a desirable situation, but it’s easily amendable. There are much more serious problems that can befall you even before you pick your major. Scooby-Doo flashback with me back to that summer party:

You’re heading to the keg with a fresh 16 oz. plastic cup in hand when you see your valedictorian hurl all over the lawn, barely missing the prom queen’s shoes. “Poor kid,” a guy who sat behind you in English mourns while edging ahead of you in line. “He just hasn’t been the same since failing out last fall….” 

Don’t think I am exaggerating. This flashback is based on multiple true stories. In my sophomore, junior, and senior years of high school I watched the mighty tumble. Bright kids one and all; better academic performers than I could have hoped to have been in high school but they failed at college. Some partied too much. Some skipped class too much. Some had to work a job to afford the school of their choice and some just never made the psycho-social transition to college. They all could have used a little 13th grade, and there’s no shame in that. 

What is a shame is what happens to your college transcript if you fail out. Your transcript is your permanent record. Say you do reasonably well the first semester and fail out the second. If you want to transfer any of those credits, you have to transfer all those credits. Trust me, I speak from experience: it’s better to screw up your GPA in high school, like I did, than in college. 

Now failing out of college isn’t the end of the world. It certainly isn’t worth drinking yourself sick over, but it’s a real problem and can take some serious time to fix. 

Hope you’re not sick of that party yet because we are going back one more time….

 You are sipping some slightly warm Bud Lite from your plastic cup, still talking to the guy from your English class and looking for a place to sit. “So what are you doing in the fall? Picked a major?” you ask in idle conversation mode. Without blinking, Mr. I-barely-passed-English-because-I-slacked says, “I’m going to Stanford to major in Computer Science,” and then points out some choice lawn chairs. His reply gives you pause because you’re sure he tried to do his senior research paper on the Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit” issue. 

“Really?” you say, taking a big drink. 

“Yeah, my parents said if I could get into Stanford they would help me figure out a way to afford it. So I really applied myself for the last two years at Crappy Community College. Got good grades, some letters of recommendation, and come the fall I am bound for the coast.” 

“Great for you man,” you say, before finishing your cup of swill. “Think I’m going for another.”

It’s true. I know scores of people who attended a community college and went on to some of the best schools in the United States. It’s more than just a few people who fail out, drop out, and move on from four-year colleges before beginning their junior year. The fates of these people create openings at every school every year. These openings need to be filled. Students transferring from other colleges, including community and junior colleges, fill these openings. You, yes you, could be one these people. Provided that you have the grades and some letters of recommendation, you can transfer to just about any college in the nation. Yes, this includes the Ivy League and Public Ivy schools, which, if you understand what you are getting into, can be very worth your while. 

While starting at a community college is admittedly anticlimactic, it can be a safe, smart move. A community college is vastly cheaper than any other alternative. Unlike professors at a university or college, who are all expected to do research and publish scholarly articles, community college faculty only focus on teaching you. The faculty understands that it is their job to get you ready for your upper division classes. 

Your first two years are critical. You must make good grades to be accepted into whatever school or program you want to go to. Party too much and slack off, and the school where you really want to go won’t have anything to do with you.

A Few Exceptions To What I Just Said

Before you go and commit to this plan there are a few exceptions: If you want to go to an art school like Ringling, Savannah, or Berkley, you might want to start there as a freshman. At art schools you study Art—not a lot else.

If you have already been accepted at a school that has a highly competitive program that you know you want as your major in your junior year, again, starting as a freshman might be a better bet—more time to network. 

If your long-range intent is to get into a primo school like MIT, Duke or Stanford, you may have to take a few credits over. Freshman Calculus at MIT is probably a little more advanced than the class you took at your local community college. But hey, you’re going to MIT! What’s a few extra credits?