I very strongly agree with the basic conclusion offered by a post at teenskepchick by Ali Marie, advice for those now looking at college: “…what’s the undecided student to do? My advice: community college.”. Ali discussed the problem of getting all the required courses in within a four year time span. The key problem she points out is that unless you know pretty much what you want your final major will look like you may end up having to take more than the expected number of courses and thus, have a hard time graduating in four years. I’ll add to that the following: Some of the courses you will want/need won’t be offered when you need them, and it is possible that something else will go wrong while you are busy prostrating to the higher mind and all that, causing you to be unable to complete the usual (e.g. 4) classes per term. Between switching interests, unavailable classes, and things going wrong, you won’t easily finish your four year degree in four years. I recommend that if you are looking into college, read Ali’s post.
I do want to add a few more thought, however.
The importance of Liberal Education Requirements
First, Ali discusses what are generally called the liberal ed requirements and does so with the usual dislike of the process. I want to put in a plug for the liberal education requirements that all colleges have. The purpose of these requirements is not to give you an exposure to a wide range of disciplines in order to help you decide on your major. Yes, it can do that, but that is not only not the main reason they exist, but also, they don’t do that good of a job of that in some cases. Take Cultural Anthropology for example. One reason that many advanced (junior, senior college and early graduate school) Social or Cultural Anthropology students always look so unhappy and eventually get permanent Academic Frowns painted on their face is this: They took the intro Cultural Anthro course, loved it, then went to major in the topic and found out the awful truth: What is taught in Anthro 1001 is not what Anthropologists do or think. It is what they hate about themselves. Once you’ve taken that intro class, and switch majors into Cultural Anthro, the rest of your classes will be about how everything you learned in Anthro 1001 is wrong, and moreover, that for thinking that it was cool, you are an asshole.
I’m sure this does not apply to all disciplines, but in some way…small, medium, or large…I think it applies to many. Even computer science, which one would think would be more logical and laid out, teaches at the intro level stuff you only need to know for the purposes of the exam, not to be in the field of computer science. When was the last time a proposal to implement a commercial web site, or a project to rewrite an operating system, used scheme? Never, that’s when.
The real reason for the Liberal Education requirements is to make society better by seeing to it that a larger proportion of the population leaves college not clueless about so many important things. Someone like Ali Marie probably does not need liberal arts much, but not because she is innately liberal or artsy, but because she’s probably absorbed all that on her own, being a writer and a nerd and all that. But this is not the case for many people.
For a few years, I worked in a program to help adults get their degree. I was on the board of advisors for the program while I was on the Anthropology faculty, and later, I worked directly for the program. This issue came home to me very clearly in many cases. We had many students who, in their own life’s work, including but by no means limited to taking courses and engaging in training programs, had learned way more than you need to learn to get a college education. But some of these students, maybe about half, had skirted the liberal arts. Go look at the internet. Check out the letters and comments on various news sites, or other places where people have the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and perspective. A lot of the annoying commentary we see is from either kids who have not yet taken a range of courses in the humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, and so on, or are people who are older but never did. As great as my students were (and they were all great) those who had skirted the liberal arts had bad attitudes about things like education, learning, international perspectives, and diversity. These are the people who can hear a presidential candidate say “we have to preserve our American Exceptionalism” and not throw up a little in their mouths. Until they take a full range of Liberal Ed courses. That helps them to throw up a little in their mouths.
How to pick a college major
The other point I wanted to make is about college majors. The answer to the question, “How to choose a college major” is a bit complicated, but there is another question that is closely related: “How to change your major from one subject to another.” The answer to that second question is: “Don’t”
Here is a reality that many college students, and sadly, many advisors, don’t know, or if they know about it, they don’t believe it: Your major is not as important as you think it is. It will be important for about two months after you graduate, then every month after that for the next two years or so it will reduce in importance until it matters not at all. When you are applying to certain programs you will have a better time if you have a certain major, but what is more important, are certain sets of courses that you’ve taken and other things you’ve done in college. Seriously. I know many of you in college today won’t believe this, but it is true.
OK, your major is not entirely irrelevant, but it is much less important than you might think.
If you want to go into a graduate program involving science, and your major is related to that science, but you have C’s on all of your tough, hard, grueling science courses and you have only the minimum required, then your application to a good graduate program is shit. If, on the other hand, you have a major in a field not that closely related to the science related field you want to study, but you’ve recently developed a sincere interest in that field, and you happen to have more hard science courses than required for your degree and they are all A’s, then your application is golden. All else being equal. Ultimately it is the argument that you make to the graduate application committee that counts, using a persuasive essay, showing excellent performance in certain (as mentioned) classes, and a few other things, not the argument that some committee at your college made to their dean to structure a major a certain way. At the same time, if your transcript has a lot of bullshit on it, then that’s what you have: A bullshit transcript. I once reviewed a transcript of a student who had nine semesters of golf and not much else. I did not take that student’s college career seriously, as clearly he did not either.
Yes, yes, of course, try to match your major with your interests and abilities and then aim for a graduate program or career that fall in line with that. The system is indeed set up that way. But the specific courses you take, how well you do in them, the balance of courses overall, matter about as much as what major you picked. Having the “wrong” major is not catastrophic, but taking two more years of college to get the perfect major may be. In other words, for the average college junior who is contemplating changing majors, the medium and longer term wise move is to put less value on the major than on the degree. It is the degree that counts, and within that framework, the specific classes you’ve taken and your ability to make a good argument (which is helped with good performance on on certain classes coupled with a lack of bullshit on your transcript) matters much more than you might think. I’m not talking about abandoning the system as it exists, I’m talking about calibrating. I’ve sat on admissions committees for both grad programs and undergrad programs and advised a lot of students, and it really is true that most of the time the major is a fetish not as valuable as people think it is when they are busy tearing themselves up over the details.
Is it good to take Community College courses?
Getting back to the point of Ali’s essay for a moment: I do think that taking a year off from college and taking one course at a time from a community college is an excellent strategy for a lot of students. Sometimes community colleges give deep discounts for your first class, so check into that. Also, if you are concerned that the teaching at community colleges is not as good as at the big research university down the street, then you need to recalibrate. Why would it be? Community colleges hire teachers, of which there is a great oversupply, based on their teaching abilities. MRU’s fire faculty if they focus on teaching. Until that changes, teaching at the Big U will be spotty, often wonderful but also often horrid, but the community college will rarely fall below a fairly high bar most of the time. This, of course, applies only to my own experience in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. I don’t know what they are doing down in Mississippi and Texas.
Photo by wallyg