Why go to college?

My oldest son is now a high school junior. Amidst ministry and raising four children, my wife and I haven’t devoted significant time to college research and admissions.

In a panic over this, I recently went to the library and checked out six test prep books for the SAT, ACT, and PSAT. I was overwhelmed by how much stuff is out there and realized I should have started preparing for this years ago. I’m fully aware there are parents out there who have invested many hours plotting out their child’s path to elite college admission and don’t even have children yet. 

I want to jump on the college admissions treadmills and start sprinting as fast as possible to catch up. I’ve learned enough about myself that when Im caught up in this frenzy, it’s helpful to pause and ask, “Why am I doing this?"

That’s exactly the question my friend and fellow UC Berkeley alum, Iris Chen, has been asking about her kids education. She has two young sons and recently started a blog about her unschooling experiment. I think she’s crazy, in a good way. She’s a prophet and she slays sacred cows, especially education, which is undoubtedly the idol of overachieving Asian Americans.

My disagreement with Iris is one of degree not of kind. I support her underlying premise if not the extent to which she carries it out. So I ask myself, to be ruthlessly honest, why do I believe college is so important? This question is so assumed among my peers. My former pastor asked this question - and lived it with his now grown children - and I thought he was insane. Here are the reasons, in order of influence, greatest to least: 

1) Honor our immigrant family culture: Judy’s and my parents all have advanced degrees. My parents were able to come to this country because they applied and were accepted into graduate school. Judy’s dad was an obstetrician-gynecologist, attended medical school in Taiwan, and entered a residency program in the US. Education was the means by which our parents were able to economically thrive in this country. Both sets of parents saved considerable funds to pay for our college education and we both graduated with zero debt because of our parents’ largesse. Today, my parents contribute to my kids’ college fund. It would bring shame on our parents if we refused to send their grandchildren to college. 

2) Improve social status: I would estimate 95% of my friends are college-educated. Most people in my social circle are college-educated. I’ve always loved saying I’m a Cal grad. It’s not so much about school spirit as much as taking pride in my intellect. I enjoy feeling superior. That is, until I meet a Stanford or Ivy League grad. Current price tag on public school intellectual superiority: $140,000.

3) Go along with peer pressure: Related to the above, but for Judy and I our social circles in high school, there was considerable pressure. Mainly for me because I was enrolled in accelerated classes and attended an affluent high school where most of my friends were overachieving Asians whose parents worked in high-tech.

4) Get a well-paid, stable, and prestigious job: Related to the above, our parents wanted Judy and me to have a comfortable, secure income in a socially desirable industry like law, medicine, engineering, finance, business, etc.. Judy and I are presently in none of these fields. 

5) Experience living on one's own: I was told college is a great place to live on my own and learn to take care of myself. That sort of happened and yet I still buy into the narrative. 

6) Grow spiritually: In the immigrant church I grew up in, I was taught that college is a great place to grow in one’s faith - that I would be challenged and tested and yet through the process, have my faith refined and take ownership. Never mind that most Christians who grow up in the church lose their faith during college. After all, the testing phase is worth it. Also, one unfortunate byproduct of college is thinking the campus Christian fellowship culture is normative for the Christian life. The two years after college were so painful as I grieved the loss of a community that was completely unsustainable in the real-world.

7) Make life-long friendships: Meet people of similar age, background, values, interests, and intelligence who have loads of free time to hang out? Check. 

8) Network: This is the chance that my classmates will become rich, famous, and successful so I can network with them and also have riches, fame, and success. It’s now somewhat disappointing that half of my closest Cal alum friends are pastors. 

9) Meet future spouse: Meet marriageable people of similar age, background, values, interests, and intelligence? Check. Meet future spouse? Check.

10) Receive vocational training: This is the same as #4. If you’re a liberal arts major, what you study often does not directly correlate with your future occupation or graduate degree. I majored in business and it was nominally helpful at Hitachi and IBM. My most career-relevant classes were accounting, economics, and business communication (his class was fantastic). And yet, most of these areas I could have learned outside of college. 

11) Establish a classical foundation in liberal arts - knowledge, critical thinking, and writing: I took some classes at Cal under world-class professors and they were awesome. Before taking the classes I wasn’t interested in the subject matter but afterwards, I couldn’t deny the passion of the instructors and how they made the material come alive. It was partly through their influence that I realized my life and career should always involve teaching. There’s something immensely gratifying about transforming another person’s ambivalence into passion. 

In summary, my top three most significant reasons for attending college are social and cultural. That’s not surprising as socio-cultural forces exert tremendous power that we are only dimly aware of in retrospect. Only the last reason has anything to do with the pursuit of higher learning, the examination of truth, and the advancement of knowledge. The other seven can be addressed outside of college though #4 varies if you’re pursuing a technical/scientific field. 

I’m still going to push my son to improve his standardized test scores. However, I’m going to be more thoughtful about what type of higher education will benefit him most while not putting him in serious debt. Most importantly, I’m crucifying the socio-cultural pressures that pushed me to pursue status and family honor. I pray my mind would be renewed in thinking so that I would discern what is good.  

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